For absentee dog and cat owners, connected pet gadgets promise to foster long-distance relationships with four-legged friends
ILLUSTRATION: HANNA MELIN
By KEITH BLANCHARD Feb. 11, 2016 3:41 p.m. ET
IT’S NO SECRET that Americans are pet-crazy. Between food, doggy day care, cat tuxedos and everything else, we spent an estimated $60 billion on our animals last year, according to the American Pet Products Association. Our pets are like our children—which may explain why leaving them in the house while we’re at work can feel like abandonment. They have nothing to do all day but eat, sleep, mope, chew all our shoes, bark at the coffee maker and...you get the idea. Entrepreneurs are not indifferent to our plight. With a new clutch of gadgets, they’re ready to relieve our guilt, amuse and exercise our pets, and maybe even usher in a rich new age of man-animal communication. The Petcube Camera($149 through Feb. 14, $199 thereafter, petcube.com) promises to let you use your smartphone to remotely “watch, talk to, and play with your pet” by swiping a laser dot around on the floor for your furry friend to chase. To get the Petcube up and running, you place the 4-inch box in a spot overlooking a likely play space and hook it up to the house Wi-Fi. Using the Petcube app, you create a Petcube account and set up a social-media profile for your cat, then—wait, what? Yes, your pet will need a proprietary Petcube profile...and frankly, if you want to share her embarrassing videos and allow others to play with her remotely (because there’s nothing at all weird about that), it’s about time she joins the social-media revolution. (The Petcube wasn’t a hit with my 14-year-old cat, Maggie, who is far too world-weary to get excited about chasing an uncatchable laser-bug.) Kittyo(kittyo.com), a successfully funded Kickstarter project that moved into production late last year, hopes to put even more control at your smartphone-stroking fingertips. With a few surreptitious taps and swipes under the table during your boring quarterly forecast meeting, you can remotely attract your tabby toward the camera-equipped device by generating sounds (bells, birds, squeaks, your own voice). Once she’s in range, you can play a little laser-tag with her while you take and share photos and videos. Then you can reward your exhausted cat for the whole unseemly ordeal by remotely dispensing yummy cat-food pebbles from the device. I visited New York-based Kittyo founder and inventor Lee Miller to see the Jenga-stack-size device in action. It turns out nothing perks up a cat’s ears like the sound of a bird inside your house. Mr. Miller’s rescue cat, Nico, thus summoned, pounced obediently if discreetly after the laser as I conversed with his man-panion. The first Kittyos are rolling off the factory floor now (it’s available for preorder for $249), according to Mr. Miller, and the company is working on unspecified “product enhancements.” (I suggested finding a way to let your pet text you ideas for dinner, but he deemed that logistically daunting.) ‘Our nation’s entrepreneurs are ready to relieve our guilt, amuse and exercise our pets, and maybe even usher in a rich new age of man-animal communication. ’ Cats are low-maintenance by nature and presumably an easy audience. What about dogs? Their heritage is all about running in packs and working, so they should be even more lonely and bored when stuck inside all day without you. And dogs seem to genuinely miss us while we’re away whereas cats are all, like, “talk to the paw.” It stands to reason that dog distractors would need to provide more in the way of physical and mental stimulation...and so they do. One of the earliest interactive toys was iFetch($115, goifetch.com), the tennis-ball launcher that lets a dog exercise himself by dropping balls in the top (this takes some training) and scrambling after them when they unexpectedly come popping out—again!—from the side. But we’ve come a long way since then. Over a thousand pet lovers banded together to fund the Kickstarter campaign of CleverPet(getcleverpet.com), a toy-meets-game that stimulates your dog’s mind as well as her body while you monitor her performance remotely. CleverPet presents progressively more difficult Whac-A-Mole-style games: When your pooch solves them by correctly slapping her paws on touchpads as they light up, it dispenses doggy treats. The challenges start out easy (at first, stepping on any pad yields a treat), then get progressively harder. You can track Dogbert Einstein’s game-solving progress, caloric intake and more on your smartphone. CleverPet is expected to ship to Kickstarter backers soon; curious canine owners can sign up to be notified when it becomes publicly available for $299, in April. Another soon-to-be-released doggy-brain-training Kickstarter project called PupPod(puppod.com) adds video to the experience, and requires your pet to commute back and forth between a stand-alone treat dispenser and a wobbly self-righting toy. When dogs interact with the toy at the right time over here, a treat comes out of the dispenser over there. As with CleverPet, the games start simple but get harder (you can even program your own), and the setup includes a separate video camera so you can watch your quick-witted pooch excitedly bustling back and forth between PupPod’s parts. Final pricing for the whole setup hasn’t been set but is expected to be under $500; currently, a $99 deposit will reserve a PupPod for you and your little buddy when the product is released. As we progress from remotely amusing our pets to remotely exercising, training and feeding them, maybe the next generation of devices can train our pets to do useful things while we’re away, like sorting out the tangle of cords behind the TV. This evolving global pet connectivity could one day allow lonely dogs to play checkers with one another, or empower cats to organize some sort of revolution. Just to be on the safe side, I’m going to start monitoring my cat Maggie’s social-media profile pretty closely. I suggest you do the same for your pet’s.