GPS Pet Trackers – How do they actually work?

GPS Pet Trackers - True GPS

Oddly enough, when we talk about GPS pet trackers, often the device we imagine in our heads does not use GPS at all. What we imagine is some kind of cool technology that will simply tell us the location of our pet. After all, that’s what we are looking for, isn’t it? Some kind of pet tracking device that will give us peace of mind, that if Fido or Fluffy or even Black Beauty wander out of our vision, that we will be confident that at no stage will they become ‘Lost’. There are various types of pet locating technology, each one designed for a specific purpose or situation.

GPS Trackers or Pet Locators, whether specifically designed for pets or for general use (many of which are perfectly suitable for tracking pets), usually work using one of four different types of technology, or a combination of them. Understanding these technologies, their benefits and their limitations, will help you make a more informed choice when choosing the pet locator that fits best with you and your furry friend (No offense to Mexican Hairless dog owners!).

RFID TagRFID – Radio Frequency Identification

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems are made up of two parts. A reader and a tag. The reader is usually a hand held device, and when activated, will send a ‘request’ to the tag. The tag, which can be as small as 10 mm wide and 4mm deep, and either incorporated into its own collar, or clipped onto an existing collar, ‘answers’ the request from the reader. Using a combination of lights and sounds, the handheld base unit will tell you how far away your pet is, and in what direction – a bit like a game of ‘Marco Polo’. The Tabcat tracker (left) is a good example of an RFID cat collar.

RFID tags are incredibly accurate and can pinpoint your furry friend to within a few centimetres, require no internet – great for finding Fluffy snuggled under the bed or behind the sofa, the offset being that range can be limited at best, to within about 150 meters of the hand held device. No subscriptions or ongoing costs are incurred, and with low energy needs, batteries can last anywhere from a year to a decade depending on usage, before they will need replacing.


GPS Pet TrackersBluetooth trackers communicate in a similar way to RFID, in that two or more devices ‘pair’ with each other to communicate. The difference from RFID is that many Bluetooth devices can be paired together, and each one of the devices can communicate with each other. The ‘reader’ tends to be a smartphone or smart device with an associated app, meaning that there can be much greater functionality. The tag is slightly larger than an RFID tag, but these tags can be attached to key rings, cell phones, laptops, anything really, making them much more multi-purpose. Some Bluetooth trackers will sound an alarm on your phone when your pet moves out of range, and indicate on a map where the tracker was when it went out of range. Some will pinpoint the location of the tracker on a map providing it is within range…. and there lies the catch. Most Bluetooth trackers have a range of only 30-60 meters on average, although ‘brand’ communities, like Tile (pictured), are now forming, where device owners are working together within the ‘App Space’ to help each other find misplaced pets and items.

Due to its range limitations, Bluetooth pet trackers tend to work best when used in conjunction with GPS technology to provide a more informative service. Batteries in tags can last 6 months to a year on standby, but a constantly running Bluetooth signal will drain a smartphone battery in a few hours.
There are no subscription costs associated with Bluetooth trackers, just the upfront cost, which can vary, although they tend to be slightly more expensive due their multi functional nature and smartphone compatibility. Some, like the the Tile Tracker, will also track your pets’ activity and diet!



WiFi Pet trackers use WiFi hotspots to triangulate the location of a tag attached to your pet. The tag calculates its distance from a hotspot based on the strength of the signal it receives from the hotspot. When the tag has received signal strength data from three different hotspots and can calculate its distance from each, then its location relative to the hotspots can be determined.

Every hotspot has its own unique MAC address, which relates to a physical address, meaning that once the three signals have been received, the geographical location of the tag (and the pet it is attached to), can be determined within a 5 – 10 meter radius. The location is then pinpointed on a map which is viewed on your receiver, which will usually be via a smartphone or PC app.

As this type of tracking uses WiFi, it can be relied on whether indoors or outdoors, underground or at the top of a skyscraper and is unaffected by weather conditions. WiFi hotspots are abundant in cities and built up areas, but its worth keeping in mind that as we move further away from these urban areas, that it may be harder for the tag to triangulate itself as WiFi hotspots become more scarce.

WiFi tracking technology is most commonly used to enhance true GPS Pet Trackers, to provide even more functionality and features. For example, you can set your home WiFi as a ‘fence’ and have your phone alert you if your pet moves out of your home WiFi range. At that point, the GPS technology takes over to inform you of the location of your pet in real time.

Although the WiFi Tracking technology does not usually require a subscription, the GPS tracking often does, so prepare for a monthly or annual cost on top of your initial purchase price. The tags, or tracker units are working slightly harder than the RFID and Bluetooth counterparts so may be a bit bulkier, and the energy usage is higher, so units may be rechargeable as battery life is significantly lower.

GPS – Global Positioning Systems

GPS signals are transmitted using three components:

  1. Satellites – There are 32 of these, floating around in space courtesy of the US Government. You don’t have to buy your own!
  2. Transmitters – the unit attached to your pet.
  3. A Receiver – a device such as your smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC

GPS Pet Trackers - True GPSIn short, the tag, or unit on your pet, communicates with the satellites to request information regarding its geographical location on the planet. All satellites with a clear view, locate the unit and respond with its co-ordinates. The more satellites that can locate the tag, the more accurate the co-ordinates, usually to within a 5 – 10 meter radius. Clouds, tunnels or anything that can obscure the line of sight between your pet and the satellite, can interfere with or even cause the signal to be lost, which is why GPS and WiFi are often used together.

Once the unit has determined its approximate location, it sends the received coordinates to a server, using a cellular or mobile network, where you are able view the location of your pet on a map, via an App on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC. GPS can locate your pet anywhere on the planet, and there is no range limit. For most GPS pet trackers, a SIM card and a subscription will be required, but as technology advances, companies are already finding ways to reduce the costs in this area, and not all pet GPS trackers will need a subscription or SIM card, so its worth shopping around for the best deal.

The catch is, that as the tracker unit is performing some pretty heavy-duty communicating, these units tend to be the largest of all types of pet trackers, and nearly all have a reduced battery life, with units needing charging every few days. For the same reason, they are often supplied as a full collar with the unit built in, and in regard to aesthetics, may simply be too bulky or heavy for small dogs, and delicate cats.

Last Words…

Technology is advancing at an amazing rate, and there are some very clever people out there whose life goals are to ensure that our pets our safe by our side, bringing joy and love into our lives. This article in no way covers the myriad of pet trackers available to you, but it does explain the technology used to power the majority of them. Many manufacturers use a combination of these technologies in their products to add different layers of functionality, and every week, new innovative designs are hitting the market. You want to know how many times your dog scratched his left ear last June? Trust me, there’s an app for that…

The thought of losing a beloved pet strikes fear into the heart of any pet owner. Not only do we want to save ourselves the heartbreak of losing a pet, but as ‘Pet Parents’, it is our responsibility to keep our furry family members safe and secure. Spending some time analyzing your situation and how the different styles, functionality and methods of communication that pet trackers use, will fit in with your and your pets lifestyle. This will benefit you in the long run, and ultimately you will achieve the peace of mind that you are looking for.

If you have a working dog on a farm, a Bluetooth tracker just won’t work for you, similarly, if you live in a high rise apartment and your kitty likes to play hide-and-seek in the balcony pot plants, there’s no point in full-blown GPS monthly subscriptions. Your solution is out there, go forth with knowledge gained!

Please remember, a pet tracker is no substitute for microchipping your pet. Microchips are without a doubt the most 100% effective way of ensuring that your lost pet will always be returned to you, and for just a small cost are an essential element of being a responsible pet owner.

I would love to hear your comments on some of the amazing GPS Pet Trackers features you have seen or heard of, or what your thoughts are on the different types of technology I’ve talked about today, so please comment below.

Also, please share with your friends and social groups, so that together, we can reduce the number of lost pets, and broken-hearted ‘pet parents’ in the world!

All the best




and Chocker!

10 Replies to “GPS Pet Trackers – How do they actually work?

  1. As a lover of dogs and I really appreciated your well written posts on GPS pet trackers, it is extremely detailed and great for any first time owners who wish to find a new tracker for their pet. I especially loved the part where you said that it is not a substitute for microchipping!

    1. Thanks Rox… Yes, microchipping is essential, and given that is such a small cost in comparison to some of the trackers out there, it’s a real no brainer. Not only that but chipped pets often get reduced rates at vets and if (heaven forbid) they do actually end up at the pound, in many places, the lost dog fine is reduced as well.
      Microchips for the win!

  2. thanks so much for this. I’ve been trying to figure out the difference but its a bit technical, I understand now

  3. Hi, that’s all very interesting. I didn’t know there were so many GPS Pet Trackers. I think for a cat would be the real GPS or the WIFI solution the better choice because of range.
    You mentioned the microchip, does that also allow tracking and why is this unit so much smaller?

    1. Hi Stefan, thanks for reaching out! Rule of thumb is, the more functionality, the larger the unit is going to be. In regards to microchipping your pet, microchips don’t actually track your pets’ location, they simply store data. So, if you lose your pet, and they end up at an animal shelter, or with the vet, they scan the chip and find out the owners details – name, address, phone number etc, and can then contact you to come and collect your missing pet! I hope this answers your query, please let me know if there is anything else you would like to know!
      Kay x

  4. Such relevant info! My husband and I have recently been talking about getting a dog, however worry about keeping it in our apartment all the time. After reading this, I think getting a GPS tracker for whenever we would take it outside would give us peace of mind that it wouldn’t run away.

    Thanks for sharing such a great article! I’m definitely keeping tabs on this one for the future 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment Sarah! Look out for my upcoming post, drilling down into the specific types of trackers to help you identify which one will suit you best – and don’t forget to microchip your new dog!
      I wish you all the best, and hope you enjoy your new family member 🙂

  5. Hi K,ay,
    Great article! My Golden is usually very good about staying in the yard but I just dread that one day where she wanders off. I’ve been thinking about getting some sort of tracking device to hook on her collar and your post really enlightened me as to how different trackers will work. Now I will be more aware and know what to look for when I decided to start shopping. Thanks for the info!

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