Track your wandering pet with the latest tech

Claire Fleming sits with her golden retriever Oscar in her camper van. (Claire Fleming)

Is your fur baby constantly struggling with wanderlust? Have a hound that’s more of a Houdini? If the answer to these questions is yes, tech is here to help. There are dozens of pet-tracking systems available online and in stores with a variety of prices, user ratings and features. We’ve asked experts to weigh in on some of these devices that will help you contain, track and manage your escape artist.

Smart collars

For pets that like to wander, experts recommend a tracking system that uses a combination of GPS and cellular networks. Some pet tracking systems allow you to configure “safe zones,” which function as a smart fence, for owners without a fully fenced property.

Daniel Caughill, co-founder of the pet website The Dog Tale, tried a GPS collar with a smart fence feature for his dog Hobbes, a hyperactive mini goldendoodle who is everyone’s best friend. The collar emitted a buzz if Hobbes wandered outside of the smart fence boundaries.

“Unfortunately, this buzz didn’t faze Hobbes at all,” says Caughill. “He would just keep trotting along like nothing happened.”

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Caughill also used the smart collar to find Hobbes if he bolted. “I liked that I could track my dog’s general location, but the results were always delayed by a couple of minutes, so it was tough to pinpoint his location if he ran off. My favorite parts of the collar were the light you could turn on for night walks, and the fact that it tracked his steps. But neither of those features were worth the high cost.”

Claire Fleming, a full-time traveler and founder of travel website Everywhere With Claire, uses the Fi smart collar for Oscar, her 4-year-old golden retriever.

Oscar the dog looks outside a van window.
Oscar looks outside a van window. (Claire Fleming)

“I love that it has a long battery life, so I only have to charge it every other week,” says Fleming. “There’s an app on my phone I can use to see my dog’s location and I even get push notifications if he walks too far away from the base station (which is located in my camper van).”

So far, Oscar has managed to return to the camper on his own every time.

“Luckily, we’ve never had an issue with him getting lost, but because we move around so much, I worry that if he does ever wander too far, he’ll be less likely to find his way back because ‘home’ looks different each day.”

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The Fi collar also offers health-monitoring capabilities, like step tracking and sleep monitoring, so pet parents can find the right balance of activity and rest for their four-legged family members, all trackable via a smartphone app.

Another popular pet fitness tracker is the FitBark. In addition to its location tracking features, FitBark monitors activity, sleep and even bad habits — like excessive licking or scratching — that can alert pet parents to potential health issues. FitBark can also link to human health trackers on wearables like Apple Watch or Google Pixel for a one-stop fitness shop for the whole family.

Smart tags

A much cheaper pet-tracking option is smart tags. Now, to be clear, smart tags are designed to locate inanimate objects, like wallets or suitcases, and aren’t meant to track pets, but they’re used by plenty of pet owners nonetheless.

Jackie Vu is an attorney in Los Angeles. Her cat, Binjy, is a bit of a flâneuse (look it up) and will sometimes disappear for one or two weeks at a time. Vu uses an Apple AirTag, attached to Binjy’s collar, to get a general sense of where she is.

A person holds an Apple AirTag tracking device.
A person holds an Apple AirTag tracking device. (The Washington Post via Getty Im)

“She’s pretty adept at living on the streets,” says Vu. “When she’s gone, the AirTag lets me track her general location. When I decide it’s time to find her again, I’ll go to the last location the AirTag has given for her; sometimes she’s still there and I can get close enough to connect to the AirTag and hear it beeping.”

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Designed to save battery life, AirTags don’t update their location as often as a GPS-based smart collar. Also, because AirTags rely on the Apple network using Bluetooth to connect to other Apple devices, they generally won’t work in sparsely populated areas. However, in cities like Los Angeles or Toyko or Berlin, that’s usually not a problem.

The humble microchip

Although it might seem less sexy than a GPS tracker, where there’s no collar or map app to track your pet, the basic microchip is a reliable way to find your lost pet, assuming you keep your contact information up-to-date with the chip company and veterinarian.

Also, because it’s embedded in your pet, a microchip still does the job even if your pet isn’t wearing their collar. No need to worry about charging a battery or losing an expensive piece of technology.

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Senior content strategist Noe Rios rescued a puppy on the side of the road, adopted her and named her Kodi. Being a responsible pet dad, Rios had Kodi vaccinated and microchipped as soon as she was old enough. And it was a good decision. Shortly after the family had moved to a new home, Kodi bolted from the yard following a summertime bath.

“When I realized she’d run off without her collar, I freaked out,” says Rios. “I had totally forgotten that she was microchipped. Within an hour, I got a call from the microchip service — a neighbor had found her and, seeing that she was freshly bathed, took her straight to the vet to see if she was chipped. She was back with us 30 minutes later. I quickly ran out and bought my new neighbor a gift basket to say thanks.”