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Smartphones Could Help Decipher Your Pet’s Feelings

Tongues out for treats

  • A new app called Tably claims to monitor a cat’s mood.
  • The software uses an AI model to assess a photo against veterinary pain scales.
  • Some experts say there’s science behind pet emotion translation technology, while others expressed doubts.
Someone laying in bed with a cat on their lap, taking a photo of the cat with a smartphone.
MarioGuti / Getty Images

A growing number of apps claim to monitor the emotions of your pets, and some experts say there may be science behind the technology.

Tably is a new app designed to monitor a cat’s mood by pointing your phone at your pet’s face. The software uses an artificial intelligence (AI) model to assess a photo against veterinary pain scales.

“Some species, like cats, hide when they are in pain as this is what they would do to survive in the wild,” Susan Groeneveld, the co-founder of Sylvester.ai, which makes Tably, told Lifewire in an email interview. “Because of this, we often overlook serious health issues, and many pets suffer quietly or are surrendered due to behavioral issues when they could have a medical condition. Cats will display very subtle cues that we may often overlook.”

Cat’s Meow?

The makers of Tably say its proprietary machine learning algorithms have assessed hundreds of thousands of cat photos with over 90 percent precision. It uses object detection, image suitability detection, object extraction, image categorization, and result analysis. The software verifies the presence of a feline face in the image before sending it to the AI model for further analysis.

“Understanding animal emotions is a complex issue,” Groeneveld said. “Tably is the first of its kind AI technology that has applied validated veterinary visual pain scales and created an app that allows the user to take a picture of a cat’s face and predict whether the cat is having a good day (no discomfort) or a bad day (some, or serious discomfort). If a cat is having many bad days, it may require further investigation by a health professional.”

Veterinarian Adam Christman told Lifewire via email that there’s scientific data to back up the claims of apps like Tably.

“AI technology will change the landscape of understanding pet’s emotional behavior,” Christman added. “This understanding of animals as emotional beings is not something that meshes with some humans’ views. Throughout history, many people believed, and still believe, we differ from animals because of our consciousness and connection to one another.”

A Noah’s Ark of Apps

Tably is only one of many apps on the market that purport to decipher your pet’s emotions.

DogStar, an app and a wearable tail tracker, can help you gain info about your pet’s emotions. Students from Cornell University developed the product, which translates tail movement into emotional data. Some apps can be used with felines, such as Tabby, which claims to determine your cat’s emotions by their facial expressions.

Jacquelyn Kennedy, a canine behavioral specialist, told Lifewire in an email that the evidence supporting the efficacy of these apps can be a little sparse, especially when the app claims to be able to determine a pet’s emotions based on things such as facial expressions and vocal intonations.

“Though it may make sense to us that emotions would be shown through things like this, as it is how we display emotional states, this doesn’t necessarily translate to animals,” Kennedy said. “There is more evidence in dog behaviorism and psychology to support things like body language cues, such as wagging tails. Recording a dog’s body language can provide us with an insight into their minds, as we can compare it to research already done.”

An example screenshot of how pictures can help determine what a cat is feeling.
Tably

Christman said that monitoring your pet’s emotions can help recognize whether your pet has any pain, discomfort, fear, anxiety, or stress. He pointed to a study in a 2018 issue of the journal Learning & Behavior that found that dogs respond to human faces that express six basic emotions—anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust—with changes in their gaze and heart rate.

“This means that they can even emulate your own emotions,” he added. “In dogs, we all know how glorious it is to see that infamous ‘wiggle butt’ shake. It truly is a sign of emotional well-being of, happiness and engagement. Cats rubbing up against their pet parents not only is secreting hormonal release onto them, but it is a sign of comfort and a true testament of the strong human-animal bond that exists.”

Dog behavior consultant Russell Hartstein said in an email that he’s not sure if apps that measure pet emotions actually work.

“I don’t think there’s ‘proof’ we can understand a person’s emotions, let alone a dog or cat,” Hartstein added. “We can empathize and have compassion and imagine how they feel based on how we feel when we are happy, sad, depressed, loved, etc. but understanding the exact felt sense and intensity of a pet’s emotion is beyond our comprehension.”

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