The Star Malaysia - Star2
Flurry of furry tech
All paws aboard: The startup scene is catering to pets and their owners in novel ways by adapting services, from ehailing to hotel booking, for furry friends.
WHEN Julee Wong adopted a cat in January, she had no idea what a handful the little orange furball would be, or that technology would soon prove to be handy.
The female kitten, Arya, who is now six months old, received all of her attention as Wong had been working from home since the beginning of the year.
But when she had to return to work full-time at a non-profit organisation (NGO), she was concerned that the kitten would be lonely and not be adequately fed.
Wong’s solution? A smart automated feeder that can be set up to give out fresh kibble at certain times of the day using an app.
“It’s useful in the morning since Arya wants food really early and this stops her from getting antsy and waking me up, invaluable when you want to lie in bed a little longer,” she says.
She sees such tech solutions as a helping hand for those who live alone with their pets. Another tool that helps assuage her pet-parent jitters is a nanny-camera, which lets her monitor her home through a smartphone.
The camera also detects motion, automatically capturing a snippet and saving it on the Cloud or an SD card for later viewing.
“I never imagined in a million years that I would get CCTV to spy on my pet, but here we are.
“Now I check in when I’m curious about how she’s doing by herself. Conclusion: she mostly just sleeps!” she shares, with a laugh.
The camera also has a microphone that lets her have a one-sided conversation with the kitten. However, the additional feature wasn’t very useful as it only ended up scaring Arya when she heard Wong’s “disembodied voice”. “I tried to talk to her when she approached the CCTV, but it scared her so much she went flying off. I guess it would be more useful for a dog that actually likes hearing your voice,” she says.
Vernon Tee, the co-founder of Petbacker – which connects pet owners with people providing services such as walking and boarding – says that one of the huge draws is being able to virtually view the pets.
A popular feature is Moments, which the service providers use to share photos and videos with owners, usually showing the pet playing, being walked or fed.
He adds that it’s up to the service provider to decide the frequency of updates, though most recognise that keeping owners updated regularly goes a long way toward reassuring them, with some even installing CCTV in the kennels to allow owners to remotely monitor their pet.
The pet walkers also use a Live Walking feature that works similarly to a fitness tracker, measuring how far they walk the dog.
“This data is useful for owners to ensure that their pet is healthy and getting enough exercise, and it can be crucial if there’s a disagreement over whether the walks are as long as agreed upon,” he says.
Some pet walkers have even purchased smart collars that use the GPS of a Bluetooth-connected smartphone to more accurately measure distance.
R. Vikcyneswaran, who owns a golden shepherd named Brownie, says he appreciates the extra measures, especially after a bad experience with a boarding service where his dog got an infection.
He eventually found several pet boarders he could rely on, in part because they keep him up to date on feeding schedules, walks, and provide videos of Brownie playing with the other pets.
According to Kevin Hoong, co-founder and CEO of Oyen, a company that provides insurance for cats and dogs, the issue of pet insurance has become increasingly important to many owners.
“Being in the family insurance business, my friends who adopted pets at the start of the pandemic came to me asking if there was an option to insure their new pets,” he says.
While Oyen is one of the newest kids on the block, there are several other insurance companies that offer pet coverage, including Kurnia back in 2009 and MSIG in 2017. In fact, MSIG is the underwriter for Oyen.
Typically, insurance packages cover a pet’s vet bills for consultations, tests, prescriptions, surgeries, and, in the worst case, burial costs.
Some policies may also cover third-party injuries if a pet hurts someone else or another animal.
Instead of being sold by individual agents, Oyen is fully digital, as customers can pick their preferred package online.
“Customers today want everything to be online or on an app, so we designed the service to meet that expectation. They can get their insurance certificate within five minutes and claims can be filed digitally,” he says, adding that payouts typically take about three to five days.
Oyen currently covers pets between 12 weeks and 10 years old, though pre-existing conditions like a limp or blindness will not be retroactively covered.
“We don’t want to sell insurance just for the sake of selling insurance. It’s more useful to educate pet owners on long-term costs and preventative care such as vaccinating your cat or taking it in for regular check-ups could save a lot of grief and costs down the road,” he explains.
To that end, Oyen collaborates with veterinarians to offer online seminars on pet health management, recommended food, and other resources for new pet owners.
Hoong admits that getting started on a new insurance product was difficult because there wasn’t much data on the types of services required and the risks that the insurer must consider when calculating payout.
However, with market statistics indicating that there are over 1.2 million pet cats and dogs in Malaysia, many of which were adopted during the pandemic, he anticipates that pet insurance will become mainstream in the near future.
Afifah Basir, CEO and co-founder of Petotum – a digital pet ID for pets – also found a gap in pet health data. She says it is hard to share info between vets and other services, like groomers and boarding places, and that owners couldn’t access the data.
She points out that different vaccinations are recorded on different cards, and sometimes a new card is given when a pet gets a booster dose, making it confusing for owners to keep track.
Petotum allows users to record their pets’ immunisation history, if the animal has been spayed, preferred diet, and known behaviours on an app that functions similarly to a digital passport, making it more convenient than keeping a physical folder of numerous records.
The service is free for users, but service partners will be charged a fee to access the info, she says, adding that the data is protected in accordance with the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) 2010 and the Animal Welfare Act.
“Having all the information is a major help when leaving a pet at a clinic or a boarding service, so they know what your pet likes to eat or how it generally acts, to tell if something is wrong,” Afifah explains.
“Plus, pets can be sensitive and a change in diet could induce diarrhoea,” she says.
Vaccination info, for instance, is important to pet hotels – if an animal is not vaccinated, it could easily get infected or even make the rest of the residents sick.
“Requiring customers to vaccinate their pets is not a barrier of entry, as this will make others feel safer when sending their beloved pets to our partner service providers,” Afifah shares.
While many people became new pet owners during the pandemic, some startups in the pet tech industry were unable to serve them when MCOS were in place.
According to Hoong, the market for pet services bottomed out when the first MCO was announced back in March 2020.
“It was a shock to the sector, people didn’t dare go out, much less send their pets to groomers or pet sitters,” he says, adding that many services other than veterinary clinics were deemed non-essential.
Petbacker also lost many of its partners, resulting in a mismatch in supply and demand as there weren’t enough service providers to take up jobs. Afifah, whose Petotum also serves as a marketplace for pet services, agrees that the pet industry has had a tough time.
Those that managed to hang on, she continues, are now experiencing a surge in demand as the country enters the endemic phase and international borders are opened.
Pet boarding houses which partnered with Petotum claimed that they were fully booked for weeks and months in advance, as pet owners began to go overseas or balik kampung over the holidays.
“Pet hotels, like human hotels, are strongly linked to travel because people must leave their pets somewhere when they travel.
“Plus, many are new pet owners who may be living alone with no one to help care for their pet when they’re away,” she adds.
Seow Kim Chin, founder of Jojo Pet Taxi, also believes that the sector is on the rise, saying that bookings have more than doubled since February without any additional marketing.
He says there are now requests to ferry pets out of state as pet owners want to bring their animals to their family reunions, but lack the necessary facilities to do so.
Seow says that the demand for pet technology isn’t solely driven by an increase in pet ownership; he also thinks that more people want better services that are tailored just for their beloved pets.
That’s why Seow has furnished his taxis with professional equipment such as comfy cages, seat covers, ventilators and CCTV cameras.
He has also taught the drivers how to use a pet-friendly disinfectant and a mini-vacuum cleaner to remove stray fur between rides, as well as how to calm down a nervous animal and what to do in an emergency, such as a pet fainting.
“We reject more than 40% of all candidates. It’s much more difficult to ensure a good experience with pets than it is with humans because humans can talk and complain if they’re uncomfortable, but pets can’t speak up for themselves,” he says, adding that cleanliness must be even more thorough because animals have sensitive noses and can become agitated by standard commercial cleaners.
While there isn’t a standard or certification for pet taxis yet, Seow believes that discerning customers will be willing to pay more for better services.
Currently, Jojo Pet Taxi charges Rm1.20/km and a handling fee of RM35, but customers who book a ride to a partner service provider, such as a vet clinic or groomer, will be charged Rm0.90/km and a handling fee of RM25.
This is more expensive than typical taxi or ehailing rates, but Seow points out that not all drivers accept or are qualified to handle pets.
Subashini Mathialagam, who adopted a toy poodle named Leo back in August 2020, echoes the sentiment that, beyond convenience, tech also improves a pet’s quality of life.
Due to a family vacation that left no one to care for Leo, she went to a pet sitter.
However, the friendly dog had such a good time that Subashini keeps sending him there even though she can work from home in her capacity as a clinical psychologist.
“I call it sending Leo to school. He even has a little backpack with toys and treats, and gets all excited to see his friends at the pet sitter!
“It’s more about his happiness than our convenience now, and it’s totally worth it,” Subashini says.