How Pet Tech Might Change How People Feed Their Dogs
The smartphone-controlled SmartFeeder from Petnet is a prime example of technology-meets-nutrition.
It would be hard to dispute that the cornerstone of pet health is good nutrition. Were one so inclined, however, it wouldn’t be hard to make a case for technology. Science is fundamental to even the most basic commercial pet food by simple virtue of determining Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requirements for a “complete and balanced diet,” not to mention specialized diets targeting health condition, breed, life stage and so on. And, when it comes to pet health, veterinary medicine must be considered at least co-equal alongside food. In practice and fact, nutrition and technology are inextricably intersected in the U.S. pet industry. Yet never before has the potential impact of the latter upon the former been more profound.
Executives at Hill’s Pet Nutrition seem to be in agreement.
“The Vetrax technology is a fantastic tool to evaluate the performance of our therapeutic and wellness foods and to support clinical studies,” said Dave Baloga, vice president of science and technology at Hill’s in a press release in October 2018.
Baloga is referring to his company’s recently acquired Vetrax pet tracker, one of more than a dozen pet health/activity trackers to hit the market in the past few years. Taking it up a notch, Vetrax communicates directly with veterinarians, transmitting behavioral information to help diagnose and treat specific health conditions, including with Hill’s SmartCare prescription pet food.
“Vetrax is already helping veterinarians and pet parents to provide enhanced care for dogs with a variety of conditions,” explained Jesper Nordengaard, vice president of global marketing and innovation for Hill’s Pet Nutrition. “But this is just the beginning. We believe the technology has the potential to further transform veterinary care for dogs and, in time, for cats, too.”
Hill’s isn’t the only pet food maven pursuing new technologies to nourish its pet food business. Mars, which has long supported advancement in pet nutrition through its Waltham science centers and is the largest animal hospital operator in the U.S., has acquired two developers of DNA canine testing technologies: OptiGen and Genoscoper.
Broadening out even further, in March 2018, Mars launched a pet tech venture fund, Companion Fund, headed by Ben Jacobs, CEO and co-founder of pet tracker developer Whistle (acquired by Mars in 2016).
“We want to be the go-to partner for any promising new venture in pet care, whether that’s health, nutrition or anything else,” Jacobs explained to CNBC in March 2018.
Setting the stage for the fund, in spring 2018, Mars helped launch Leap Venture Studio with the goal of accelerating product development among next generation pet tech entrepreneurs and startups “looking to shape the future of pet care across nutrition, veterinary diagnostics, on-demand services, and medicines and supplements.”
Also thinking both inside and outside the pet food box, Purina has been acquiring digital platforms and is spearheading an annual Pet Care Innovation Prize, with winners including Obe, whose internet-connected ProBowl tracks food and water intake and can reorder pet food, and Barkly Pets, which connects pet owners with vetted pet caretakers via a smartphone app.
Petco has also gotten the pet tech memo. In June 2017, the company entered into a SmartDelivery partnership with Petnet, whose SmartFeeder also reorders food automatically.
Major pet food manufacturers and retailers aren’t the only ones betting on pet tech. With the aim of becoming a full-service pet health company, fresh pet food maker and online seller NomNomNow is offering pet owners an Insights microbiome gut health testing kit that can identify predispositions toward food allergies, constipation and being overweight, which might, ultimately, help the company create meals customized on a granular level for each pet.
Wagz’s line of interconnected smart pet products includes the Serve Smart Feeder, which works with Amazon Dash Replenishment, Amazon Alexa and Whello, a premium dog food designed for the feeder and sold by Amazon.
Golly, it’s hard to imagine a time when most pet feeders didn’t auto-dispense food, digitally update pet owners and veterinarians with routine and critical health information, and, duh, automatically reorder food for free home delivery. Or when lots of pets weren’t scarfing down individualized diets based on their own microbiology and DNA.
We’re not there yet. But the good old intersection of pet food and pet tech is now more like a superhighway.
David Lummis is the lead pet market analyst for Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, author of Packaged Facts’ U.S. Pet Market Outlook, 2018-2019.