How to Choose the Right Tracking Devices for Pets
Keep Your Pet Healthy and Safe
Want some sober stats about everyday threats to your furry little companions? Dogs and cats are as prone to getting fat as us humans, especially older pets. PetMD says 17.6 percent of US dogs (13.9 million) are obese and 35.1 percent (29.9 million) are overweight. And according to the American Humane Association, more than 10 million pets—cats and dogs—go missing every year, either lost or stolen.
Those numbers are disconcerting, especially when you consider just how much happiness our fluffy friends bring into our lives. It’s our duty to keep them happy, healthy, and safe. And while regular trips to the vet along with some good old-fashioned TLC do wonders, technology can help play a pivotal role as well. We’ve tested plenty of pet trackers and GPS collars designed to trace your pet’s activity, location, and more. Here’s what to look for, along with our favorites.
How Pet Trackers Connect
All the trackers we’ve tested use apps for Android or iOS devices to give you a quick read on the data they collect. Few provide a web-based interface—PetPace does, but only to veterinarians who pay extra for it. Tractive offers a free web interface, but you still need the mobile app to use certain features. If you’re not a smartphone user, you’re probably not going to be a tracking customer.
Base stations are sometimes used to establish a line of communication between the tracker and your phone via Wi-Fi. They come in lots of shapes and sizes. The Fi and Link AKC have bases that double as battery chargers. The Whistle doesn’t need a separate base station—it has Wi-Fi built in, so it uses your home router to create the base station.
The majority of pet trackers use Bluetooth for the initial setup. A few use Bluetooth exclusively. For example, the Link AKC utilizes Bluetooth to talk to your smartphone and its base station/charger—as long as it’s within range of either, your pet is considered to be in a safe zone. It isn’t until your pet wanders out of range that the alerts arrive warning it might be on safari.
Tracking Your Pet’s Activity
The very first pet trackers were all about activity, like fitness trackers—we quantified them as “Fitbits for pets,” and that description still largely stands. Most of the trackers we’ve tested quantify activity to varying degrees.
Some have thrown themselves into the activity tracking business in a big way. PetPace, with a deep focus on dog health and working with vets, is all about generating reports on fitness, showing various movement levels from resting to high-activity, plus pulse and respiration. The Tractive Motion has graphs galore. Most of the trackers calculate activity using proprietary algorithms, so pick a device based on the activity that’s important to you.
Finding Your Pet Via GPS
GPS location is a primary reason for getting a tracker now. Note that trackers should be used in conjunction with microchips in a pet, not as a substitute. Most vets charge less than $50 to put the rice-sized permanent chip inside a pet. Ninety-nine percent of shelters and vet clinics have scanners. It’s about as foolproof a way of being reunited with a lost pet as exists.
If you’re in an area with coverage, the tracker sends your pet’s whereabouts to its companion app. It’s not always instantaneous—there can be a few minutes delay while the device realizes your pet is out of the safe zone. That’s enough time for a fast pet to make a getaway, but better than not knowing at all that Fido jumped the fence.
Personal tracking devices like the Tile Pro might look like good pet options, considering their battery life, small size, and affordable price. But pet-specific devices are made for collars (or come with collars) and are rugged. All are dirt- and water-resistant enough to handle a swim by more daring pet escapees.
Note that there are typically monthly or annual fees associated with GPS tracking; we break them down in each of our reviews.
How About Cats?
Many of the devices available are a trifle too big to effectively work on cats, or the algorithms used just don’t take the slinky movements of the feline into account the way they do a dopey, lumbering canine. If you want to track your cat, we’ve highlighted which devices do double-duty in the chart above.
Also consider size and weight for the different breeds of dogs. The smallest tracker we’ve tested is the Tractive Motion at just a quarter of an ounce; the Link AKC and PetPace are very large and work best with the collars that ship with the devices, though the collars come in various sizes.
What Else Can They Track?
A few of these devices try to track more than just activity and location. Temperature is one that comes up a lot, because hot cars are killers. Don’t leave your dog or cat inside, even with the windows down! That said, we’ve found temperature to be fairly inaccurate, be it from dogs sitting close to wood-fired stoves on a cold day, laying in the sun by the bay window, or just folding the tracker up into their neck while sleeping. It might not be a bad feature to have, but the warnings sometimes take on a boy-who-cried-wolf aspect.
Perhaps the biggest issue you’ll have with these devices is battery life and charging. Some have batteries that can last a month (Fi or Whistle), or just a couple of days at best (Link AKC). Not surprisingly, location services negatively impact battery life. If a dog is on an extended furlough without leave, talking to cell phone towers to get a GPS signal can chew through battery quickly. So find that missing pet fast.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the peace of mind these trackers provide. And after all the love your pet brings into your life, isn’t it the least you can do?
For more on taking care of your furry little friends, check out our picks for the best dog NDA testing kits.
Fi Smart Dog Collar
Pros: Monthlong battery life. Can set multiple safe zones and owners. Nice collar build/design. Waterproof.
Cons: Only works with included collar. Requires a base station.
Bottom Line: The Fi Smart Dog Collar tracks your pet’s activity and location while offering unbeatable battery life.
Link AKC Smart Collar
Pros: High-quality leather collar.
LED night light in tracker.
Stores maps and images of tracked activity.
Bigger houses may require additional base stations.
Ineffective temperature warnings in testing.
Bottom Line: The Link AKC Smart Collar thoroughly tracks your dog’s activity and location, but it’s a bit big and pricey compared with other options.
Pros: Tracks daily and monthly stats
Long battery life
Delivers health insights about scratching and licking
Offers personalized activity goals and food portion recommendations
Includes free televet consultations during COVID-19
Cons: No GPS or cellular location tracking
Requires a subscription plan
Bottom Line: The Whistle FIT is an affordable pet activity and health tracker that can help you make sure your cat or dog is getting enough exercise, the right amount of food, and identify potential medical issues.
Whistle GO Explore
Pros: Excellent battery life.
No base station required.
Multiple safe zones.
Night light for visual tracking.
Works for cats and dogs.
Cons: Lag for initial notification when pet is out of safe zone.
No web interface.
Bottom Line: The Whistle GO Explore pet tracker improves on the previous generation in nearly every way, while adding a few new tricks in the process.
Pros: Tracks heart rate, respiration, temperature, and calorie burn in addition to activity.
Long battery life.
Cons: Expensive monthly or annual fee.
Collar requires Gateway that must plug into home router.
Web-based dashboard is only for vets.
Bottom Line: The PetPace Collar measures a lot more than just your dog or cat’s activity levels, but it requires a pricey subscription fee.
Tractive GPS 3G Pet Tracker
Pros: Easy to share tracking account with others.
Good battery life.
Works with cats.
Cons: No activity tracking.
Lacks Bluetooth and Wi-Fi location services.
Proprietary charger and plastic clips for collars.
Notification lag time in testing.
Bottom Line: The Tractive 3G Pet Tracker can help you find a pet on the loose, but its GPS-only approach proves somewhat limiting.
Tractive Motion (pet activity monitor)
Pros: Clip-on activity monitor for your pet.
Small and light.
Recharges via USB.
Decent battery life.
Cons: Only syncs via Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi, so you can’t get updates when you’re away from your pet.
Some data points seem irrelevant.
Easily damaged; not rugged.
Bottom Line: Just how lazy is your cat or dog? You can find out by clipping a Tractive Motion pet activity tracker to its collar and syncing the data it collects to your phone via Bluetooth.
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