Spying on your pets can have some positive uses

Published 03/09/2013 | 07:53

A simple, small collar device uses GPS to record where you cat goes during the daytime.
A simple, small collar device uses GPS to record where you cat goes during the daytime.

Have you ever wondered what your pet gets up to when you are away? What does your dog do when you aren't watching? And where do your cats go when they're out and about?

These questions are not just idle wonderings: there are some situations where it's important to discover what's going on. Furthermore, modern technology now means that these questions can now be answered.

Bessie the Labrador is a classic example. She had always been a calm, well-behaved dog, but when her owner moved house, things began to go wrong. The family routine was simple: Bessie was taken for a half hour walk in the morning before everyone went out. She was then left alone for two hours in the kitchen.

There had never been a problem, but shortly after the move to a new home, Bessie began to 'misbehave'. When her owner came back in the late morning, Bessie had chewed the legs of a kitchen chair. Why would she start to do this?

When her owner came to me with this problem, the first step was to point out was that chewing objects is a natural behaviour of dogs, and the first step was to give Bessie something appropriate to chew. A deep-frozen, food-stuffed chew toy such as a 'Kong' is more satisfying than a chair leg to Bessie, and much less irritating to the owner.

The second step was to try to find out why Bessie had suddenly started this chewing behaviour. Dogs are more likely to do this type of thing if they feel restless or anxious: the chewing is a way of relieving their nervousness.

The most common reason for Bessie's type of behaviour is separation anxiety: many dogs dislike being alone, and they respond to solitude by barking, chewing or carrying out other restless types of behaviours. But there are other reasons why dogs start to chew,and this is where technology was able to help solve the puzzle.

A video camera was set up to observe Bessie when she was left on her own. If she had genuine separation anxiety, she would start to get restless as soon as her owners went, pacing up and down, whining and looking agitated, before settling down to chew the chair leg.

When we replayed the video, we were surprised at the results: Bessie looked calm and relaxed when left on her own, going over to her bed and settling down for a snooze. The video showed what was really happening: an hour after she had been left, she jumped up with a start, ran to the door, then started to pace the room restlessly.

After a few minutes of this, she sat down beside the kitchen chairs and began to chew them. We watched videos taken on successive days, and the same pattern was followed: when we checked the timing, she always started to behave strangely shortly after 10am.

Her owner then stayed at home one morning, to see what could be going on. The answer was revealed just after ten: the postman rang the doorbell repeatedly. The new house had a loud, siren-like doorbell, and this was what was bothering Bessie. The chair-chewing problem was now easy to solve: the doorbell was disconnected and the postman was asked to leave the post in quietly, with no door-knocking.

I came across another mystery recently, this time involving cats. Toby and Charlie, two one-year-old cats, were normal when their owner went to work in the morning, but when she came back that evening, they each had one swollen foot. Toby's left foot was twice as big as normal, and Charlie's right foot was similarly enlarged. There were no injuries or other signs of damage, and their swollen feet did not seem painful.

What was going on? I suspected that the cats had been stung by an insect like a wasp: the two animals tend to play together, and they could easily have come across a wasp nest or just one large buzzing insect. A few pats with their front feet would be enough to allow them to be stung several times, which could be enough to cause the swelling. I gave the cats anti-inflammatory medication, and their feet returned to normal by the following morning.

The mystery of the cause of the swollen feet was never solved for certain, but if it happens again, there is a way to discover. You can now buy a simple collar cam which films precisely where your cat goes, and what they do.

You can also buy a simple, small collar device that use GPS to record where you cat goes during the daytime: the G-Paws records your cat's route that shows up like a dotted line on a map on your computer. With these devices, Toby and Charlie's owner could discover the precise location of that suspected wasp nest.

I recently borrowed a high definition version of a collar cam for my dog Finzi: made by Sony, it's a small, waterproof video camera that attaches to a body harness. A wireless link to my smartphone allows me to see the world from Finzi's point of view. It works well, and I captured some fun video footage of Finzi playing with other dogs.

The project ended badly, however: Finzi has a habit of rolling in foul smelling mess like horse manure. The result: some blurred, undecipherable footage and the unenviable task of rinsing the smart Sony camera under plenty of clean running water.

New Ross Standard

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