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Gifts for pets follow human trend toward the high-tech: appliances, exercise equipment, apps

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. - 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 8-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 ($479), which is made for dogs under 55 pounds. The original DogPacer treadmill will accommodate dogs up to 179 pounds 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 wishlist 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 4-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.

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