Japan’s beloved cats get healthcare help from AI

Nihon University professor and head of Nihon University Animal Medical Center Kazuya Edamura, 49, uses ‘CatsMe!’, an AI-driven smartphone application jointly developed by tech startup Carelogy and researchers at Nihon University that purports to tell when a cat is feeling pains, during an examination to a cat at the medical center in Fujisawa, south of Tokyo, Japan June 11, 2024. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Irene Wang and Rocky Swift

Mayumi Kitakata frets about the health and wellbeing of Chi, her stoic housemate who enjoys treats, indulges a bit too much in the catnip, and about 14 is getting on in years for a feline.

Kitakata, 57, has had pet cats come and go over the years, and to help give Chi as many seasons as possible, she’s turned to artificial intelligence.

In March, Kitakata became an early adopter of CatsMe!, an AI-driven smartphone application that purports to tell when a cat is feeling pain. That cuts down on the guesswork of when it is necessary to embark on a stressful trip to the veterinarian. 

“He is at an age where more and more diseases are going to appear,” said Kitakata, who is single and has a grown son. “So being able to consult the vet but still reduce the number of visits to the hospital is very important for him and for me.”

While pets are an integral part of many families around the world, these companions have an outsized role in Japan due to the ageing population and plummeting birth rate. The Japan Pet Food Association estimated there were almost 16 million pet cats and dogs in the country last year, more than the number of children under 15. 

Mayumi Kitakata ,57, uses 'CatsMe!', an AI-driven smartphone application jointly developed by tech startup Carelogy and researchers at Nihon University that purports to tell when a cat is feeling pain, near her 14 year-old male pet cat Chi at her home in Tokyo, Japan May 17, 2024. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Tech startup Carelogy and researchers at Nihon University developed CatsMe! by training it on 6,000 pictures of cats, and the app has been used by more than 230,000 customers since its launch last year. The developers say it is more than 95% accurate and expect that degree to improve as the AI trains on more feline faces.

Nihon University professor Kazuya Edamura said vets like him can tell to a certain degree whether an animal is in pain or not, but it’s a harder task for owners.

“Our statistics show that more than 70% of elderly cats have arthritis or pain, but only 2% of them actually go to a hospital,” Edamura said. “So rather than a final diagnosis, we use (the app) as a tool to make owners aware of whether the situation is normal or not.”

Kitakata and Chi live in a central Tokyo apartment with the perfect feline napping spot near a balcony window which overlooks cherry trees five floors below. She monitors Chi’s toilet activity and uses the app to read its face each day.

Kitakata had cats since her mid-20s, including Soran, a brown-striped tom who died about six years ago from cancer at just eight years old.

“If I had noticed it, maybe we could have done cancer treatment earlier or something and it would have helped, but even the vet didn’t know,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “I might have been able to save him.”

—Reuters

Nihon University professor and head of Nihon University Animal Medical Center Kazuya Edamura, 49, points to cat photos on a computer screen, which are used to train the AI of 'CatsMe!', an AI-driven smartphone application jointly developed by tech startup Carelogy and researchers at Nihon University that purports to tell when a cat is feeling pain, as he gives a lecture to students on diagnosing pain in cats, at the medical center in Fujisawa, south of Tokyo, Japan June 11, 2024. REUTERS/Issei Kato
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