Digitizing Pet Information with NFC

PetHub has added Near Field Communication (NFC) to its tags so that owners can identify dogs or cats with the touch of a mobile phone, enabling the return and identification of lost animals in pet-centric businesses.

The loss of a pet is a common and stressful experience for owners, and it usually ends well when a lost dog or cat returns home on its own. But according to a 2012 survey by the ASPCA, 15 percent of pet owners surveyed had lost their pet in the previous five years, and another 15 percent had never gotten their “fur baby” back. This number was higher for cats than dogs.

PetHub, a Washington State-based technology company, has developed a tag and server-based solution where a pet’s identity and profile can be stored in the cloud. This data can then be accessed by scanning a QR code on the animal’s tag or, most recently, by tapping the embedded Near Field Communication (NFC) tag. Using a 13.56 MHz chip compliant with ISO 14443, NFC functionality is increasingly being used by businesses where pets are managed in larger volumes, such as kennels and bars.

Anyone with a smartphone with a built-in NFC reader can use the system to identify a lost pet. July is Pet Loss Prevention Month, an awareness campaign launched by PetHub to draw attention to the problem of lost pets. PetHub was founded in 2010 by former Microsoft employee and entrepreneur Tom Arnold. The company reports that on average, 10 million cats and dogs go missing in North America.

The first thing most people do when they find an unaccompanied pet is to look at the collar tag, where the owner’s name and phone number are typically stamped. However, this tag is often difficult to read as the numbers and letters are worn away due to wear and tear, or simply from being worn by a fidgety or shy pet. Lorien Clemens, the company’s CEO, says that since the launch of the PetHub tag, the QR code printed on the front, which includes the PetHub app, has made it possible for individuals to view much more data about the animal on their phones.

Users would first create their pet’s online profile, including information such as name, breed, age, medications and allergies, and multiple emergency contacts. They would link this profile to the QR code on the tag, then pay for the service on a monthly or annual basis for a single pet or a family of pets. A good Samaritan who finds a lost pet could simply access the tag and hold his phone in front of the QR code to view information such as how best to return the pet to its owner.

There are currently 3.5 million PetHub digital IDs in circulation, says Clemens, and 700 to 1,000 new pets join the site every day. Most use the QR code tag, but the new tags incorporate NFC to allow people to access data faster and handle an animal and its collar less. The company first built its animal identification platform in 2010, then filed a patent application for the use of NFC technology in 2012. But Clemens recalls that the limited availability of NFC on smartphones, especially iOS devices, meant that the use of functionality was limited.

The company also investigated other wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, but found that Bluetooth transmissions were less reliable. Clemens explains that the signal between tag and smartphone is often lost even when a tag is near a phone. “The dog could be around the corner,” he says, and “the system will tell you that the dog is out of range.” In addition, some Bluetooth tracking systems, such as Tile and Apple AirTag, tend to require an app to be open for operation. The company felt that Bluetooth technology would not serve the app appropriately.

“For us,” says Clemens, “if the product is there, it has to be reliable enough to get the pet home. It can’t just be cool – that’s not enough.” In the last few years, he says, NFC functionality in smartphones has become more prevalent, and as a result, the company has “dusted off NFC.” With this short transmission version of RFID, the challenge was to build the technology into the metal tag in a way that would reliably transmit data and sustain the environment it might be exposed to when accompanying a busy dog or cat throughout the day. . Thus, the NFC chip is coated in thick epoxy with a metal ring to increase durability.

Clemens added that the QR code is still the most widely used technology on labels, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made consumers more comfortable with scanning such codes. Many restaurants, for example, now have QR code-based menus and orders. “It’s a very successful technology for us,” he said. In fact, people tend to be so comfortable with codes that many will not hesitate to scan one on a label.

According to Clemens, 96 percent of lost pets are returned in 24 hours or less. NFC brings new value for situations where scanning QR codes is not possible. For one, the codes require people to reach under a dog’s muzzle and lift it up to scan the tag. “You have dog wiggle syndrome,” he says, which makes QR code scans difficult. Businesses sometimes need to be able to identify an animal very quickly, a practice that has led to multiple large-scale deployments of the NFC tag.

“There are a lot of really exciting applications,” says Clemens. For example, the system is being used by doggy daycares, spas, boarding sites and dog-friendly bars. Pet sitters at a business can hold a smartphone next to each animal (their client) and see not only the pet’s ID, but also other important information, such as whether the animal is up to date with its shots. The solution can also provide other details such as whether a dog is a “good citizen”, in other words, whether it has a clean record of playing well with other pets. Moreover, the technology can verify that an animal has undergone specific behavioral training. The data collected can be customized for each business.

According to Clemens, PetHub’s customers are primarily pet parents who visit the company’s website to fulfill the needs of a daycare business or through recommendations from animal shelters, animal control departments, municipal governments or pet insurance companies. Pet owners can directly purchase a PetHub kit with NFC and QR tags to be attached to an animal’s collar, the card with NFC and QR code for the travel crate, and a keychain card that can provide access to pet information in any situation where the owner becomes incapacitated. The travel crate card is reinforced with plastic and attaches to the crate to allow airport staff or others to access credentials without opening it.

PetHub software allows pet owners to report a missing dog or cat, which prompts the company to alert local shelters. The company can also notify friends and family members of a pet’s “safety circle” in case an animal goes missing and automatically update them when the missing pet is found.