Do you really want to know what your pets are doing while you’re away?
Ever since our labradoodle, Rocket, arrived on the scene earlier this year, our furniture has taken a beating. Sofa corners have been gnawed, throw pillows have been destroyed and sisal baskets have become chew toys. And this all happened while someone was at home to supervise him.
Contemplating the prospect of leaving Rocket alone, outside his dog crate, was nerve-racking. So like other pet owners before me, I turned to technology for peace of mind.
Surely a pet cam was the answer.
Among the latest gadgets vying for a slice of the estimated $72 billion pet industry, these Wi-Fi-enabled cameras come loaded with features to entertain animals and assuage their absentee owners’ guilt, including treat-dispensers, laser-pointing games, and two-way audio that lets you hear and talk to your pet remotely. One device even offers two-way video, so your pet can see you. And it’s all controlled by a smartphone. What could be easier?
To find out if pet cams are really all they’re cracked up to be — and to see what our dog would do when left on his own — I installed a few in the living room.
One thing I discovered immediately is that they’re highly addictive; it was hard to resist constantly spying on the dog, though he spent most of the time sleeping on the sofa.
Here’s what else I learned.
Petcube Play (about $150)
This sleek, cube-shaped camera was the most compact and attractive of the bunch. And setup was easy: Just plug it in, download the app and follow a few prompts.
When Rocket barked or moved around, a push alert popped up on my iPhone screen. Opening the app allowed me to see what he was up to: usually nothing more interesting than looking out the window or sleeping. But the images from the wide-angle, high-definition (1080p) video camera were always sharp, and could have been recorded, were I so inclined.
The device also offers digital zoom and two-way audio — so I could listen to Rocket and reprimand him, if necessary — with very little lag time. But if you want a multiday video history or more advanced alerts, including 30-second video clips, you have to pay a monthly fee that starts at $3.
Petcube Play comes with a laser-pointer game that seemed promising, although we were initially concerned about the long list of warnings that accompanied it, cautioning us to avoid “prolonged direct eye contact with the laser beam,” among other things. That didn’t turn out to be the problem, though.
The game is supposed to be controlled remotely via the app, by dragging your finger across the phone screen. Rocket was unimpressed; he either didn’t see the laser dot or ignored it.
But when we were home and could point at the dot darting back and forth across the rug, Rocket obsessively chased it. We were also able to link the device to our Amazon Echo Dot and ask Alexa, the digital assistant, to play with him. Her version of fun, however, involved encouraging the dog to chase the laser across the sofa and over the kitchen counter. (Not a chance, Alexa.)
Petcube also allows you to give your friends remote access to your pets; they just need to download the app. We weren’t that keen on the idea of sharing Rocket (or an inside view of our home), but we did enjoy scrolling through the photos and videos posted by others on the app.
The device was fairly glitch-free. I did lose the connection a couple of times while trying to connect to the camera remotely, but refreshing the app resolved the issue.
For good measure, I also had David Templeton, an analyst on The New York Times’s information security team, check out the camera to see if it could be easily hacked, and he reported no red flags.
BOTTOM LINE: Best for the design-conscious pet owner. This compact cube sits unobtrusively on a table or shelf, and comes in three colors (black, silver and rose).
PetChatz HD (about $300)
Your dog comes when you call him, but are you ready to come when he calls you?
In addition to live video-streaming, motion-detection alerts, two-way audio and a built-in treat dispenser, PetChatz has an LCD screen so your pet can see you. For an additional $99, you can buy a PawCall button, which allows your pet to get in touch with you. A light on the paw-shaped button tells the animal when you’re available, and he or she can then press the button to dispense a treat and send you a text message to initiate a call.
Don’t expect the dog to be able to do this on the first — or even the fifth — try. Rocket and I went through PawCall’s training routine several times, which involved repeatedly taking his paw and touching it to the button, then allowing him to eat a treat. According to the directions, there is “no verbal affirmation required” because “the treat dispense sound” — a little noise the PetChatz device emits whenever it releases a treat — “is the pet’s audible affirmation.”
That may be sufficient for some dogs, but after repeating these steps 10 times and then taking a break and doing it all over again a couple of hours later, Rocket still hadn’t gotten the hang of it. He had eaten a lot of treats, though.
In fact, he seemed more interested in the treats than in my face, which popped up on the PetChatz LCD screen anytime I wanted to talk to him remotely. And I couldn’t see his face very well, either.
The device, which is a fairly bulky 11 inches tall, is affixed to the wall with screws on top of an electrical outlet, so no cords are exposed. (Alternatively, you could pay $60 for a portable mounting stand or get some zip ties and attach it to a dog crate.) But because the camera was positioned at the electrical-outlet level, I had a hard time seeing the dog’s face remotely whenever he came up close to get a treat. Instead, I caught glimpses of random body parts.
Lisa Lavin, PetChatz’s founder, said she had the same issue with her standard poodle, Hattie, and dealt with it by training the dog to lie down before the treat was released, a trick Rocket and I haven’t mastered.
PetChatz also offers the option of streaming DogTV through the video screen, for an extra charge of about $10 a month. (With all this, who needs a laser pointer?)
When I asked Mr. Templeton, of The Times’s information security team, to test PetChatz for hacking vulnerabilities, one potential weakness emerged: “Customers are vulnerable to someone nearby sniffing their Wi-Fi password during the initial device setup,” he said.
In an email response, the PetChatz security team acknowledged this, but pointed out that the window is narrow and the potential hacker would have to be close by: “While it is possible that the password would be susceptible during the time in which it’s entered (say 60 seconds),” they wrote in an email sent through a publicist, “the individual or system aiming to access the information during this time would also need to be inside the same residence/home or yard of the Wi-Fi being accessed.”
BOTTOM LINE: At around $300, PetChatz is not cheap, but the various features — including free alerts, automatic video recordings and treat dispensing — help justify the cost. Getting your pet to interact with you through the device may require patience, but even in our short trial, it was easy to see how the treat dispenser could be used to reinforce good behavior.
Furbo Dog Camera (about $135)
Like the other devices, Furbo has a wide-angle, high-definition video camera with night vision, two-way audio, and recording capabilities, and the setup is easy. Unlike the others, it has no laser games or video screens. But if your dog is like mine, the treat-tossing feature more than makes up for that.
Before flinging the treat into the air, the device makes a clicking sound to elicit a Pavlovian response, so I was able to get Rocket’s attention and reward him remotely. It also connected with Alexa, allowing me to schedule treats ahead of time by saying, for instance, “Alexa, ask Furbo to toss a treat every hour between 3 and 5 p.m.”
Rocket became so obsessed with the treats, however, that he nearly knocked the device off our TV console. And while double-sided tape is included to allow you to stick the device to a tabletop, I wasn’t willing to risk damaging the veneer. I also wasn’t sure the tape would be any match for our energetic dog. Moving the device to a higher shelf solved the problem, although the view was slightly obscured.
Furbo, like its competitors, will send push notifications to your smartphone when it detects barking. But you can only record videos if you are watching the live stream. That means you might miss the chance to record your pet begging for treats (or destroying the sofa) if you happen to be in a meeting when you get the motion alert.
Victor Chang, who founded Furbo’s manufacturer, Tomofun, with his wife, Maggie Cheung, said the company is testing a “dog nanny” service that it hopes will provide a workaround. For a paid subscription, the service will automatically record and save short snippets of video; it will also snap photos whenever the animal faces the camera and will create a highlight video of the animal’s daily activities, among other things.
Of more concern, though, was our hacking test, which uncovered several vulnerabilities.
“The iOS and Android apps both do not verify HTTPS certificates during account login,” Mr. Templeton told me. That means a remote attacker (or whoever runs your Wi-Fi service) could break your secure connection, and identify and extract your user name and password. In other words, he said, “I would be able to log into your account and watch your live video, and feed your dog treats.”
The company said it is currently investigating the issue. “Any vulnerabilities will be addressed immediately via firmware and/or app updates, and we will continue doing so for all devices in perpetuity,” Ms. Cheung said. “The security and privacy of Furbo users’ data is a first-order priority for Tomofun.” To protect users’ privacy, the company releases monthly app and firmware updates and performs regular security audits, she said, adding that there have been “no known breaches to date.”
To deter potential hackers, Mr. Templeton recommended plugging the Furbo into a smart outlet, like the WeMo Mini from Belkin (this works for any other smart camera, as well). “If someone wanted to access your camera, they’d have to hack both the outlet to turn it on, and then the camera to see the video,” he said. “This double-hack requirement is an insurance policy against a single insecure smart device.”
But “this only works if the outlet and camera are from different development teams,” he cautioned, “and you normally keep the outlet off.”
BOTTOM LINE: Furbo’s treat-tossing function can be fun and addictive (for you and your pet), but it might not be enough to make up for the potential security vulnerabilities.
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Michelle Higgins writes the Fix column, offering advice on home renovations and décor. She has covered travel, real estate and other lifestyle topics for more than a decade at The Times. She previously worked at The Wall Street Journal. @michellehiggins
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