vol 6 issue 7

Inventors' Inbox - Pet technologies

11 July 2011
By Mark Sheahan and Patrick Andrews
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Dog looking at computer screen

Inventors pose as techno vets

Our resident inventors-turned-vets exchange emails on how innovation can help pet carers – not to mention the furry, clawy, beaky beasts themselves.

Patrick Andrews: Have you seen this statistic? The US market alone for pet-related non-food products was $11bn in 2009. Pets don't have pocket money, do they? So all these products have primarily to appeal to supporters of our furry, scaly or feathery friends.

The opportunities for novel product-development span toys, healthcare/exercise, grooming/cleaning, training and control. Maybe we can spot some opportunities for extra innovation in each of these categories? In practice though, it's probably easier to do this on a beast-by-beast basis.

Maybe it's best to start with cats and dogs as they're by far the most common. One idea I have is for a cat-flap that limits the coldest, ground-hugging air from entering every time the cat does. Located high in the door, it is reached by a series of footpegs attached to the surface. Healthy cats can easily use the new facility and get some extra exercise in the process. I also really like the approach of fitting a vacuum cleaner, activated as the door opens, so as to de-fluff Moggy after every bird-bothering foray.

Mark Sheahan: Your idea to 'limit cold air in' by positioning a cat-flap higher would be countered by the 'higher level of hot air' inside escaping, at the same time. Also note, vacuum cleaners are 'Blood Sucking Android Rottweiler' to most cats. These ideas would all lead to chilblains and a 'Dear John' letter from Tiddles. You need much more plausible arguments from the outset to have a chance of making money from an invention.

Patrick: If you want more precise monitoring of the health of your domestic feline, then what about a set of electronic scales, wired to a small computer? The scales are set on a chair or stool. On top of them is placed a cat feeder device (the kind that automatically delivers a cat's meal at a set time). The system is capable of detecting when the cat has arrived on the scales and whether it leapt on gracefully or dragged its way up there. It can also tell how long it took the cat to eat its food, after the lid opened (was the animal hungry or disinterested?) Over time, the cat can also have its weight monitored (which might be used automatically to change the amount of food provided or activate an alarm indicating a health problem to the owner).

Mark: There are much easier and cheaper ways to gauge your cat's health; check its coat, teeth and eyes and occasionally take a note of its stools. As with humans, stools can tell you a lot about an animal's general wellbeing, all for the price of a nose-peg.

Patrick: There was a fad a while back for painting cats...it didn't seem to bother the creatures and amused their somewhat eccentric owners. Maybe we could make this more accessible by supplying stick-on templates so that each respray of vegetable dye could result in a recognisable design?

Mark: I think it is undignified and cruel to subject your cat to your personal styling. Cats are cool creatures and 'retro' is so out. Joking apart, you may have a chance of selling merchandise, if supplying letter/figure stencils, for spraying their cat's name and postcode on. It would make your cat more at ease in their own world, being called their chosen name by all human contacts and, if lost, you could simply apply a postage stamp and send it back via the Royal Mail.

Patrick: How about dogs, then? When one's dog is attacked by another dog, the official advice is 'simply' to let it run away to safety. If you let the lead go, the dog may well trip over it or get itself tangled as it scrambles away. Furthermore, if you try to release the lead from the collar, you risk bending down and putting your face between two fighting dogs. I therefore suggest a lead which can be detached from a dog's collar while the animal is straining to escape. This could be achieved by running a Bowden-type cable from the lead handle/loop to the catch where collar meets lead. Press on a recessed button and the normal lead-collar catch is opened, freeing Fido. Or if you fancy a higher-tech version, a wirelessly activated collar catch, which you can operate using a single press on your mobile phone's keypad, might have product potential.

Mark: Not a good solution, being expensive and with little or no benefit if 'Spud-Murphy' (yes, that's my dog's name) runs off into the distance, never to be seen again. There are handheld, directional high-pitched dog restraint alarms that solve this problem.

Patrick: Young dogs seem to chew anything within reach. In particular, they seem to like to gnaw on their bedding and, if not closely supervised, their baskets. I propose a puppy basket in a woven construction. The weave is made not of wicker, but of rawhide strips impregnated with a dental disinfectant. Since the animal will soon grow out of both this bad habit and the basket itself, it might as well contribute to the pup's health.

Mark: It is a non-runner as it encourages them to chew off-limit items. A better alternative is to design a non-toxic/flammable chemically formulated dog repellent. It should not only stop dogs chewing selected items but also be designed to kill dog odours. A spray pack format would make for a simple application, e.g. to spray a light mist to anything chewable, at ground level.

I feel, after a little market research, that there is a market for a dog repellent spray to stop them from chewing on treated items and also eliminate bad smells.

Patrick: Hmm. Some other pet ideas. Whilst it's fine by me to domesticate stick insects or iguanas, it really can't be okay to cage creatures which are prone to develop disturbed mental states, as evidenced by pacing and self-harm. I've suggested before that zoo animals would benefit from having robotic prey introduced into their cages. Perhaps having a mechanical dog to chase your domestic cat would be a little extreme?

I do think that feeding carnivores pelletised or gelatinous food is probably bad for their state of mind. So another idea is to create dog and cat food which is formed into the shapes and textures of small rodents. Each would have a thread attached so that you could drag their meal across the floor and engage all that predatory neural circuitry that modern pet-ship has disabled. To productise further, a motorised spindle operating on a timer, could pull a mouse-shaped meal out of an enclosure across the kitchen floor, wiggling, pausing and darting appropriately.

Mark: Many zoos and pet owners already use live food, for the reasons you gave, when feeding their animals. I remember watching a gamekeeper putting meat in a low bearing tree, so that the lions needed to climb to feed, giving them both exercise and the realism of the wild.

Patrick: Minah birds and other social avians (like the crows which throw nuts on a pedestrian crossing and then press the button so they can collect the shelled fragments) are natural problem-solvers. Maybe we could create a modular, bird table/cage games kit. A transparent box would contain a food treat accessible say by pulling a string. Once the birds (or squirrels, in a garden) had mastered that, another task box would be introduced which would need solving before the first box could be dealt with. Over time, a series of these modules could be assembled (I'd of course want a string-activated webcam attached, so the creatures could film themselves).

I quite fancy reinvigorating the whole racing-pigeon scene by sending birds off securely in a small UAV or drone. On reaching the destination, the bird would be liberated and its return time accurately measured.

Mark: The crow story sounds like a 'talltail' to me and, in relation to your games kit, you need to find a new hobby or at least get out more.

The UAV or drone idea reminded me of a childhood experience I had in the early 1960s. Fuelled by the space race, a group of older boys in our neighbourhood put an ill-fated mouse into a plastic bottle tied to a firework rocket and set it off. Needless to say, their space attempt failed, and the mouse did not make it either. Apparently it had no injuries, so presumably it had died of fright. With this in mind, racing pigeon owners would not want to expose their prize bird to anything dangerous or that may cause it stress.

Patrick: David Attenborough says it's true and he's as close to Dr Doolittle as you can get (take a look at this TED video at 5:40: http://bit.ly/TEDanimals).

Actually, having your pet do something useful is very appealing (especially after a few '100 visits to the vet). I read recently about a mobile hamster treadmill that allows your rodent pal to traverse the floor, while simultaneously powering a rollerbrush to clean the carpet.

Mark: I think you are missing a trick or two; my dog also fetches my newspaper, slippers and a beer from the fridge.

Patrick: You keep your slippers in the fridge? Truth be told, I'm not actually that keen on cleaning up after real, high-maintenance animals so I'd be happy with a Tamagochi or virtual pet. The nearest natural version is probably a fish tank. Many fish have very advanced colour vision, so how about coloured lights which illuminate the tank as a fish swims by? In this way, they could choose to swim past the switch for yellow light and ignore the red, thus customising their own visual environment.

Mark: I am not sure if your fish-activated light colour show idea is commercial, but I love it. It could be the break-through in communicating with another species, something that mankind has been seeking for so long. *

Mark Sheahan is the first ever 'inventor in residence' at the British Library and Patrick Andrews is determined to achieve one invention each day.

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