Keywords: technology, veterinary telemedicine, data, pet wearables, early detection, animal welfare
‘Virtual’ spinning class
Earlier this year, I had a new experience in the gym when I participated in a spinning class without an instructor in the room. I’m not boasting that I’ve been to enough spin classes to no longer need an instructor, far from it! The instructors were on a big screen because the class had been recorded and the video was being played in front of an audience on static bikes. I must admit that I was sceptical at first but I do love a well-choreographed spinning class with hill climbs and interval training which these videos provide so I’m now a frequent ‘virtual’ spinner with Les Mills RPM.
‘Virtual’ spinning classes are not ground-breaking in the world of technology but it’s a way of sharing expertise. As a fan of TV medical programmes, I’ve seen the telemedicine approached used to share real-time expertise and now there is a company based in the UK offering this approach in the veterinary profession. Virtual Veterinary Specialists (VVS) popped into my mind because vets can benefit from real-time advice from specialists therefore enabling general practitioners to work-up and manage their own cases under the guidance of VVS. There are benefits for vets in terms of working up trickier cases that usually would have been referred and therefore it’s an additional learning opportunity to have a mentor to guide you through the work-up. The advantages for the pet and owner include not having to travel further afield to a referral centre therefore reducing potential stress and inconvenience. There are always going to be patients who need to be referred for specialist treatment or surgery but if you are keen to use this approach with suitable patients and have the time available, perhaps this innovative method of obtaining specialist advice may become routine especially when you can enlist help from Nuala Summerfield and Sarah Caney!
Data, data, data
I like to quantify parameters where possible and I think most vets would feel the same. Perhaps the population as a whole also agree? At the end of the virtual spinning class, a small group of keen spinners were comparing their calories burnt, highest heart rate, how long they were working in heart rate zones four and five, and any other stats their activity watch monitored (I wasn’t wearing mine because if you can’t monitor the distance and speed, what’s the point right?! Tee hee!). The interest in people monitoring their activity doesn’t seem to be waning so will they be interested in monitoring the activity of their pets? It seems that way as the number of wearable activity monitors is increasing and an estimate of the global pet wearable market size was 1.07 billion USD in 2016 (Grand View Research, 2018). Some of these devices claim to measure a variety of parameters such as temperature, activity, respiration rate, body positions, food intake, and heart rate. From a veterinary perspective, there is a lot of value in obtaining such data to help piece together the puzzle when confronted by a patient who isn’t giving much away or multi-pet households where you are unsure of who is doing what!
Will animal owners react to the data generated from devices? Some dairy farmers have been using activity monitors on their cows to indicate when they are coming into heat and therefore react accordingly to the data. Dairy farmers using robotic milkers react to the data presented to them and the data generated are invaluable for herd health planning meetings with their vet. I haven’t met any pet owners who have been prompted to visit their vet from data or an alert from a pet tech device but I spend very little time in practice so maybe they do. Please let me know if you have experienced this, I’d love to hear if these data are being used by vets.
A role to play in improving quality of life?
Has the use of human wearable tech improved quality of life by increasing activity? The benefits of exercise are well-documented. It’s a shame that I didn’t whip out a short questionnaire to my fellow sweaty spinners (those who know me probably wouldn’t put this past me!) to see if they think using wearable tech has helped to increase the amount of exercise they are doing and whether they feel better as a result.
One area I would really like to see an improvement with the use of animal wearable technology is in the earlier recognition of pain. Changes in activity and posture could be recognised sooner with the help of wearable devices. One of the conditions that immediately springs to my mind is osteoarthritis because the pain associated with OA is often gradual and subtle, and therefore trickier for owners to identify. I’d like to think that quantifiable data could help to identify chronic pain at an earlier stage so that potential treatment and management changes can be implemented sooner to improve pet welfare. We have busy lives so could the data generated help to alert owners and serve as a prompt to bring their pet to the practice for a health check?
In addition to chronic pain, obesity has a massive impact on the quality of life of our companion animals so activity monitors could help in this area too. I recently read an article in the Vet Times summarising Alex German’s advice provided during the Royal Canin Weight Management Congress and weight charts are the way forward according to Alex. He strongly recommended having weight charts in place for puppies and kittens to help vets intervene at an earlier stage and to keep the dialogue open with owners regarding weight management. I suspect that a lot of vets and vet nurses have weight charts for their patients and combining this information with data from activity monitors could bring additional insights into pet behaviour and owner engagement.
A concern I have is related to the accuracy of the data provided. However, if the same device is being used to monitor the same pet, it will give baseline measurements for the device and pet combo. Interpretation of the data is another area of concern and I hope that pet owners will be inclined to seek veterinary advice and share the data generated on a regular basis with veterinary professionals. Pet wearable technology is still a recent development and I hope to see peer-reviewed publications addressing accuracy and the social interaction at some point in the near future. One of the potential advantages of these data is that they are unbiased. Acute pain and emergencies are immediately obvious but effects of chronic pain and obesity on quality of life can be harder to demonstrate to owners, so these data could help. Another idea I’ve just had involves comparing anonymised data on the respiratory rates of brachycephalic breeds and non-brachy breeds and/or comparing within brachycephalic breeds, those with different BOAS scores to help convince breeders and/or owners not to breed from pets with extreme brachycephalism. For the owners who are of the opinion that vets are only concerned with making money, quantifiable and unbiased data may help to improve the client-vet relationship and communication.
Keeping up to speed
In spinning classes when the instructors say “add another turn, and another”, I find it hard to keep my little legs spinning at the same speed and it takes a lot of effort. Keeping up to speed with the advances in technology and being familiar with their applications and limitations will take time and effort but in the long-term it could improve animal health and welfare and increase efficiency of data collection. If (and it’s a big if) these data could contribute to repairing the client-vet relationship for those who think we are just trying to sell products to fund our… (insert fancy car, beautiful mansion, luxurious holidays), having tangible information might help. Who knows what kind of clever tech is around the corner but I’m pretty sure the spinning instructors are using some kind of ground-breaking technology within their microphones that filters out their heavy breathing whilst talking through the demanding class!
Stacey Blease – a vet thinking aloud
Virtual Veterinary Specialists https://vvs.vet/
Grand View Research (2018) Pet Wearable Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Technology, By Application (Identification & Tracking, Behavior Monitoring, Facilitation, Safety, Medical Diagnosis), And Segment Forecasts, 2018 – 2025. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/pet-wearable-market
Vets urged to do more to tackle obesity crisis (Vet Times 19th March 2018, Vol 48, No. 11 but a snippet of this article can be read online) https://www.vettimes.co.uk/news/vets-urged-to-do-more-to-tackle-obesity-crisis/