Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Merry Tech-mas

High-tech pet presents really for their humans

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LOS ANGELES -- A holiday present for Fido or Fluffy used to be an extra table scrap or a new squeeze toy. But as with gifts for their human counterparts, pet presents are becoming increasingly high-tech.

Like presents for young children who lack the dexterity to enjoy their new playthings, pet gifts are usually for the human who owns the pet. Allie Robino of Austin, Texas, bought a dog treat maker for her eight-year-old rescue mutt Bentley, but it'll be her baking the biscuits -- not Bentley.

She bought PetSmart's Sunbeam Holiday Dog Treat Maker, essentially a waffle-maker with dog-bone moulds, for Bentley when she took him to see Santa Claus at a Fort Worth pet store. Even though he and her other dog, Shiner, will be the primary beneficiaries of the purchase, it's mostly a gift for Robino, who admits to having problems making things at home from scratch.

"A lot of these kinds of things end up being more complicated than the company promises, but this was super easy to use and the finished product looked great. Believe me, if it were possible to mess up, I would have messed up. I'm batting zero on Pinterest," she said, referring to the photo-sharing website beloved by amateur chefs and DIY-crafters.

Robino said it was the only time she has bought a gift for a pet that requires electricity, figuring that would put Bentley in a rarefied group of animals with high-tech presents. But there are actually plenty of gadgets in stores for animals, from the predictable (dog barking control, electronic self-cleaning cat litter boxes) to the surprising (exercise equipment, air conditioners for doghouses, pet air purifiers for human houses).

Technology is having an impact in every area of the pet world, including food, toys and care products, said Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. He believes health-care advances are moving the fastest.

"There are many advances on the pet rehabilitation side of health care that weren't even heard of a few years ago. There are also new advances in medication, treatments, and even testing and diagnostic areas. For example, you can send off your pet's DNA to find out their breed and even give at-home tests to determine if certain diseases are present," he said.

Rehab equipment for pets, such as a dog-size treadmill, are no longer just for veterinarian clinics. Pet owners can buy the DogPacer's Minipacer treadmill (US$479), which is made for dogs under 25 kilograms. The original DogPacer treadmill will accommodate dogs up to 80 kgs and sells for $499 -- about the same price as human-size gym equipment.

For owners who exercise with their pets, the Sharper Image Pet-O-Meter Pet Pedometer ($19.99) counts steps, calculates distance and tracks the calorie intake of the human partner.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of apps for mobile devices offers clutter-free options for urban pet owners with little living space.

There are apps that track pets' whereabouts, like the GPS-based monthly service Tagg Pet Tracker, which can alert owners if a dog leaves a designated area or monitor a pet's physical activity. For a simpler option, PetHub dog tags and collars make owners' contact information accessible through a scanning app on a mobile device, and animal shelter and GPS tracking services can be added.

Vetere believes the best high-tech pet product is the microchip, which can be implanted in dogs, cats, birds, horses and other animals and will help reunite owners with lost pets.

"They are also widely used by industry professionals to track vaccinations, test results and other records. With GPS microchips now available as well, your missing pet can not only be tracked back to you, but you can now track them down and prove ownership if need be," he said.

Vetere predicts hot high-tech gifts this year will be microchip pet doors, which open using a chip implanted in the animal. He said the most popular products will always be those that make life easier for pet owners -- "like automatic feeders and water delivery systems, automatic litter boxes, grooming tools that comb and also vacuum up the pet hair."

On Vetere's personal wish list is "an automatic yard cleaner that would pick up after my dog, but I don't see how that would work without a robot," he said.

For pets and owners who do volunteer work -- yes, there's an app for that, too. For example, the $149.99 TouchChat alternative communication app lets people who have difficulty speaking play with a dog using voice commands.

Ricochet, a four-year-old golden retriever from San Diego, works with people who have Down syndrome, who are autistic or who suffered strokes. Patients touch an iPad, prompting a synthesized voice to deliver a command like sit or turn around or down. If the dog performs the command (and Ricochet always does), the patient can throw her a treat.

"No cues, inflection or interaction is needed from her handler. They can communicate with Ricochet directly, giving them a sense of independence, self-confidence and empowerment," said owner Judy Fridono.

-- The Associated Press

Popular pet apps

Apps aren't just for people anymore. Here is a roundup of popular pet apps for mobile devices. The cost of apps ranges from free to a few dollars. For the iPhone, iPod or iPad:

Dog Park Finder Plus, a list of more than 6,000 dog parks and beaches in North America. Also lists 12,000 dog-friendly restaurants.

Find Pet Friendly Hotels, a list of more than 10,000 pet-friendly hotels, along with weight limits, pet fees, dog parks and more.

Fido Factor, a mobile guide to dog-friendly locations.

Pet Poison Help, a quick list of poisons, what to do and how to get help.

Pet First Aid: for Your Dog, Cat, Puppy, or Kitten, a collection of videos and detailed instructions on what to do when caring for a pet.

Petfinder Mobile, the app of the popular pet-search website that includes more than 370,000 animals from 14,000 adoption groups. They will be releasing an Android app soon.

RSPCA My Pet, collection of information on how to care for animals from chinchillas to rats.

Lost Petz, allows people who have lost or been separated from their pets to issue an alert to others in the vicinity.

Game for Kittens, a chase-a-laser iPad game for cats and kittens. For the Android, which are sold through Google Play. Most range from free to a few dollars.

PetWise Mobile, a wealth of medical information for pets.

PetSaver, collection of care information for pets, such as pet CPR and first aid.

Petcentric, a guide to pet-friendly places.

Tropical Fish Guide Pocket Ed., the original Android pocket reference for freshwater tropical fish and plants.

Puppy Training, a guide for training a puppy.

Pet First Aid, information on emergency care.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2012 D5

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