Episode Rewind: Examining Pet Wearables That Monitor Health at NAVC 2017 Conference

In early February, I attended the North America Veterinarian Conference (NAVC), an event that happens once a year in February in Orlando, Florida. Veterinarians, vet techs, practice managers and companies that provide the tools, medicines and research that fuel veterinary medicine, gather together for an incredible week of discovery, sharing new inventions with a mutual goal of progressing animal health. It’s my 4th time attending the conference, and I have to tell you, it was bigger and more impressive than ever. Almost 20 thousand people attend the conference and more than half of those people are veterinarians. The exhibit hall, where I spent all three days I was there, is over 410 THOUSAND square feet — and according to my Bellabeat Leaf (that the wearable tech I wear — a much prettier version of a fitbit), I averaged 12K steps a day, and a total of 17 miles walked in 72 hours. Needless to say, my dogs were barking.

Most of the stuff on the show floor was stuff that most pet parents never see — CT and MRI scanners, x-rays of all shapes and sizes, lab equipment, new materials that provide critical barriers against biomedical toxins, advanced lighting that actually helps clean and sanitize the very air over the operating table…and booth after booth of pharmaceuticals gear to helping everything from flea prevention to diabetes to cancer to arthritis and beyond.  It took me a full three days to simply walk every aisle…and I still didn’t get a chance to talk to everyone I hoped to chat with.  That said…I did talk to a lot of AMAZING folks.  During the PLG radio show, I focused on three conversations I had with inventors of wearable tech for pets that is specifically geared towards pet health. Now, we’ve mentioned pet fitness trackers like Whistle, Pitpatpet, Wonderwoof and others on the show before, and we’ve certainly talked about GPS wearable devices…but the wearable tech I saw at the show has a much different purpose — it’s about gathering information about the pet’s activities expressly for the purpose of monitoring our pets’ health.   I chose the three devices I felt have the most promise — the BabelBark, Vetrax and Heyrex:

Checkout the podcast here: https://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/97308/examining-pet-wearables-that-monitor-health-at-navc-2017-conference

BabelBark

babelbark

I met with Bill Rebozo the founder of BabelBark, and he shared BabelBark’s latest product, the BabelVet app. BabelBark is a small device that attaches to your dog’s collar and collects data about your dog’s activity, and on the accompanying app, you can record the food he eats, the ingredients in that food, medical dosages taken, and how frequently the medical dosages are given, etc. The data the device collects gets transmitted to the pet parent’s mobile BabelVet app, and all the data is easily sent to the pet’s vet via the app. The email the app sends contains a link that veterinarian can click to access your dog’s portal to review the data.

The BabelVet app that pairs with BabelBark not only can store your dog’s data, but can also allow you to add pictures and document your pet’s health. It makes it easy to collect data about your pet and keep it all in one place with the app. Think of the BabelBark as a “fitbit” for your pet coupled with a medical journal (BabelVet app) you can keep of your pet’s health to share with your vet. 

The price for the BabelBark (which works with the BabelVet app) is a small standalone fee of $30. There’s no breaking the bank with this device compared to similar devices out on the market — but, as with all things, sometimes you get what you pay for, right?  Compared to the other two devices I examined at the show, BabelBark is a little less “hearty” and I do worry about it’s durability. Note that I say this with ZERO testing on my own part — and making an assumption like that isn’t really fair — it’s just a gut first reaction. I’ll let you know more after I test it out with Penny & Ullr.  Now, some of you may be wondering if there may be any hidden fees such as subscriptions that withhold necessary features — but nope — no subscriptions for this. You only need to purchase the device and you’re all set. Which begs the question…what’s the catch? They have to make money somehow.  And yes…money will be made.  BabelBark/BabelVet is part of an eco-system of pet care that will have plenty of advertising, marketing and integration opportunities for local pet services and stores. It’s a cool idea, and I’m eager to watch how this company grows.

Vetrax

Vetrax

Next up Vetrax. AGL Technology’s COO, Joe Young gave me the full tour of this new device.  This wearable collects a TON data about your dog and uploads it to the cloud through your home WiFi network. If WiFi is unavailable at the moment, the data will not be lost, but stored on the Vetrax memory chip. The data can be seen by the pet parent through the Vetrax mobile app,  available for Android and iOs, and by also your pet’s vet through the Vetrax online portal. And, unlike the BabelBark/Vet system, this is something you get from your vet, so it is an integrated part of your pet’s care. On the surface, I feel like this is a better approach, more likely to be properly used by the pet parent because it is monitored by the vet and their staff. In addition, the Vetrax is launching as part of a bigger program through Hills Science Diet — and it has very specific therapeutic nutrition applications connected to weight loss and dermatologic prescription diets for your dog.   

One thing to note about this device is the battery lasts, on average 14 days, before needing a recharge. Compared to the BabelVet and Heyrex, this device will require you to recharge way more often. The BabelVet can last an average of 6 months and Heyrex claims to have a whopping 2 year battery life.

Like I said, Vetrax is only available by participating veterinarians, so you can’t expect to purchase from your local pet store. And, it’s certainly not as inexpensive as the BabelBark — it will cost you almost $200. However, if you are using it in conjunction with a Hills Science Diet regime, you can get a sweet rebate that will offset costs significantly.  Right now, it’s still in relatively small release, being tested at vet clinics nationwide, but you can recommend your veterinarian to look into Vetrax or even write to Vetrax to reach out to your local veterinarian.

Heyrex

heyrex

The Heyrex has been developed through years of research and development to make sure their product is something veterinarians want — of all the  wearable products I explored NAVC, it’s been around the longest and, to me, seems the most “complete” and ready for market.

Much like the other two devices, the Heyrex monitor collates all sorts of data: exercise and activity, including scratching, sleep quality (does the dog stay still for a long period of uninterrupted time, or does your pup wake up for brief moments and is restless?) and other behavioral triggers involving movement. It uses wireless technology to send information from a collar-attached device, and depending on activity noted, behavior changes, etc., it can give valuable information to your veterinarian. Unlike the other two devices (at least what I saw at the show), though, Heyrex has a much wider range of use-case modules to help vets with analysis of the data.

According to the Heyrex team, it was designed in a way enhance veterinarian’s diagnosis work, collect and give them data in a meaningful way, and still be affordable (for the vet, at least). To purchase a Herex, you must buy it from a participating veterinarian, just like the Vetrex. The Heyrex team allows the veterinarian to sell the Heyrex in whatever way that makes sense to their business model. For example, a surgeon can incorporate the cost of the Vetrex into the surgery fee or sell the Vetrex separately. So yes, at it’s core, it’s an additional expense for you, but if it helps the vet take better care of your pet to they live longer, healthier lives, then that cost is well worth it, IMHO.


So let’s dig in a little deeper into my thoughts about these devices.  This applies to all the wearable tech out there: what we are seeing is only the tip of the ice berg. It’s just the beginning and there is SO much room for growth, and frankly, improvement.  I’ve been watching wearable tech a lot in the last few years, and there are some drawbacks when dealing with pets and I think they are going to affect even these crazy-cool and beneficial devices.

First, you are dealing with creatures (most dogs, and some cats), who have no idea what is on them. They have no “buy in” or understanding of why they are wearing the device, so they are not going to take care of it with the same considerations that we might take care of our own fitness or health monitor devices. I’ve watched dogs wrestle this type of thing off of their necks and chew them to pieces. My own dogs have run out in the rain to roll in mud puddles before I could stop them. Though all of these devices claim to be water resistant, I’ve had units of a few brands of Bluetooth trackers I was testing fail due to water intake despite water-proof claims. And if they do happen to fall off for some reason, your pet isn’t going to be much help in finding them. Does this mean you shouldn’t even bother? Absolutely not, but it’s just something to keep in mind if you choose to purchase one.

Next, and perhaps this was some of the reason the Voyce device did not succeed, these devices require the active participation and buy-in from your vet.  Frankly — with the exception of Heyrex, which has been out in some degree for a few years — they are so new to market, the jury is still out, in my opinion, about how quickly and wholeheartedly the veterinarian community is going to adopt these. I had both a Voyce and Heyrex for testing, and I struggled finding a vet clinic willing to invest the time to help me test them. Now, admittedly, that was over a year ago, and the market is changing, so the reception might be warmer now. It’s not uncommon for the audience to take a bit of time to be ready to accept new technologies, and in the case of veterinary advances, I imagine it’s quite overwhelming because of the vast range and volume of new advances coming at them every day. So I am going to eagerly watch how this all plays out and the sort of adoption and integration these devices have into standard veterinary care. Certainly, the possible applications of wearable technology in advancing how well we can treat our pets is just incredible.

Finally, I am curious to see how each of these three distincts approaches works, and which takes hold of market share, and stays in the market long term:

Babelbark with low-cost, direct to consumer device, that has a mid-range life of battery (about 6 months) that integrates with other, non veterinary providers certainly is interesting. The notion of a pet care eco-system with a device as the hub is one that on paper looks to have a lot of promise, but will lots people actually embrace that? I really don’t know, but I’m excited to watch that play out.

Vetrax and Heyrex are working exclusively through veterinarians. That certainly adds a great deal of trust to mix. I’m frankly much more likely to purchase something that my vet says is the best thing for my pets. And that may help soften the blow of the fact that both of these devices are rather expensive — over $100, sometimes with a monitoring fee, much like the GPS devices. And they have completely different battery profiles: Vetrax is shorter, but completely rechargable (with a standard charger, thank goodness — I love it when companies don’t make you use special cords that you can’t find anywhere), but Heyrex claims to have the longest battery life (up to 2 years), so taking the human-error factor of forgetting to keep the device charged, could be a really important key to the device having literal staying power.  And the Vetrax approach is also unique because of its relationship with a major prescription brand of pet food. That strategic partnership may actual propel them to the top of the heap fastest.  Who knows?

I think all three tools have great promise, and with their three unique approaches, I can’t wait to see how it plays out over the next year. Stay tuned…I’ll keep monitoring the monitors for ya!

 

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