Dogs may not talk, but their collars can

Activity trackers for dogs have potential to aid research, human-animal bond
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If there’s one thing veterinarians know well, it’s that there’s still a lot they don’t know. What the average level of daily activity is for a Great Dane, for example. Or how can we reliably determine how and when an epileptic Border Collie has seizures?

Makers of activity trackers, a slew of which have exploded on the pet market in the past year or so, say they may have the answers. Some practitioners are cautiously optimistic, while others are skeptical.

Activity trackers are wearable electronic devices containing sensors that detect movement.

FitBark, Voyce, and Whistle are just a few of the activity trackers on the market that are geared towards pets, or more specifically, dogs. They range in cost from $70 to $130 and are designed to keep track of the animal’s movements and sometimes other data, such as respiratory and heart rates.

These devices were first marketed to people to track fitness activities, such as number of steps taken or distance run. Some units incorporate GPS capabilities that provide information on geographic location and distance traveled. Others include sensors to monitor heart and respiratory rates. Most allow users to monitor trends over time by sending data, in many cases wirelessly, to a computer or smartphone app for long-term tracking.

Given the popularity of activity trackers for people, it seems inevitable that companies would start developing them for dogs. And, at first blush, such devices would seem to have a number of potential applications for the veterinary profession, both clinically and in research.

A handful of veterinary research studies have evaluated activity trackers in dogs. One found that a certain accelerometer can, in fact, distinguish among activities of varying degrees of intensity, such as walking versus trotting, and the authors concluded that “activity trackers have the potential to improve the ability of clinicians and researchers to accurately estimate a pet dog’s daily energy requirement” (Am J Vet Res 2011;72:866–870).

Activity trackers might also allow veterinarians to understand how treated animals are performing not only in the clinical environment but also at home.

According to a 2007 study in AJVR, “Evaluation of an accelerometer for at-home monitoring of spontaneous activity in dogs,” use of an accelerometer was adequate for at-home activity monitoring, an important end point in clinical trials involving treatment of chronic diseases, and provided information about daily activity that, according to the authors, was unattainable by other methods (Am J Vet Res 2007;68:468–475).

The authors cited at least two other areas of investigation in which accelerometers could be used to monitor dogs with heart failure, chronic pain, or other activity-limiting disorders.

“One is to compare diseased dogs with age-, size-, and environment-matched clinically normal control dogs to determine whether these disorders actually affect activity or its temporal distribution. The other is to obtain baseline data on dogs with one of these disorders, institute treatment, and repeat the measurement,” they wrote.

Activity trackers also have the potential to improve communication between clients and veterinarians, according to Rebecca Johnson, PhD, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine.

“I think the activity devices like FitBark are going to be incredibly important for pet owners on a number of levels to ensure that their pets get adequate exercise and that they themselves are, too,” Dr. Johnson said.

“Also, it will be useful for veterinarians to be able to ensure clients understand what is meant by physical exercise, how to keep track, and how to realistically report it. Often, owners are unclear on what is meant by physical exercise—what it means to them may be something different to the vet. This is an objective measure they can report back to the vet, and the vet can monitor the physical activity of the animal.”

An objective measurement

Dr. Karen Munana, professor of neurology at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, is exploring the causes of epilepsy and developing novel treatments through the Canine Epilepsy Outreach Program she manages.

She says her team is in the early stages of collecting pilot data on how activity trackers might be helpful in studying the disease. She anticipates following up with a proper study in the next few years.

“In general, this technology and other technologies as well are promising to provide us with input into research and objective data we’ve had to rely on subjectively in the past,” Dr. Munana said. “Dogs that have epilepsy often have seizures that are quite inconsistent. So either the owners don’t know what happened, or the seizure happened when the owner was away. It would be nice if there was a way to document a seizure more reliably and objectively for the purpose of study.”

Dr. Munana said the other possible role for activity trackers is to evaluate treatments for epileptic patients.

According to Dr. Munana, many of the drugs used to treat epilepsy can cause animals to be sedate. In the past, veterinarians had to rely on subjective observations from owners as to whether their dogs were not as active. Now, with activity trackers, it may be possible to objectively determine what impact a drug is having on activity level.

Still, Dr. Munana says there’s a lot of baseline data that need to be established and questions answered first.

“If I just want to see how active a dog is after treatment, that’s very different from if I want to have an activity monitor assess seizure activity, especially mild activity. What sort of data does the activity monitor collect? What movement does it collect? How often and how is the data analyzed? There’s a lot of logistics behind the scenes (we’re) not all privy to that can impact results based on what the interest is in terms of research and study. Maybe one monitor could be helpful for one study and not for another,” she said.

Both ends of the leash

Dr. Bess Pierce, associate professor at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships, agrees that the type of device matters for what information is desired.

“Much like the human ones, there are some that can differentiate altitude, so if the dog is going upstairs, it can tell. Then there are some basic ones that only measure forward motion and steps. Others just look at the overall mileage or distance covered, but not so much steps.”

My feeling is (the companies) are primarily focused on the consumer and (are) making promises of these benefits to animal health that won’t pan out once we get the data behind it. It’s a marketing ploy for people to buy the product. ... They’re a fun toy but I don’t know how clinically relevant they will be at this time.

Dr. Eli Larson, associate veterinarian, Pewaukee Veterinary Service

Dr. Pierce hasn’t used activity trackers in her research, but she is familiar with their potential in the sports side of veterinary medicine, especially with physical therapy and rehabilitation services.

She also envisions these devices being used for weight-loss plans because they can motivate owners to achieve a certain number of steps with their dog each day, for example.

Dr. Johnson and her team have been using pedometers and other devices in human-animal research, specifically to keep track of physical activity in people and dogs, since about 2006. She said the pedometers have been important for recording the health benefits achieved on both end of the leash.

While they haven’t yet tested activity trackers in any of their research, they are vying for a grant for a research project that involves looking at physical activity of U.S. military veterans and their dogs and would like to use the devices to monitor results.

“If you put (an activity device) on your dog and monitor it, you pay more attention to your dog, and you potentially have an opportunity to give the dog more attention. I think it could have a potential impact on improving the human-animal bond,” Dr. Johnson said.

A dose of skepticism

Most of the activity trackers designed for dogs are being sold online or through retail pet stores such as PetSmart or Petco, targeting owners directly.

The price tags aren’t cheap; they range from about $70 to $130. Whether pet owners will be willing to stomach the cost is one of the unknowns about these devices, said Dr. Eli Larson, an associate veterinarian at Pewaukee Veterinary Service in Wisconsin, who has a strong background and interest in all things technological.

He also questions the effectiveness of these devices’ software in a practice setting and how valuable the information is that they provide.

“Is it relevant, and how is the information going to get in the vets’ hands? There aren’t any open standards to integrate or interface with electronic health records that allow third parties to interface with the data, so there’s not a seamless information exchange,” Dr. Larson said. “How is the data going to be sent to somebody to interpret? If that information is not granular, and if it cannot be interpreted by the veterinarian’s computer, are we setting the consumer up for a misperception of what it’s going to accomplish?”

“All of these (companies) make grandiose promises, but I don’t know anyone who has seen these in action,” Dr. Larson said. “My feeling is (the companies) are primarily focused on the consumer and (are) making promises of these benefits to animal health that won’t pan out once we get the data behind it. It’s a marketing ploy for people to buy the product. ... They’re a fun toy, but I don’t know how clinically relevant they will be at this time.”