Old dog, new tricks: Could a new type of fitness tracker extend your pet's life?

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My dog Stevie is the furry center of my universe. She survived her puppyhood in a parking lot. When folks nearby got tired of feeding her, they dropped her off at a shelter to be put down. She was 24 hours from being euthanized when we met. That was 10 years ago, and we’ve been best friends since. It’s a cliché, but she’s saved me just as much as I’ve saved her. Intellectually, I know she’s not going to live forever, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to find the canine fountain of youth. Could this new fitness tracker help my dog live a longer and healthier life?

Photo: Tracey Anne Duncan

Researchers at Imperial College London have developed a new fitness tracker for pets that can read an animal's vital signs. Animals wearables aren’t new. We’ve been using trackers on livestock for decades, but the consumer products on the market thus far have been criticized for questionable accuracy, providing limited information, and for being just another way that big corporations can make all the important things in our lives into data to be bought and sold.

When it comes to ones specifically designed for pets, do we really want to subject our cats and dogs to our neurotic steps-per-day fitness obsession? Thankfully this new tracker is not so much about turning our pets into svelte running influencers but instead to help pet owners and vets monitor pet health, according to the study.

The problem, historically, with creating an accurate pet wearable has been fur. Wearables work by using sensors to track patterns of subtle movement, like heartbeat and breath. But it’s been hard to make wearables that get close enough to animal’s skin without shaving them, which isn’t very practical. Pockets of air and flouf between skin and wearable make it hard for sensors to detect vitals.

“Wearables are expected to play a major role in monitoring health and detecting diseases early."

Instead of using the hard materials that human wearables are made of, researchers made this pet wearable out of a silicone-water composite, which is flexible. “The sensor works like a watery stethoscope, filling any gaps between it and its subject so that no air bubbles get in and dampen the sound,” Yasin Cotur, an author of the study and professor at Imperial College told EurekAlert.

The wearable, which is not yet in production for consumers, uses GPS to track movement and sensors to track vital signs, but the developers are planning to add motion sensors as well. This is important because if wearables are going to be used to measure our pets’ health, we need to know not just where they are, but also what they are doing: eating, standing, sleeping, or sitting. One of the problems with past pet wearables was that they gave pet parents just enough information to cause concern, but not enough to be helpful.

The tracker is designed to address the flaws in previous devices by letting us monitor and respond to health issues more immediately than we have been able to in the past. “Wearables are expected to play a major role in monitoring health and detecting diseases early,” Cotur said, according to EurekAlert. These sensitive silicone wearables could provide a useful missing link in animal healthcare –the ability to communicate basic health facts. If my heart is racing, I can use language to tell someone who can help me, but animals, unfortunately, cannot.

I often wish Stevie could tell me how she’s feeling. When she coughed the other day, instead of frantically googling what the problem might be, a wearable could have assured me that her vitals were fine, and I might have chilled out enough to notice that she was just eating too fast.

And if there were something actually wrong with my baby, I would have had actual information to give my veterinarian instead of my usual blubbering paranoia. Having more accurate information from wearables could help pet parents and veterinarians alike become better caretakers of our fur families. They may not be the fountain of dog youth, but they may mean that we can help our pets live longer, healthier lives.