GPS versus Radio-Tracking: pros and cons for finding cats

Please note, this article is no longer being updated.  I have since written a new article which better describes the differences between GPS and radio-trackers and highlights a few of my recommended products.  Be sure to check out: Best Cat Tracking Devices.

There are both GPS trackers and radio-tracking devices available to help you find your cat if they ever go missing.  This article explains how both types of devices work and their pros and cons for use with cats, especially since many of them are designed for dogs.  All of the devices described here must be attached to either a collar or harness.  Several research studies have found that the risk of cats getting injured by a collar is highly exaggerated, and your cat is at a much higher risk of becoming lost and never found.  Contrary to the belief of some lost pet owners, microchips do not have any tracking abilities.  In order for your cat to be found with a microchip, they must be caught and brought into a vet or animal shelter where they can be scanned (and the microchip must be registered and have up-to-date contact information).

GPS trackers rely on satellite signals and can remotely tell you where you cat is located as long as it can pick up a signal.  The location can often be transmitted to your computer or cell phone.  One main drawback to GPS trackers is that they may not be able to transmit a signal if your cat is in a building or underground or sometimes even if the sky is heavily overcast.  However, some GPS trackers also use cellular signals and this can increase reliability depending on coverage.  These are called A-GPS or Assisted GPS.  There is usually some error in the transmitted location and you will probably have to physically search an area to find out exactly where your cat is located.  Most GPS trackers also require payment of a monthly service fee or prepay program similar to cell phones.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of the GPS is its relatively short battery life.  I use Whistle 3 on my dog, and I have to recharge it every 1-2 weeks.  As long as your pet remains within the home area the tracker will remain in power-saving mode and could last up to a month (in theory).  However, when I travel away from home with my dog, the GPS battery dies within 2-3 days.  The Whistle tracker uses a smartphone app and will send you notification a when the battery level is low.

There are numerous dog GPS trackers but most are too heavy for a cat.  The recommended maximum weight for a cat to carry is 40 grams or approximately 1.5 ounces.  There are  several GPS trackers designed for cats that are available in the US, but these are generally only recommended for cats weighing 8-10 lbs or more.  These include the GPS CatTrack Live (TK201) available from Mr. Lee’s CatTrack and Whistle 3.  PawTrax, which offers a pre-payment plan rather than a monthly fee, may now be available for purchase in the US.  Pawtrack created a new GPS tracker in 2015 designed specifically for cats that looks very promising, but is often out of stock.  Many GPS collars are bulky and dangle from the cats collar, but Pawtrack’s is integrated into the cat’s collar.  Nuzzle came out with a small GPS-integrated collar that does not require monthly fees, but the reviews so far do not inspire confidence.

With a radio-tracking device, your cat wears a small transmitter on his/her collar, and you have to walk around with a receiver to try and locate your cat.  The basic principal is that the receiver will beep louder the closer you get to your cat.  Radio-trackers can transmit signals through buildings, so you can still locate your cat if s/he was trapped in a shed or basement.  The main drawback to radio-collars is that they usually have a limited range, generally anywhere from 100 feet to 1 mile depending on the strength of the signal and the terrain you are searching.  The signal will travel much farther in open areas compared to wooded areas or through buildings.   With more powerful radio-trackers, the signal may also bounce off of buildings or mountains making locating your cat more difficult.  You may need to practice a lot with your radio-tracker to become proficient with using it.

There are currently several radio-tracking collars available in the US: TabCat (formerly Loc8tor Pet), LoCATor, and Marco PoloTabCat costs around $100 (for 2 transmitters and 1 receiver) and has a maximum range of 100-400 feet.  The LoCATor costs around $50 per radio-collar and $250 for the receiver and antenna, and it has a maximum signal range of 600 feet (city) to 1 mile (open country).  To operate the LoCATor you are also supposed to obtain an Amateur Radio Operators license from the FCC.  Marco Polo costs around $200 for one transmitter and receiver and additional pets cost around $100/ea.  The tracking tags are slightly larger, but will work on cats of at least 5 lbs.  The range detection range of the Marco Polo is reported up to 2 miles in open terrain.

Radio-tracking devices are a good option for finding a lost cat for several reasons:

  • Most lost indoor-only cats do not travel more than 500 feet from where they go missing and nearly all of them are found within 1/4 mile.  (Lost outdoor-access cats may travel a mile or more from home so adding a GPS would be the safest option if you can afford it.)
  • Lost cats have a greater tendency to get lost and trapped within their own homes or outside in sheds, garages, and basements.
  • Cats are excellent hiders and a lost cat will frequently run and hide even from their owners.  A radio-tracker allows you to track down the exact location of your cat while a GPS tracker will just give you a general area.
  • Radio-trackers are much smaller than GPS trackers and can easily be attached to a break-away cat collar.  Also if your cat loses their collar, you should still be able to locate the collar and tracking transmitter.
  • Batteries will often last 4-6 months (at least in the Tabcat) before requiring replacement.  (However, unlike many of the GPS trackers, they will not warn you when the battery level is low.)

I originally wrote this article in 2011 and have updated it over the years (most recently in 2018).  At this point, I still recommend a radio-tracker for indoor-only cats, but for outdoor-access cats, I actually recommend both a GPS collar and radio-tracking device if you want to be extra-safe.  I’ve had several outdoor-access cats go missing while wearing the Tabcat (formerly called Loc8tor Pet) and it was difficult to locate them.  In both cases, posters had to be used to generate sightings and then the Loc8tor was used to track down the cat at the sighting.  At this point, most of my experience is with TabCat and Whistle 3, both of which I would recommend.

See also my review of the Loc8tor Pet (now redesigned as TabCat).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

24 thoughts on “GPS versus Radio-Tracking: pros and cons for finding cats”