America’s pet-related spending is now so high, and such a sizable industry, that even the subset of pet wearables (yes, that’s a thing) is itself a multibillion-dollar industry.
The American Pet Products Association estimates that we will spend $62.75b on our pets this year. The most popular pet is the dog—there’s one in 52 million homes. Those homes will spend an average $1,641 per year on one dog. And big companies like Mars Inc., the private candy giant that does $33 billion in annual revenue, are taking note.
In April, through its petcare division, Mars spent $117 million to acquire Whistle, which makes a Fitbit-like fitness tracker that slips onto a dog collar. It was a smart buy: Grand View Research expects the pet wearables market to reach $2.36 billion by 2022. Why? “Increasing awareness towards pet health & fitness,” the firm says. Whistle tracks your dog’s physical activity, graphs it on an app, and notifies you each day of whether your dog hit their daily goal. It’s also a sly way to test your dog-walker, since you can see how long each walk really lasted.
The inspiration for Whistle was founder and CEO Ben Jacobs’s childhood dog, a German Shepherd name Bear. He was uninsured—less than 3% of US dog owners buy health insurance for their dogs—and at age 5, suddenly got sick. The veterinary bill, sans insurance, would have been in the five figures. The family had to put Bear down.
Whistle’s goal, Jacobs says, was, to encourage owners, “Let’s bring our dog to the veterinarian a little bit earlier, and once we’re there, have some better information to help you take care of them.” That information includes how many hours of the day your dog walked, ran, played, and rested. And Whistle has partnered with veterinary researchers to work on adding a function that would warn you when your dog shows signs of epilepsy.
Joining Mars Petcare, which owns food brands Iams and Eukanuba as well as more veterinary clinics than any other company in the country, forged Whistle a variety of new connections in the pet care world. It launched a Whistle Shelter Love program, through which it promotes animal shelters like Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue. (The dog who cameos in the above Yahoo Finance video, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is adoptable through Badass Brooklyn.) While Whistle started as a simple activity monitor, it eventually added GPS, and has ambitions to eventually track nearly everything that yields data.
“When you think about the next five years, I think there really should be a single view of your pet,” Jacobs says. “Right now it’s a very manual process: If you move to a new city, or you go to a new vet, or if you get a new dog walker, you’re building up that level of trust and frankly, giving your child away to this other caretaker. We think a company like Whistle can bring all these disparate parts of the industry together… There will be one platform to power them all.”
Whistle isn’t the only tech startup taking advantage of the pet tech trend, and it isn’t only happening in hardware. Mobile apps like DogVacay and Rover help you find a place to board your dog when you’re away (think of them as Airbnb for dogs), and have gotten hot very quickly. BarkBox is a subscription service that sends you a surprise package of dog goodies. In the fitness-tracking space, there are competitors like Nuzzle, and in GPS monitoring (a functionality Whistle added to its device when it acquired Tagg last year) are Gibi, PetPace, Pod, Tractive, Voyce, Wüf, and others. To name yet another example, outdoor stores like REI now sell GoPro camera harnesses for dogs.
While Whistle has emerged quickly as a household name in the hardware sector, Jacobs cautions, “It’s not really creating the trend, I think it’s part of it.”
Another part of it is a product like Furbo, from the Seattle-based company Tomofun. Furbo, which resembles an Amazon Echo in shape and size, is a combination camera and treat dispenser, allowing you to watch your dog from work and also throw him a treat. It has two-way audio, a 720p HD camera and a night-vision setting. It is a clever device. The company calls Furbo an “all-in-one dog sitter.”
The product launched on Indiegogo, where it raised $481,250 and sold 118 units, at $139 apiece, which it will ship out this month. Eventually it will also sell on Amazon and its own web site.
Much like Jacobs and Whistle, Furbo has a personal origin story. Tomofun CEO Victor Chang says, “My wife and I left our dog at home every day, and we always felt so bad. This way, the camera lets you see them and toss out a treat.” It also lets you talk to them from your phone, though in tests it was doubtful that the dog recognizes the tinny, somewhat distorted voice. Chang responds, “They might know it’s you talking, they just don’t care. But if you throw out a treat after talking, they make a positive association.” Furbo will also send you a push notification to let you know if your dog is barking.
In a way, all the pet-tech companies echo trends in human tech. Chang compares Furbo to Nest (which sold to Apple) and Canary, popular household monitoring devices. Jacobs says Whistle came along just before the explosion in human fitness wearables like Fitbit and Jawbone, but they all share much in common.
In other words, humans aren’t so different from their dogs—both are eager to count their steps and prove their healthfulness. Or at least, humans would like to think so.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.