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Big data, big opportunity?

March 6, 2018

Jo Gale is the Global Scientific Advocacy and Stakeholder Relations Manager at Mars Petcare, the gold conference sponsor for WikiVet LIVE!



We live in a world of big data and it’s growing bigger all the time. The field of human healthcare has been tapping into this phenomenon for a while now. But what about pets? Could we use big data to learn more about pet health and disease, including the best veterinary treatments and other interventions?


Big data can provide the potential to peer into the future and identify problems before they happen. Diseases could be spotted early using biomarkers, or predicted through changes in activity patterns or behaviour. Earlier diagnosis usually means more effective, simpler, cheaper treatment and has huge potential to improve animal welfare.


Traditionally, though, data about pets have been siloed in many different places; within individual veterinary hospitals and pet owner records. There is no single database to store and compare it, and data is often incomplete due to lack of regular vet visits. That’s all changing at Mars Petcare.


Mars Petcare is not just a pet food business. We also have a thriving veterinary health business, with over 1800 hospitals across the US. From first-opinion to referral and emergency clinics and diagnostic laboratories, every aspect of pet health is covered. The data collected from millions of pets as they visit a hospital, have tests carried out and receive medications or surgery are giving us fantastic insights.


What’s more, our pet “wearables” business Whistle means we can also gather information on pet activity. Imagine if your pet’s wearable device could alert you to a change in activity known to be a potential marker for a specific disease, or even just illness in general. This early warning system could mean a timely trip to the vet hospital which saves your pet from discomfort and makes treatment more economical and effective.


Another advantage of tapping into big data is developing personalised pet care. Gathering data from various sources enables us to draw a comprehensive picture of the pet as an individual, in order to offer a tailored care package. Likewise, personalised veterinary medicine involves tailoring medicines to a pet’s unique genetic makeup. It’s developed by integrating a pet’s genetic blueprint and data on their activity, lifestyle and environment, then comparing it alongside thousands of others to predict illness and determine the best treatment. At Mars Petcare, we have that covered too. Our pet genetic business Wisdom Health can not only decode the heritage of the most scrambled of mixed breed dogs, but provide screening for over a hundred genetic health conditions.


When this data is coupled with veterinary records and activity levels, the opportunities are immense. That’s the advantage of having all these pet divisions within the same business – we can use the wealth of connected data to enhance pet care at a rate previously unimagined. This isn’t just a future fantasy, we’re already seeing real results. The WALTHAM Puppy Growth Charts were built using big data from our Banfield hospitals. Over 3 million dog bodyweight measurements were analysed and whittled down to 50,000 healthy young dogs who remained at ideal body condition during the first three years of life. Data points from these dogs were used to create the charts, which enable vets and vet nurses to track the growth of a puppy and monitor for any problems. Ensuring that young dogs grow at a healthy rate is vital to preventing obesity and other health problems later in life. These are the first evidence based growth charts for pet dogs, and are only possible because of access to Banfield’s huge data sets.


Big data is certain to play a big part in the development of new veterinary treatments and nutritional solutions. Even more importantly, it continues to add to our growing understanding of how pets’ bodies work, and how we can make sure they carry on working healthily as long as possible.

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