Fast asleep he may appear, but as soon as a door or window opens, up comes his periscope head. If you aren’t quick enough, or the lock doesn’t click, he’s gone. Next thing, the whole family is out with torches (not the flaming kind but it feels that way) until he’s found and returned.
We do this because outdoor cats run a high risk of road trauma, fight abscesses and FIV infection. But sometimes he’s impossible to find. So I’ve always been interested in smart tech to help me, and recently I invested in an AirTag.
However, it may not be the best option.
Cat Tracking Options
Here’s a summary of the cat trackers available in Australia and their pros and cons. Please note that microchips do not have any tracking ability and must be actively scanned by a hand-held reader.
GPS Cat Trackers
These are devices that use satellites to fix your cat’s position to within metres. The signal is then usually sent back to your phone via a sim card and mobile phone connection. Therefore you need to make sure that anything you buy will work in the country where you live.
- Work anywhere there’s mobile reception
- The only reliable way to get real time information
- Require an ongoing subscription to pay for mobile telephony
- Relatively expensive (from $100)
- The heaviest option (from 30g)
- Require frequent recharging (every 5 days or so)
Bluetooth Trackers e.g Tile & BlaqWolf
These trackers use a downloadable app and the bluetooth signal on your smartphone to locate your pet. The tracker is located in one of two ways:
- If it’s within bluetooth range, by using the app on your phone
- When someone else with the app comes within range
- Lightweight and can be attached to collars in most cases
- Less expensive
- Good battery life (around a year)
- Limited range but probably more than AirTag
- Once the cat is out of your bluetooth range, you are relying on other users of the same system to be near it
Apple’s tracker also uses bluetooth. It shares the same pros and cons as Tile and other bluetooth trackers, with one important exception: there are many more users. When marked as ‘lost’ it is picked up by iPhones within range using the Find My feature and a signal is sent back to your phone.
AirTag can be used with non-Apple phones as well. An iPhone user who finds it can also tap it to reveal contact information.
Here are my personal experiences:
- Its bluetooth range seems very short; inside the house I only get around 10 metres before it is unfindable, or 20 metres outside.
- It weighs 18g including holder which is probably heavier than Tile but seems well tolerated (more on this later)
- I left it on a park walking track and received a message about every 10 minutes with its location but this will depend on the number of passers by
- In real life many notifications will be out of date by the time you receive them as your cat will have moved
- It does not work when in motion; your cat needs to have stopped to be located
- It only pairs to one Apple ID (this is a key difference with app-based Bluetooth trackers); other devices can use the FindMy feature as long as they are logged in as you
- It uses a CR2032 button battery, which are extremely toxic if swallowed (this hazard would mainly apply to dogs)
- The shiny side gets very dirty (or do I just have a dirty cat?)
Information posted by Apple since release tells us that AirTags will now beep at a random time between eight and 24 hours after being separated from an iPhone. This is to prevent them being used for stalking, but it will have the unintended consequence of your cat beeping unexpectedly if you are away! How much this bothers them I cannot say.
Apple are also releasing an Android app later in 2021 so that the tags can be detected by non-iPhone users.
AirTag Cat Collar Attachment
I bought the ‘Belkin Secure Holder with Keyring for AirTag’ for $20. The supplied keyring is too big so I replaced it with a small one and it hangs well at my cat’s neck without too much swinging.
The holder can be written on but writing tends to rub off. I plan to lightly engrave the plastic with my phone number and address instead. I’m avoiding engraving the AirTag itself until it’s out of warranty (Apple offer free engraving but only four characters or emojis).
I have seen special cat collars with inserts for AirTag available online but have no idea how secure or comfortable they are.
Is The AirTag Worth Buying For Cats?
Although the AirTag is not designed for tracking cats and has many serious flaws, it is inexpensive and well-tolerated. As long as people understand what it cannot do, its great advantage is being detectable by the large number of iPhone users in your suburb.
If your cat goes outside regularly, and you want to know where they go, a GPS tracker would be a much better option. As a backup system for an indoor cat, my view is that it’s a worthwhile investment.
But my golly, how grateful will I be for your views (in the comments below) if you use any trackers!
Disclaimer: I’m no tech-head and could have made some basic errors so please don’t rely solely on this information! Perhaps I should stick to my day job instead…
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!