The concept of the "quantified self" is one of the latest buzz ideas in the tech world. It started with humans and is now rapidly developing for pets too.
Most people have now heard of these devices. Users wear a special type of watch that measures their personal physiological data, twenty four hours a day, 365 days a year. The data is uploaded to their smartphone, and then, via the dedicated app, they can assess all sorts of information about themselves. On any given day, they can put figures on what they have done. How many steps did they take? What altitude did they climb? What was their average heart rate? More advanced technology allows an increasing rack of data: body temperature? body weight? Body fat? Blood pressure? Blood sugar? Haemoglobin levels? How much sleep have they been getting? And did they sleep well, or did they toss and turn restlessly?
Not only can these statistics be gathered and reviewed, but they can also be tracked and compared. You can look at a graph of your body weight over the past five years. You can compare your exercise level in January with last July.
This is not just for fun, nor for trivial curiosity. It's often been said that the best way to change something is to set a target. And once you have got the statistics and numbers, you can set targets for you to change. In theory, this should be highly motivating, making it easier to reach your ideal body weight, blood pressure and state of physical fitness.
Of course, reality seldom chimes with theory: it is still difficult to eat less and exercise more. But nonetheless, the quantified self at least gives people a more objective view of their own physical being.
The quantified self has been fine tuned further with some modern sports watches which use accelerometer chips to make detailed assessments based on body movements. So I have a watch which tells me how many lengths I swim in the pool, how many strokes I take to cover each 25 meters, how many pedal pushes it takes me to cycle to work, how much power I exert as I push down the pedal each time, how many steps I take to run a hundred meters, and much more besides. watches also give similarly useful information to skiers, golfers, and all sorts of other sports people.
The quantified pet is following hot on the heels of these human-based monitors. They've been developed first for dogs: they are used to wearing collars, and it's not difficult to bolt a sturdy watch-like monitor onto a collar.
The earliest monitors were basic, recording how long dogs spent sleeping and how much time they spent exercising. More advanced collars also monitored body temperature and heart rate. But now, a more detailed level of assessment of body movements will make an even more significant difference to the health of our pets.
The latest device that I have on trial, the Animo, records all the usual information that pet owners might like to know, like exercise and sleep, but It also allows owners to record what food their pet is eating. This promises to be a helpful way of fine tuning a weight loss programme for an overweight pet.
But the Animo also achieves another layer of movement analysis: based on micro movements of the collar, depending on what the dog is doing, it's possible to detect when a dog is carrying out certain significant activities. Specifically, the device is able to give you a breakdown at the end of each day, informing you how much time your dog spent barking, head-shaking and scratching himself. You can even see, on a graph, at what times of day your dog did these activities.
This is not just interesting: it's useful.
As a vet, when I am treating an itchy dog, it can be difficult to work out how much better my patient is getting. I depend largely on what the owner tells me, but as I have discovered when some couples come in, this can be very subjective.
"Pedro has been much better this month", says the man, then the woman immediately butts in, saying "No, he hasn't. He's spent every evening itching like crazy!".
It can be tricky as a vet when you get stuck in the middle of a heated discussion like this.
New types of collar monitors for dogs mean that now vets will have an accurate measurement of how much a pet is itching. It will be possible to look at a graph displaying how much a dog is scratching, and to make an accurate assessment of the impact of a treatment intervention, such as a new type of monthly anti-inflammatory injection. One month can be laid over another month, to monitor improvements or deteriorations.
And the same rationale can be applied to head shaking due to itchy ears and barking that indicates frustration.
There are other possibilities: vets can now assess how much more active dogs become after new anti-arthritis treatments, how a dog's activity changes after orthopaedic surgery, and many other aspects too. Other devices allow measurement of how much a dog is drinking and eating, and how their body temperature and heart rate changes.
It's still early days, but one day, instead of the vet asking you how your pet is, they may say "what's your pet's data saying?"