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8 October, 2019 - 23:27 By Kate Sweeney

Cambridge company develops smart pill for dogs

CDP Mars

Cambridge tech design hothouse CDP has invented a bite-size electronic smart pill for US-owned giant Mars Petcare that can track food through a dog’s digestive system.

About the size of a grape, the pill will gather crucial nutritional information to help Mars develop novel pet foods. 

Scientists and engineers from the Cambridge Design Partnership created the patented device, working with the world-renowned Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition to make a device with the ability to collect food samples from inside a canine gut. 

The pill contains a pH sensor so it detects when it has passed from the acidity of the stomach into the intestine. 

The device takes a food sample, using a piston-type mechanism; it then closes to protect the sample as it continues its journey through the remainder of the dog’s digestion.

Once the pill passes through the dog and is excreted it is retrieved and data collected. As well as surviving the rigours of a dog’s digestion, the pill can also be tracked on its journey. 

To produce improved products Mars Petcare needed to learn more about how dog food is digested. Specifically, it needed samples of partially-digested food from exact locations in the gut that it could gather in complete safety for the animal.

Part of the $33 billion turnover Virginia company Mars, Incorporated, Mars Petcare has a portfolio that spans pet nutrition and health through brands including ROYAL CANIN®, WHISKAS® and PEDIGREE®.

CDP created the pills at its laboratory in Cambridge; they were then trialled at the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition in Melton Mowbray, the global pet research centre for Mars. Several experiments and iterations were needed to refine the design.

Samples collected will be used to analyse the way various nutrients are absorbed during digestion. 

“The scientific understanding of this whole process had basically stalled for decades,” explains Mike Cane of CDP, who has worked on the project for the past 18 months, “because no one could retrieve these samples without invasive surgery to the dog.”

Working with animals is not straightforward, he admits: “At all times, there were such high welfare standards. An independent observer was on hand whenever we worked with the dogs. 

“If any dog was looking uncomfortable they would intervene to stop that day’s trial. They really do pride themselves on the way the animals are treated there.

“The data from the trials has been analysed by the lead scientist from WALTHAM, David Wrigglesworth, who will soon be publishing his findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

“Once it was clear that the pill worked well, Mars Petcare asked us if we could also find a way of knowing accurately exactly where it was as it passes through the dog so we also devised a special interactive coat to be worn by the dog which picks up a radio signal from the pill.”

The smart pill is so unique that it has been patented by the team.

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