Do pet apps and other digitally enhanced systems help or hinder our relationships with our furry friends?
As 2016 draws to a close, you might have noticed that our phones are no longer the only “smart” objects in our lives. Many of us drive cars that tell us when we’re getting too close to another car, we have umbrellas that forecast the weather and refrigerators with interactive screens that let us order groceries. Nearly every week, new technology-enhanced items hit the market, so it was just a matter of time before digital tech started to inspire pet-care products.
During the past year, dozens of new digital pet products have been released—from enhanced app-controlled GPS collars designed to help find a lost pet while watching his whereabouts on a webcam, to health trackers that allow you to monitor your pet’s exercise and nutritional intake. There are app-controlled electronic pet doors that read a code “key” from a pet’s collar, and app-controlled electronic feeding devices that collect data about feeding frequency and volume.
One of the most multifaceted new pet tech product categories is the app-controlled interactive monitoring system. With this kind of system, you can “be there” for your animal companion when you are away from home by remotely watching, talking to and playing (using a built-in laser-chaser) with your pet. Some systems even enable you to remotely dispense treats.
Despite the potential appeal of these technological advances, will they actually improve the quality of our pets’ lives, or our own? Or will they diminish our relationships with our animal companions in the same way that technological advances sometimes diminish our relationships with other humans?
Research suggests that digital communication technologies—social networking and texting in particular—can reduce empathy, which then impacts the duration and quality of relationships. A 2010 study from the University of Michigan analyzed empathy in almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, and concluded that current college students are roughly 40 percent less empathetic than those of the 1980s and 1990s. Researchers believe that social networking and texting have played a significant role in this reduction of empathy. These technologies make it too easy to disengage when staying involved feels like too much work. In contrast, face-to-face conversations—with their visual cues about how others are feeling—tend to invoke empathy, which then deepens connections.
Could pet-care tech eventually have the same impact on our relationships with our four-legged friends? If we start to rely on technology as an interface between our pets and ourselves, could it potentially reduce our empathy for them, and diminish the quality of our care?
An electronic pet door keyed to let my dog—and no one else’s pet—into my house seems like a great idea. But this technology should never take the place of a neighbor, friend or pet-sitter being there to check on him when I’m away. Things can—and do—go wrong with technology, and someone needs to make sure the door is working. GPS collars are potential lifesavers for those hopefully rare times when a pet runs off or wanders too far and can’t find his way home. But knowing that my dog wears a GPS collar doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility to know where he is and to keep him safely confined to appropriate areas.
Might there be times when an electronic feeding device would be helpful or necessary? I like to imagine that most of us enjoy feeding our pets ourselves. The joyful anticipation my dog expresses around meals is a pleasure to witness, and I really don’t want to hand that interaction over to an automated feeding device. If I am away and can’t be there for him, then I would prefer that another human be there for him.
Let’s venture cautiously into this new world of pet-care technology, using the products judiciously, and only as an adjunct to human care, not as a substitution. Twenty years from now, we don’t want to find ourselves reading studies about how face-timing our dogs and cats reduced empathy in pet owners. We need more empathy for animals, not less. And my guess is that big, sloppy dog kisses and cats purring on our laps will keep us connected to our animals much better than streaming video.
Pet Tech at its Best: The Rover App and Website
One of the best uses of digital technology applied to pet care is the Rover app, which lets you access Rover.com’s online dog-sitting community of tens of thousands of registered Rover-approved dog-sitters and dog-walkers throughout the country. You browse by zip code and travel dates, and then view the available sitters’ photos and learn about their experience and qualifications. Once you make a decision on which sitter to hire, you book and pay through Rover. The service includes premium vet insurance, 24/7 emergency support and photo updates from the sitter to you. If something comes up, and your sitter is unable to watch your dog, Rover will set you up with another sitter—guaranteed.