It's getting dark—better close up the house. What's that? The cat's still outside?! If only you could keep tabs on your tabby while he's out and about—oh wait, you can. Radio and GPS collars and microchips can help you cope with your cuddly cat's wanderlust.
Wandering and Wondering
Ever wonder where your cat goes when he leaves the house? It might surprise you that he probably stays pretty close to home. A two-year study via the University of Illinois—purportedly the largest, most extensive project of its kind—showed pet cats patrol an average area of nearly 5 acres. (Feral cats worked swaths as large as 1,351 acres.) Scientists cataloged their movements via sophisticated tracking collars. You can electronically track your cat with similar devices, including GPS and radio collars. You won't get detailed data but, when your cat is unaccounted for, commercial tracking technology can help you find him or give you peace of mind by telling you he's near. An identification microchip is a good backup, too.
One of the most popular electronic tracking devices for people and pets is GPS—short for Global Positioning System. This technology uses a network of space satellites initially developed in 1973. If your cat has a GPS tracking collar, you can pinpoint his exact latitude and longitude. Most services provide information via cell phone or website and often charge monthly fees. One caveat: many GPS collars are too heavy for cats. As technology advances, hardware is getting smaller and more cat-friendly models should become more widely available (and affordable). Remote areas aren't always GPS-accessible, but that's becoming less and less of an issue.
Radio Free Feline
A short-range radio collar may be a better way to keep an eye on your cat. These trackers periodically send out a beacon signal via radio waves. Radio collars are lighter and less obtrusive, so cats are more likely to tolerate them and less likely to give them the slip. The devices use free radio bandwidths, so there are no monthly fees à la GPS. The trade-off is precision. Radio collar signals convey relative distance and location, not exact coordinates. That means you'll be playing a game of "hot and cold" if you try to meet up with your wandering cat. Stand still and watch to see if your cat is on the move before beginning a headlong pursuit.
Chip off the Ol' Motherboard
If you've got an indoor-outdoor cat who's prone to wandering and slipping his collar, a technology-based backup plan can help. Multiple companies offer identification microchips that vets can implant in your cat. It's become common practice for animal shelter employees to check incoming pets for these chips—they're usually implanted between the shoulder blades, where animals can't mess with them. They don't tell you where your cat is, but they can tell whoever finds him how to get him back to you. There's no standard for chip frequency or scanner, but the presence of the device alone lets people know the cat has an owner. If scanned properly, a registered microchip references a database with your contact information. According to an Ohio State University study, cats who have microchips and end up in animal shelters are 20 times more likely to be returned to their owners than cats who don't.
- University of Illinois News Bureau: Researchers Track the Secret Lives of Feral and Free-Roaming House Cats
- Pets Lobby: GPS Cat Tracking Collars
- GPS Tracking Systems: GPS Pet Tracking Options
- Environmental Studies: Cat Tracking—Find Your Lost Cat with a Cat Tracker
- The Ohio State University Indoor Pet Initiative: Microchip Fact Sheet
- The Ohio State University Research News: Microchips Result in High Rate of Return of Shelter Animals to Owners
- MyHealthyCat.com: Microchipping Your Cat for Extra Safety
- National Academy of Public Administration: The Global Positioning System
- Louisiana State University: Veterinary Emergency Preparedness & Response
- Digital Lifestyles: Cat GPS Tracking
- The Top Cat Shop: Cat Tracking Collars
- Medill Reports -- Chicago: Microchips 101—What Every Pet Owner Needs to Know
- Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images