AUSTIN (KXAN) — Pets and technology — two things that have become increasingly more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to one South By Southwest panel, more than 11 million Americans got pets during the pandemic, and with owners taking more attentive care of their pets now more than ever, our furry friends are becoming members of the family.

The panel called it “the humanization of pets.” One of the featured speakers was Austin Pets Alive! President and CEO Dr. Ellen Jefferson. Last month, the no-kill shelter celebrated its 100,000th pet rescued since opening in 2008.

Jefferson agreed legislation has not yet caught up to how people treat and care for their pets today.

“There is a huge disconnect between how much people care about their pets, and 98% of people believe that their pets are as important as human family members, but our laws are still treating them like property that have absolutely no inherent value,” Jefferson said.

One company that’s making it easier to meet the needs of your pets, especially dogs, is startup Fi, which makes smart dog collars. Founder and CEO Jonathan Bensamoun, who spoke on the panel Monday, explained the collars not only track your dog’s location but also your dog’s health, sleep and activities.

The company even has a social media network.

“People can connect their dog to other dogs, see their pictures, interact with them, talk to each other, and we’re building more features more location-enabled, allowing people to kind of like, share their location or the area they’re going with their dogs,” he said.

Bensamoun said they’ve seen sustained demand for their product, with people wanting to increase the quality of their bond with their dogs. The tracking feature also allows owners to have peace of mind when it comes to letting their dogs explore on their own.

“I think what we’re trying to do is build the most exhaustive understanding of the dog as possible, and right now, we’re detecting movement, and we’re trying to infer a lot of behavior and data from the movement of the dog, but there are a lot of other types of information we can start collecting about the dog and aggregating at the network level.”

Eventually, Bensamoun said compiling data for hundreds of thousands of dogs can aid in seeing trends in the dog population.

Not only is technology like Fi’s important to pet owners, Jefferson said she’s looking for advancements in the shelter space as well.

“Technology is critically lacking in the animal shelter space, and what we’re trying to promote here at SXSW is an awareness of that, and that there is so much that can be done to better the lives of animals in shelters,” she said.

That covers tracking everything from getting the right care in shelters to shots and vet visits to getting time on the adoption floor, etc.

“None of that is part of databases that shelters use, and it’s part of technology that hospitals use, and we really need to be grasping that in moving forward, just taking a smarter look at how we handle animals in the shelter,” Jefferson said.

The panel wouldn’t be complete without an adoptable pooch present. APA! brought in Ray Ray, who was left behind in an apartment when his family either left or were evicted. He came to APA! three years ago from the Austin Animal Center.

Jefferson explained Ray Ray has been adopted and returned before, so they’re trying to find the right home for him — whether that be a foster or forever home.

  • Ray Ray is up for adoption from Austin Pets Alive! He was present at a SXSW panel on March 14, 2022 about pets and technology. (KXAN Photo/Jaclyn Ramkissoon)
  • Ray Ray is up for adoption from Austin Pets Alive! He was present at a SXSW panel on March 14, 2022 about pets and technology. (KXAN Photo/Jaclyn Ramkissoon)

It was APA!’s first time being represented on a panel at SXSW.

“We’re just thrilled to be here, because it’s an opportunity to reach a bigger audience that can maybe be more helpful to ending the killing of pets in shelters and ending the unnecessary separation of humans and pets in the first place,” Jefferson said.

You can learn more about Austin Pets Alive! online.

Ollie CEO Nick Stafford also joined the panel Monday afternoon. His company creates personalized meal plans for your dog based on your dog’s age, weight, breed, activity and possible allergies. The meals are then shipped to your home.