Automated Undercover Mouse Postmortem

Last year I automated a cat toy and attached a Fitbit to my pudgy housecat in order to see if I could lower her weight. Eventually that cat did slim down to a normal weight, but it was ultimately due to low-tech methods; we got a new cat to chase her around and changed her food to a more healthy variety.

A reader emailed me inquiring if my modified Undercover Mouse still worked after so long and, if not, what shape the gears were in.

My modified Undercover Mouse worked for about six months. This was not six months of normal use but six months of relentless, automated, “wait two hours, randomly actuate for fifteen minutes, repeat” punishment. As time wore on I noticed the toy getting quieter and weaker. Eventually the wand would refuse to move but I could still hear the tiny electronic whine from the motor.


To my untrained eye, the gears look okay, so I would theorize that the little hobby motor suffered from some kind of internal wear. The toy likely did not break down from rough play by the cat, but instead by the 95% of those six months when it was running without the cat.

Given the ridiculous use that this little motor was exposed to, I would say it performed admirably.

Now it is time to order a new motor, and expose this toy to the new cat.

How Much Exercise Does an Indoor Cat Get?: Week Six

I now understand why Snickers loves this toy so much and yet this love fails to translate into higher activity numbers: Laziness.


Speaking of laziness, I grew tired of having to track down the cat, remove her collar, un-tape the Fitbit Classic tracker, charge it for a few hours, and repeat the process in reverse every single week, all while losing (precious) data about the cat’s every step. Thankfully Fitbit now makes a perfect solution to my obscure problem: the Zip, a cheap, tiny, lightweight tracker with a battery that lasts six months.

Snickers with Fitbit Zip
The magenta Zip even matches Snickers’ collar. Note the blurry red wand at which she is staring.


Daily breakdowns (14 Jan to 21 Jan)
Daily breakdowns (14 Jan to 21 Jan)


Week summary (15 Jan to 21 Jan)
Week summary (15 Jan to 21 Jan)


Thirty day graph.  Zip activated on 18 Jan.
Thirty day graph. Zip activated on 18 Jan.



  • The daily breakdown graphs are visibly different after the Zip tracker was activated (9:30 on Friday, 19 Jan). The Classic and Zip trackers are both designed to count the steps of humans, and cannot be expected to accurately measure the exact number of steps of a twelve-pound quadruped, so this difference between the two is understandable. The general patterns of activity are still apparent so the Zip still seems like an excellent means of measuring general cat physical activity.


  • Tuesday evening (6:30-9) was the final recharge break for the now-retired Classic tracker. No more recharging! Woo!


This has been -and continues to be- a tremendously fun silly little experiment. Recently I have been busy working on other frivolous software endeavors, and my time for cat-entertainment-engineering has been limited. I will probably not do another detailed analysis post for a while; at least until I have built something new and had the opportunity to test it on the cat. An iPad app is halfway complete, and I’d like to do something with lasers.

In the meantime, you can continue to watch Snickers’ progress -every day- on her Fitbit profile.

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 5.43.49 PM
Cut-throat competition



  • The beginning, wherein I attach a Fitbit tracker to a cat
  • First week of data, when I learn interesting things about how my cat spends her time
  • Second week: introducing a new toy
  • Third week: automating that toy to (hopefully) provide the cat with more exercise
  • Fourth week: laughing hysterically at the resulting toy improvements and wondering if they are having an effect
  • Fifth week: looking at the results


How Much Exercise Does an Indoor Cat Get?: Week Five

So, did the ridiculously elaborate automated Undercover Mouse setup that I built produce measurable results?


2013-01-15 Snickers fitbit week five
Daily breakdowns (7 Jan to 14 Jan)


2013-01-08 to 2013-01-14 (week five) summary
Week summary (8 Jan to 14 Jan)



  • Weekend warrior: Snickers racked up 7,739 “steps” on Saturday, crushing her previous record of 5,477. Interestingly, Jennie and I were asleep or out of the house during most of Saturday, so it is possible that Snickers may play differently when left alone for longer periods.
  • Null hypothesis: Record-setting single day aside, the automated Undercover Mouse setup does not appear to have made a big difference. Snickers’ step totals remain around 30k/week.


  • Fitbit charging was performed from 6:30 to 10 on Tuesday evening (Jan 8). This is a bit longer than usual, as I accidentally left the Fitbit on the charger before we left for a fancy dinner party.  If Snickers’ activity was similar to her hourly average, those 3.5 hours work out to 650 steps; not a significant dent.

What’s Next?

I’ll buy some silly plastic cat toy off of the shelf while I work on the next ridiculously over-engineered cat annoyance. 

CatPlay iPad test

How Much Exercise Does an Indoor Cat Get?: Week Four

Heh. Cat videos: the currency of the Internet. Anyway…

2013-01-08 Snickers fitbit week four
Daily breakdowns (31 Dec to 7 Jan)


2013-01-01 to 2013-01-07 (week four) summary
Week summary (1 Jan to 7 Jan)



  • I topped off the battery on Tuesday (1 Jan, 9:30-10:30 P.M.) after seeing a low battery warning. I must have failed to properly seat the tracker on the charger during the normal Monday charge window.

Undercover Mouse: How Is That Going?

  • Anecdotally: Awesome. Snickers loves this toy, and now that it is automated she gets more quality playtime with it than even the craziest of cat ladies could provide. She has learned to recognize the sound, and will regularly trot downstairs with a few moments of it activating.
  • Empirically: Might be too early to tell. Her weekly “step” totals (even when considering “steps” not counted during an extra hour of battery charging) are consistent with those of the weeks before this fancy Undercover Mouse setup. This may be her initial apprehension of the toy wearing off. When she first began playing with the UM she would sit in one place and cautiously poke at the wand whenever it approached her, as seen in the video. Jennie has informed me that Snickers has gotten better at playing with the toy over the week; she will now chase, jump, and even do quasi-somersaults trying to catch the wand. Another issue that may affect the results: Often when Snickers catches the wand, she will detach it from the UM (as designed) and bat it around the basement. Jennie or I will then find it -hours later- and reattach it. This likely means that several cycles go by with no wand attached, and probably therefore little or no cat exercise going on. Hmm.

I think another week of data collection (with this fancy Undercover Mouse in isolation) is warranted before I move on to the next hilariously over-engineered cat exercise system.