by Sandra Vogel and Tom Morgan
Half of UK adults have a pet, with cats and dogs almost equally popular (cats are just a whisker ahead), according to animal charity PDSA. And how much we love our pets shows in how we spend our money on them, buying things such as cosy beds and blankets, a huge range of toys and, increasingly, technology-enabled gadgets and gizmos.
The market for high-tech pet gadgets has grown enormously in recent years. It’s possible to buy remote-controlled toys, internet-connected cameras that let you check on your pet from anywhere in the world where you can get online, pet feeders that precisely measure what your pet eats, and much more.
The rise in pet tech is part of the growth of the connected home: adding kit for our pets to our connected thermostats, lights and doorbells is a no-brainer. Below, we run through the pros and cons of different types of pet tech.
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Interactive toys for cats and dogs
We like: Potentially useful for less-mobile people, keep your pet occupied and active if you need to get on with some chores
We don’t like: Batteries will need to be replaced, your pet might be sniffy about a toy without a human at the other end of it
These toys can help to keep your pet amused while you’re busy with other things, and can also help those who are less mobile to play with their pets – or to help a chunky animal shift some extra weight. They’re generally battery-operated and not internet-connected, although there could be an app for remote control.
The PetSafe Laser Toy (above) will keep your cat occupied for £17. With a single press, the toy fires mesmerizing laser patterns across the room, shutting off after 15 minutes to conserve battery life.
GPS trackers for pets
We like: App-connected so you track your pet’s routes, live monitoring through the app, can measure a wide range of metrics
We don’t like: Can be large, so smaller dogs and cats might not like wearing them; ongoing subscription is often required
GPS trackers for pets often include a range of features besides just telling you how far your cat or dog has travelled over the course of a day – or night. Some can differentiate between types of activity, for example separating out running and walking, and can tell you how long your pet is inactive if they’re sleeping.
Trackers usually connect to a smartphone app and can aggregate these metrics to give you a picture of your pet’s activity over time. Added features can include setting boundaries around familiar areas – you’ll get an alert if your pet goes beyond the boundary – and live tracking, so you can see where your pet is at any time. Some of the trackers require a subscription to access data on an ongoing basis.
Pet-tracking products available online include the Tractive GPS tracker, (£45) and Pawfit GPS tracker (£50).
Smart treat dispensers
We like: Allow a degree of interaction with pets that don’t like being left alone, the camera lets you see your pet, ‘barking alerts’ can let you know if your dog is unsettled
We don’t like: There’s no substitute for human/pet contact, pet has to be in camera range for you to see them, you’ll lose remote access if the connection goes down
Smart treat dispensers, connected to an app on your smartphone, let you give your pet a treat from afar. They can incorporate a camera and speaker, so you can see and talk to your pet. Some also send you a ‘bark alert’, so you can check to see why your dog is barking.
For those people who need to leave pets alone at home occasionally, and particularly those whose pets prefer company, this concept might appeal.
The Furbo dog camera (above) is one of the better-known pet cameras, but it doesn’t come cheap, at around £189. It uses a 1080p Full HD camera (with night vision) to give you a view of the action. The two-way chat feature lets you calm your pet down with your voice, while the Furbo smartphone app lets you toss treats from the gadget as a reward.
Shopping for pet treats? We explore what goes into pet food, and share advice from top vets. See our advice on how to choose the best dog and cat food.
We like: Detailed metrics on how much a pet eats, prevents food being eaten by ‘visitors’ or a greedy pet, helps control diet in multi-pet households
We don’t like: Battery powered, so you need to monitor when batteries need replacing; feeders with mechanical lids might be off-putting to some pets
It’s been possible to buy battery-operated timer-based pet feeders for many years. However, adding functions such as internet connectivity or the ability to read a pet’s microchip means you can keep tabs on precisely how much your pet is eating and when they dine. The feeders can also restrict access to food unless they recognise a chip, keeping greedy neighbours at bay.
In multi-pet households, it’s possible to ensure that one pet doesn’t snaffle all the food, or that pets stick to any specific diets required for medical reasons.
The Trixie TX6 Automatic Food Dispenser (above) can be programmed to feed your pets up to three times a day. The £35 plastic robot has a sturdy lid that stops impatient pooches from breaking in.
Activity monitors for cats and dogs
We like: Lots of detailed metrics about your pet’s activity, see how well your pet sleeps when you’re not around
We don’t like: Can be quite large for smaller dogs and cats to wear, some cats won’t wear a collar
Unlike GPS-connected trackers, pet activity monitors aren’t able to pinpoint your pet’s precise position at any one time, but they can measure and monitor your pet’s activity.
The metrics are very similar to those you’ll see on human activity monitors. A pet activity monitor might measure sleep patterns (separating out deep sleep and light snoozing) and calorie burn (with breakdown of active and less active periods). Some also use algorithms to give you an idea of your pet’s ‘mood’ or health.
All the data is delivered to you in an app that will typically present information in charts and graphs, making it easy for you to get a complete picture at a glance.
The PitPat Dog Activity Monitor (£39) is a subscription-free tracker that monitors your pet’s movements and offers daily exercise goals. It’s fully waterproof and attaches to your dog’s collar or harness, with your pet earning points throughout the day that unlock special badges inside the app.
We like: Can be useful in monitoring pet health, reduces odours, needs less frequent cleaning than standard litter boxes
We don’t like: Some might rely on special litter, requires mains power or batteries
Many cats, and some dogs and rabbits, use a litterbox, with the largest market being for cat owners. A number are sold as ‘self-cleaning’: these automatically scoop soiled material into a separate compartment, so that smells are neutralised and litter remains fresh for use. The separate compartment needs less frequent emptying than a standard litter tray.
The most sophisticated self-cleaning litterboxes can also help to monitor your pet’s health: by recording frequency of use, you can see changes in patterns. A change in toilet patterns could potentially indicate a health issue, so monitoring this data could help you to spot problems early.
We like: Provide a view of your pet when you’re away from home, might include a laser toy or treat feeder, allow two-way audio
We don’t like: Might have a limited field of view, remote voice could be disconcerting for the pet
Standalone pet cameras might include two-way audio, so you can talk to your pet and hear their response. Other features could include a zoom function, night vision and video recording.
You can also find cameras that have a laser for playing with your pet remotely, which you can activate from the app that provides access to the camera when you’re out and about. In some cameras the field of view is limited, while others include a panning feature which you can control remotely through the app.
The £145 Petkit Mate Pro Monitor (above) is equipped with a 720p HD night-vision camera. You can chat with your pet through the camera and control the built-in laser pointer. By downloading the Petkit smartphone app, you can record clips from the camera and share them with friends and family.
Water fountains for pets
We like: As long as you keep the feeder tank full there will be fresh water, moving water can encourage pets to drink
We don’t like: Requires mains power as water is pumped, pump might be noisy, regularly replacing filters can be expensive
Our cats and dogs might cheerfully drink from puddles, watering cans and other dank places, but we nonetheless give them fresh, clean drinking water at home.
Pet drinking fountains take the idea of providing fresh water to the next level, filtering the water and even circulating it through a cascade-style system to ensure that it’s aerated.
Pet tech for Christmas: things to consider
Will your pet like it?
It’s all very well us humans being enchanted by the idea of a clever new gadget, but will your pet take to it? Might a pet tracker be too large or unwieldy? Could a pet fountain with flowing water put your pet off rather than entice them? Is your pet the nervous type that might be startled hearing your disembodied voice coming from what you know is a camera, but what it can’t understand as one? Knowing your pet’s temperament and disposition will help you decide what’s potentially useful and what’s not.
How practical is it for you?
Some devices need ongoing attention from you: battery-operated items need new batteries, filters in water fountains need changing, self-cleaning litter boxes do need cleaning (albeit less regularly than standard ones), and treat feeders need replenishing. Any gadget that dispenses food or water will itself need a good clean from time to time. Managing the technology requires some energy from you – are you ready and able to put in the effort?
What about ongoing costs?
Some pet gadgets will be a one-off purchase, but others might require an ongoing financial commitment. For example, you might need to pay a regular fee to access a web archive of information collected by a pet activity monitor, or buy supplies for a water fountain or smart litter box. Consider any ongoing costs before making a financial commitment.
Not just those on the site you’re buying from, but elsewhere. Try to find out what real users think of a product and, if you’re buying online, make sure you know how to contact the support team if the tech goes wrong.
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