When I was planning moving aboard a boat with my adopted cat Kevin, I started researching everything I needed to know to keep him safe on a sailing vessel. I went down all of the rabbit-holes of emergency medical care, nutrition, seasickness and how to find him if he ever gets lost.
I was disappointed to find that the cat (and dog) tracker products on the market were confusing. It wasn't entirely clear how they worked just by reading product descriptions and marketing websites alone and I never trust product reviews on the internet these days. Suitably perturbed, I started getting deeper and deeper into the world of "how the heck do I track my pet" — and I discovered that there's simply no one-size-fits-all.
I wish this information was easier to discover, so I wrote this article with everything I've learnt. I hope you find it useful!
This article does not review individual tracking devices and it is not a "top 10 cat trackers" list. Instead, it explains how different types of tracker actually work, to give you the information you need to make better purchasing decisions for your specific circumstances. I am not affiliated with any of the products listed in this article, nor do I make any commission at all.
TL;DR (this article is 2,600+ words)
We're gonna talk about how GPS, radio frequency and bluetooth cat trackers work in detail. If you only have a few minutes, here's some quick links and answers.
- Have an indoor cat that likes to hide in the house? Consider a Tile ($) or an Apple Airtag ($)
- Got a supervised adventure cat? Look into the TabCat ($$) Apple Airtag ($) or a cellular GPS option like 🇺🇸 Whistle, Tractive, 🇪🇺 Weenect or 🌏 Pawtrack ($$$$)
- Cat goes out unsupervised in an urban area where 4G is available?
🇺🇸 Whistle, Tractive, 🇪🇺 Weenect or 🌏 Pawtrack ($$$$)
- Live in a remote place, on a boat or in an RV? Read the whole thing. You knew this life wasn't gonna be easy! 😉
Types of cat tracking devices
The most common options for tracking your feline can be categorised by the type of technology they use. This is important to understand since it should give you the knowledge required to decide what you need for your cat.
We're going to take a look at:
- Radio frequency trackers
- Bluetooth trackers with a mesh network
- GPS trackers that rely on a cell connection
- GPS trackers that don't rely on a cell connection
RF radio frequency trackers
Radio trackers use a radio frequency to connect a device that you hold in your hand to a tracker on your pets collar or harness. This gives you a "hot or cold" type of feedback loop to figure out where your cat has got to.
Most devices in this category use sounds and lights to indicate when you're getting closer to your pet and come with several benefits such as long battery life and high accuracy (to within an inch).
These devices are not GPS based, and can't tell you the exact whereabouts of your cat, but they're a great backup to help you find your cat within a short distance.
- Pros: High accuracy, affordable with no subscription fees, longest battery life, lightweight and compact trackers suitable for cats are available
- Cons: Limited range, most useful if your pet is always supervised, no GPS location
- Trackers that fall into this category: TabCat by Loc8tr, Marco Polo
Bluetooth trackers like the popular Tile are being used by more and more pet owners lately, with good reason. They're small, easy to attach to a collar, affordable, and offer peace of mind when it comes to locating your cat.
These tracking devices were designed to be put on your keys or in your backpack, and use Bluetooth to send a signal between your smartphone and the Tile device, which makes a beeping sound to help you locate it. Different models of the tile vary in range between 150ft to 400ft. Since Bluetooth requires line-of-sight, the Tile is most useful to track your cat inside your home or garden.
One extra feature is that if your Tile is out of range of your phone, you can still see the last known location on a map. This feature uses a mesh network — and relies on there being other Tiles within Bluetooth range of each other to update their location. If you're not in an urban area, don't expect this feature to work well.
- Pros: Affordable, compact, great battery life, tracking device can make a sound to help you locate the pet
- Cons: Relies on other devices nearby within Bluetooth range, not useful in a remote location, very short range
- Trackers that fall into this category: Tile, Cube, Cat Tailer, Pawscout, Key Finders on Amazon.
Update [April 2021]: Apple have now released a Tile competitor called AirTag which has more features than Tile and is worth considering if you're already an Apple user. The AirTags allow you to use the "Find My" app to locate them, and since there are far more Apple devices in the world than Tiles, you're much more likely to get a location if your cat strays away from home. They can also be marked as lost, with a scannable phone number which is a really neat feature.
Cellular GPS trackers
GPS tracking devices for pets typically use a combination of GPS plus cellular data to track your cat. The Global Positioning System (GPS explained) allows receivers (like your phone, or a cat tracker) to calculate their distance from four or more satellites in space, to pinpoint a location with precision.
So while a cat tracker may well be a GPS device that can determine it's own location without internet, it still needs a method of sending the location to you so you can keep an eye on your pet. This is where cellular data comes in, which is an affordable and accessible method to do this.
This means that these trackers require a subscription that you need to purchase from the manufacturer, or in some cases you're able to insert your own SIM card into the device. Either way, it's not a one-off investment.
- Pros: Real-time tracking, provides an actual map location using GPS, no distance limitations, some products are lightweight enough for cats
- Cons: Most expensive option with monthly fees, relies on cell data, batteries need replacing or charging a lot
- Trackers that fall into this category: Tractive, Whistle, Weenect, Jiobit, Fi, Gibi, Tracki, Pawtrack, Geozilla (use your own SIM).
Side note: The Pawtrack is the only GPS tracker which claims to cover the entire world by connecting to various cell networks depending on where you are. It also uses GLONASS and Galileo in addition to GPS (alternative global navigation satellite systems) which would suggest this tracker is the most accurate. I haven't personally used it though, so I can't comment on whether their website claims hold up.
Pet trackers that require a subscription may seem expensive at first glance, but this reliance on a cell network gives you the most accurate long-range tracking solution for pets that can fit into a lightweight device. This extra cost buys you a significant advantage over any other type of pet tracker.
GPS trackers that don't rely on a cellular connection
If you start searching for GPS pet trackers which don't require a monthly subscription or a cell connection, you'll begin to find more professional satellite tracking products like the Spot Trace or the Garmin Astro 430 (which costs $649 and is for sporting dogs). You'll notice that these types of products are more expensive and much bigger in size — and frankly, most people's circumstances don't call for these types of tracker.
The Spot Trace satellite tracking device is most often used by people who want to track costly possessions (boats and cars). Rather than using a cellular network like 3G or 4G — the Spot uses satellite internet to send its location. Therefore, it does still require a monthly subscription, but it can be used almost anywhere in the world. It's not a designated pet product, but it's actually quite affordable to buy the device and the monthly costs are similar to what you'd pay for a GPS tracker with cellular subscription.
The biggest downside is that it's quite bulky, coming in at almost 7cm height and 88 grams in weight, so it would be quite a challenge to attach to your cat.
Some GPS trackers aren't really GPS trackers 🚨
There are some products I've seen which claim to be GPS, but if you look closer they're actually RF devices that piggyback on the GPS on your phone.
These products tend to be in the more affordable range and marketed as GPS trackers that don't require a cellular network connection or monthly subscription. If you dig deeper, you'll see that they also have a range limit of 3-4 miles. Examples of these products include the Findster Duo and PetFon.
There's technically nothing wrong with these products, they probably work just as well as any other RF device because they're using the same technology. But they're not true GPS trackers.
It's important to note that the map you see with these types of tracker is an estimated position based on the radio frequency direction and intensity. Plus, there are more points of failure using this type of technology, because you're relying on the RF devices, a bluetooth connection to your phone, and on your phones GPS to all be working. If any of these fail, it simply won't work.
I'd much rather see a product be fully transparent about what it does at a glance. Unfortunately, the pet industry is largely unregulated — especially pet food but that's another topic. Many pet owners (myself included) fall for these marketing tactics because we want to keep our pets safe and happy.
Choosing a tracker for your needs
There's no right or wrong answer. Everyone has different needs depending on what you're purchasing a cat tracker for. One thing we all have in common is the need to understand that there is always a risk that an unsupervised animal could get into trouble.
None of the trackers money can buy will have the same success rate as keeping your pet enclosed and keeping them on a harness and leash when outside. You should always get your pets micro chipped too, and put contact details on their collar as the most basic requirements.
Beyond that many of us want a solution that will give us peace of mind, provide a backup in case of emergencies or in some cases, we simply want to know what our pets get up when they're outside. That is where trackers are useful.
Below are a few of the most common scenarios and a very brief buying guide. Ultimately the choice is yours and I hope the information in this article has already given you a good idea of what is right for you!
🏡 My pet never leaves the house
If you never let your cat out of the house but want something to help track them down when their game of hide and seek gives you heart palpitations, you can definitely consider some of the more budget options such as a Bluetooth tracker or an RF tracker.
I've seen people successfully use the Tile to find where their cats are hiding in the house. It's cheap and compact, has enough range for this scenario. Many people also train their pets to associate the Tile's beeping with treat time, which is a great idea.
🦮 I take my pet for supervised walks and adventures
Most people who take their pets out on walks are looking for a backup solution in case of emergency. This is especially important if you trust your pet to explore off-leash. In this scenario you could pick either of these two options:
- RF tracker — this is a highly accurate and affordable option, and since you're always supervising, it should be enough to get you out of a tight spot if your pet manages to wander away from you.
- Cellular GPS tracker — if you're willing to spend more on the monthly fees, this would be a more robust option which may offer better peace of mind.
🐈⬛ My pet is allowed to roam, or leaves the house at free will
At this point you're probably going to need both range and location to stand a chance of finding your cat. A cellular GPS tracker with a subscription would be a great option so you can monitor your pets roaming activities without any distance limits and keep a close eye on what they're up to.
I've also seen some people use RF devices in this scenario who have had success with walking out of the house and following the trail. But if you have a cat with a larger territory and you have no idea where they roam, then this might not work very well which would be very frustrating.
⛵️I live on the water
For all my fellow cruisers who are worried about their pet taking a fall in the drink, you might want to consider something totally different like the OLAS GPS Crew Tracker. Most coastal and offshore cruisers use these devices for crew members, especially on a night passage. The OLAS (Overboard Location Alert System) device is useful if you allow your cat to roam free on your boat, especially at anchor or on passage, where there is a greater risk that they'll become a cat overboard.
You could use this as your on-the-boat solution to make sure your cat isn't stuck in the water, and switch to your preferred tracker when you take your cat to land, or if you're in a marina and your cat is allowed on the docks. If you're a global cruiser, don't forget that cellular GPS trackers are sometimes restricted to certain countries with the exception of Pawtrack.
🌎 I live in a remote place where cellular connection is poor
If you're remote with little connectivity, there's no perfect solution, but a GPS tracker that relies on a cell network is clearly not a good choice here.
If you're looking for a backup option for a supervised pet who doesn't stray far, you can try an RF based tracker like the TabCat. If you'd prefer to use GPS then you'll need to consider something powered by satellite internet like the Spot Trace.
I decided to go for the TabCat for Kevin. He is very much supervised because he is clumsy and already had one life threatening car accident when living on land. I'm going to take him for adventures in a harness, and might not always have 4G on my phone, so the TabCat is perfect for us.
I put the second tracker tab on his regular collar which he wears all the time, so I can use it to make sure he isn't stuck in the bilge or engine compartment when I can't find him on the boat. You can track up to 4 cats (or 4 collars/harnesses) with one TabCat, but you'd need to buy an extra two tabs.
We will invest in the OLAS which we'll use for everyone on board when it's needed. I'm thinking Kevin will be allowed to wander the boat when at a calm anchorage, so it's perfect for those times.
When we cruise in more remote locations without cellular connection, I might consider finding a way to attach a Spot Trace to his harness. But we're a few years away from planning a trip to the South Pacific!