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Please note, this article is no longer being updated.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).

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

  1. I just wanted to make it clear that I currently only have hands-on experience with the Loc8tor Pet. However, I have also previously worked on several wildlife research projects using radio-telemetry to track wolves, bears, coyotes, and foxes. Not surprisingly, I am a little biased towards radio-tracking. I do have experience using GPS locators and GPS loggers, but not any of the ones designed for finding lost pets. I plan to acquire and test more GPS and radio-tracking devices in the future.

  2. As a wildlife biologist who used radio telemetry for many years for everything from spotted owls, to mountain goats, and Canada lynx….here is one thing to remember. You must turn the signal down until it is barely audible…then as you walk around it will either get louder or disappear. You know you’re heading the right way if it gets louder and louder which is why we turn it down so low in the beginning. It’s easier to detect the sound disappearing entirely or getting slightly louder if it’s kept at a very low volume…that way the only way it will get perceptibly louder is if you are getting closer to the animal. Also, there are a LOT of things that can interfere, buildings made of concrete, canyon walls, hills, etc. The signal can “bounce’ off of canyon walls and confuse the user. We often had to use helicopters/small aircraft which are, of course, not an option for cat owners…but we used them to prevent the “bounce” issue. You want a collar that has the closest possible accuracy, for example…down to 100 feet versus 200 feet. They’re a great tool, but still not infallible.
    C. Lee

  3. Well, is it possible then to have BOTH! mount the radio-tracking device onto the GPS collar. If your cat is worth its life, then why not have both. That way you are sure to locate the exact venue and find your cat without much difficulty.

    1. Earlier this year, I purchased a Tagg the Pet Tracker for my dog. I also attached a Loc8tor radio-tracker to his collar. This way the GPS gets me to the general area, and then I can find his exact location with the radio-tracker. So I would definitely agree that if your cat is big enough, using both is the best option. BTW: my dog also has a microchip and an ID tag because you can never be too careful.

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  6. I have both the Loc8tor and the LoCATor radio trackers. The LoCATor is better in every way, and I no longer use the Loc8tor.

    I have not tried any GPS unit, but the perpetual service fees and constant battery re-charging are real turn-offs.

    More to the point, my LoCATor can find my cat hiding in a specific rainwater sewer grate among other sewer grates that are less than 10 feet away. And 15 feet up a garage wall hiding behind a specific trim piece that makes the cat invisible from ground level.

    Try THAT with a GPS !
    Bottomline: GPS collars are just too imprecise, too big, and too power-hungry to be an effective solution for cats. Fine for dogs, but cats are a whole different “animal”.

  7. I found another GPS collar (for cats only) which looks and works even better than the pawtrack collar which I purchased/received a few month ago. Unfortunately the KADDZ GPS Collar is currently only available in Europe. More about: http://www.kaddz.com/en/.

    Or watch this short introduction video:
    https://www.facebook.com/kaddz.gps.cat.collar/videos/1688386348112627/

    It would be great if the KADDZ collar could be also tested/presented in this article in order to get an better overview of all current available GPS cat collars. Thanks

    1. Just checked out Kaddz site; got a notice that they are no longer in business after filing for bankruptcy. Thought you should know.

  8. I have the LoCATor for my Cheddar and it works amazing!! I live on 17 wooded acres and can always find him!!! I can even find just the collar if it happens to come off!! I highly recommend this radio tracking system for cats!!

  9. Good article! I also had this problem when searching for a cat tracker, I borrowed a few from friends for testing. The problem I had was the GPS trackers weigh quite a bit and that must be uncomfortable for the cats, also when my cats were in garages/sheds/cellars the GPS signal had problems determining where they were. Eventually I bought a Miaufinder system, it’s much lighter and uses RF – it had no problems finding my cats in small confined places. Also, no subscription fee!
    Have a look if you’re looking for another option.

    1. Thanks for sharing. The Miaufinder looks like a good option. I just checked their website and it says it is approved and used throughout Europe. I wish it were available in the US as well.

  10. Thank you for a fantastic informative article!
    And great comments from everyone, especially the tip with keeping the volume down from Camryn.
    Would love you to update with some other cat trackers such as the PetFinder LF (https://pettracking.co.nz/products/petfinder-lr-multi-all-new-2017-model) which uses radio frequency and has a range of 500 metres direct line of sight or 300 metres in built up areas.
    Also the Ping GPS which is a new product that they expect to ship out in Nov 2017. It iss incredibly small (40mm x 40mm) so great for cats and boosts a rechargeable battery life of 3 weeks. Sounds too good to be true!

  11. I can second the Loc8tor system. I have tried several different types of pet trackers on my cats but keep coming back to the simplicity of the Loc8tor. I tried Tagg. The tracker was fairly large and it worked OK but the lack of swappable batteries and short (1-3 days real world use) battery life was a dealbreaker. Plus its a subscription based service which I don’t care for.

    Guardian. Its OK but gimicky compared to Loc8tor plus its not as easy to upgrade to more trackers. I did not find hte real world range to be any better than Loc8tor.

    TrackR. I love the swappable battery and the combination of bluetooth and crowd sourcing but it takes a very long time to make a connection, so long its practically useless in a real wold search and rescue.

    So Loc8tor is my favorite. That said I have a few points ot make

    The parent company has released a number of products for different markets under different names:

    Brickhouse tracker
    Loc8tor
    Tabcat
    Ski Retriever

    Of these only Tabcat is currently (1/2018) still being sold but all can be found used on Amazon, Ebay and online vendors.

    IMO the original silver bodied Loc8tor plus/Brickhouse child locator handset is the best. It allows up to 32 tags to be registered vs the black handsets 4 and has a nice backlit display with a text interface. You can name the tag instead of assigning it a button as on the black handsets. On the technical front the silver handset uses a YAGI directional antenna with the driver and reflector in the body of the handset and two passive elements on the underside of the sliding cover. (pretty sure the black handsets do too but I haven’t pulled one apart to confirm) This means its critical to open the cover of the silver handsets to its stop and to not break off the cover for it to work properly. The rated range with this unit is 600 ft line of sight with the original silver oval tags. Some enthusiasts have hacked these systems to improve the range and directionality using add on antennas. If you are skilled in RF antenna design this may be worth a try as adding passive elements can increase range and directionality. That is one thing I like about the silver handsets, they are easy to experiment on without wrecking anything. The tag internals are also easily accessible for anyone brave and knowledgeable enough to attempt an improvement there.

    There is an even easier way to increase the range. Ditch the original oval tags in favor of the newer larger round tags. Loc8tor claims these are fully compatible with older handsets. These use a CR2032 battery and despite being larger still fit comfortably on a 10 lb cat. In my real world field testing the black and silver oval tags performed (not surprisingly) identically but the larger round tags yielded TWICE the range of the smaller tags. With steel reinforced buildings in the way the signal dropped on both but I was able to get pings with the rounds tags unobtainable with the oval.

    While it is a hassle to buy a silver handset and round tags this combination will offer the best performance.

  12. Yes,
    Came in quick! Ordered on a Friday and came in on a Sunday!! Looks cute on my cat but it seems to be a bit small, though he is a long haired 11lb cat. I got a Large. But I’d say it works if I can get my cat to get used to it haha.

  13. cat loc8ator didn’t work for me though maybe it has been updated,
    the black device was impossible to tell if it was on or off so the battery was always running down,
    also it just didn’t work unless the cat was within ten yards

    What I wand is a camera collar as my cat is ‘dining out’ at a neighbours and being enticed to move in.
    I need proof where he is going.

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