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We still stand behind our picks, but we’ve updated some minor information about our dismissal of the Fi.
Pet owners can’t always account for indoor cats skedaddling outdoors or dogs hightailing it away from the dog walker. A GPS tracker attached to your pet’s collar can reunite you if they do escape into the unknown. The Whistle Go Explore is the one GPS tracker we’d trust because it’s the most accurate pet tracker we tested, the app is easy to use, and the device is small enough to affix to any collar.
But a good GPS tracker can cost over $100 and requires a $100-a-year subscription—which may tempt you to try more-affordable Bluetooth trackers, like Tile and Apple tags. These cost just $25 to $30, and if they’re good enough to find a lost wallet, why not a lost pet? But their limited range, lower accuracy, and restricted ecosystems mean they’re useful only in very specific situations.
The Whistle Go Explore is accurate, easy to use, and light enough to be worn even by cats and small dogs. But a subscription costs about $100 a year.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $125.
Although a GPS pet tracker doesn’t guarantee you’ll find your lost cat or dog, the Whistle Go Explore does give you the best chance of doing so. It’s easy to use, as accurate as any GPS tracker can be, and light and small enough that most pets, even toy dogs, won’t be weighed down by it. The Whistle Go is also durable enough to survive your pup’s roughhousing at the dog park. But like most collars we tested, this device’s GPS accuracy can be finicky when service is spotty, relaying locations that are more general than precise. It also costs around $100 a year, and the battery lasts only about three days in “lost pet mode,” so you’d need to find your escaped pet quickly.
As Wirecutter’s pets writer, I’ve covered gadgets from pet cameras to automatic cat litter boxes. As a pet owner, I know that fear of never seeing an escaped pet again, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. A couple of my pets have gone missing over the years. Sadly, one pet never returned, and I’ve always wished I’d had a reliable way to track her down. I approached this guide knowing that reliable tech paired with traditional search methods can help increase the odds of finding a beloved pet.
To ensure that the tracking capabilities of these devices are sound, this guide builds on work by Wirecutter senior staff writer and pet owner Nick Guy, who wrote our guide to the best Bluetooth trackers.
A GPS pet tracker, like most emergency gear, is something you hope you never have to use. The device uses an embedded GPS transponder as well as cellular data signals to communicate your pet’s location to you. If your pet escapes, you’ll receive a notification via an app, have the ability to track their location in real time, and hopefully be safely reunited. You might also like a pet tracker if you have an outdoor pet (a cat, most likely) and you’d prefer to keep tabs on their adventures throughout the day.
Because these trackers use GPS, they are much more accurate than Bluetooth trackers. The latter communicate their location only if they’re within Bluetooth range of your phone or within range of someone else using the same app.
Some of these trackers also monitor your pet’s activity, much like a fitness tracker a person might wear. That’s a fine feature to have, and it’s something you may find useful, but we focused our testing solely on location tracking.
For this update, we pored over reviews and combed through sites like Amazon, Chewy, and Petco to find 20 devices worth considering, ranging from $20 to $500. From there, we dismissed GPS trackers that relied on outdated 2G or 3G networks or that had relatively small carrier networks—when you need to find your pet, you want the largest possible network. We eliminated other trackers based on their poor third-party reviews, high initial cost, low ratings, and lack of warranties. That left us with seven models to test, a mix of traditional GPS trackers and Bluetooth trackers: Apple AirTag, Fi Series 2 Collar, Pawscout Tag, Petfon Smart Tracker Home Kit, Tile Mate (2020), Tile Sticker (2020), and Whistle Go Explore.
A good pet tracker should be easy to set up, and it should stay on your pet, so we considered each tracker’s size and how easy it was to attach. Then we used the device’s apps and noted any issues we had.
But our primary concern was each GPS pet tracker’s accuracy. Most of the trackers and collars we tested supported some sort of “safe zone,” created by maintaining a connection to a particular Wi-Fi or Bluetooth network or staying within a defined area, known as a “geofence.” When the trackers are in this zone, they don’t activate their GPS transponder, saving significant battery life. We noted how long each tracker lasted on a charge while inside a safe zone (in other words, how long the battery will last when your pet is at home).
We tested the accuracy of the trackers outside their safe zone by walking around a residential neighborhood, an outdoor mall with ample foot traffic, and around Manhattan with the trackers in a pocket or on a dog or human friend. We noted how well each performed—the tracker’s location accuracy, push-notification speed, and how frequently the location updated. We also activated each tracker’s lost mode, which is how you flag your pet as “lost,” and we set off the tracker to update its location constantly, when the apps allowed. Then we shipped the devices 1,600 miles away and back, following their journey on the app. This told us how dependable the trackers might be, in both cellular access and battery life, if a pet were to trek across state lines.
The Whistle Go Explore is accurate, easy to use, and light enough to be worn even by cats and small dogs. But a subscription costs about $100 a year.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $125.
Nothing matters more in a GPS tracker and collar than its location accuracy and network reliability. The Whistle Go Explore outperformed all other pet GPS trackers on both counts, making it the only device we’d feel safe using with our own cats and dogs. It also features long-lasting battery life for day-to-day use, an intuitive app design, and durable, lightweight hardware.
Throughout our tests, we were able to locate the Whistle within a matter of seconds. That reported location was always close enough to the tracker itself that we could find our pet easily. But the accuracy can shift due to cell phone coverage, large buildings blocking the signal, and other factors outside of your control. We especially like that the Whistle’s smartphone app shows you both where the tracker is and your own location, which is handy if you’re trying to find your pet in an unfamiliar area.
Whistle’s cellular service is provided by AT&T, which is ranked number one in cellular service by Global Wireless Solutions. Most of the GPS trackers and collars we researched don’t disclose which cellular network they use to track a lost pet. Of those that did, AT&T was the most common. We liked Whistle’s transparency. And since Whistle uses AT&T’s 4G LTE network, it’s more reliable and sends updates faster than half of the GPS and Bluetooth trackers on the market, including the unreliable Pawscout Tag we tested.
The Whistle pulls ahead of its closest competitor, the Fi Series 2 Collar, thanks to its more-precise geofence feature. Just set the geofence by address and adjust a polygon tool to wrap around the property line. Alternatively, you can drop a circle on the map, as long as it’s at least 78 feet across. Comparatively, the Fi limits the geofence to a diameter of at least 122 feet, which can easily be too large to be really useful. The larger the minimum diameter, the less likely you are to receive alerts when your pet escapes your property, individual apartment, or even the building. We’d rather play it safe with the Whistle.
We wanted to see how the Whistle would perform when worn by dogs who don’t spend all of their time in a fenced-in area. The Whistle’s battery lasted a week when we took it on errands, dog walks, and leisurely strolls through the city. And there’s no need to charge it for a full night, either. With the included USB charging cable, it will go from 0% to 100% in just over three hours. This ensures your dog won’t be without a tracker when it’s time for their evening walk. Users can track battery life in the app and via push notifications or email alerts.
The Whistle Go Explore is made of hard-wearing plastic. We dropped it repeatedly from about 2 feet in the air, or the height of a large dog, and it never scratched, dented, or broke. It can also withstand an escaped dog’s romp in a mud puddle or swim in a river, thanks to its IPX8 rating (which means it’s waterproof and can be submerged in water up to a meter deep). More than half of the trackers we found can’t say the same. For example, the Tile Mate (2020) is rated IP55 and will withstand only a splash, rather than a prolonged mud-puddling. Also, the Whistle is the only GPS device we tested that can be attached to any collar up to 2 inches wide. The Fi is sold with its proprietary collars that are 1-inch wide, which are too bulky for smaller pets. You may be able to buy a collar from a Fi-approved seller, but you can’t attach the Fi to any collar from your local pet store. While we were writing this piece, Whistle updated its product description to say the Whistle Go Explore is suited for pets 20 pounds and up; the company had previously rated the Whistle as being for pets above 8 pounds. You can still see this information in old online listings. This came just as Whistle announced a new tracker called the Whistle Switch Smart Collar, which is designed for smaller pets, down to 5 pounds. It’s sleeker and comes with an extra battery pack. We plan to test this new version during our next update. But in our testing we found the Whistle Go Explore to be well suited even to cats and small dogs.
We were impressed with the Whistle’s intuitive app (for iOS and Android), which made it easy to sync the tracker, discern its location, and set multiple safe zones. The Whistle Go Explore also has an activity monitor, a fitness-goal tracker, and a to-do lists feature. We think these extra features are overkill, so we didn’t test them for this guide. But if you’ve been tracking your pet’s at-home movements for weeks and notice a severe decrease in their activity level, it could be a warning that something’s wrong and they need to see a vet; this is nice information to have, but it’s not essential for tracking.
The Whistle Go Explore comes in neon green, magenta, or gray, and it has a one-year warranty.
It’s wild that a $130 GPS tracker requires a subscription fee, but that’s the price to add another level of protection for your pet. Without it, the Whistle Go Explore is functionless and little more than a hunk of plastic around your pet’s neck. Whistle offers three payment options: $13 per month, $99 a year, or $192 every two years. This gives pet owners access to AT&T so the tracker can communicate with the network and send location alerts. If the Whistle isn’t for you, just cancel within 90 days for a prorated subscription refund and no cancellation fee, and return the tracker. Similar devices include the $150 Fi Series 2 Collar, which also uses AT&T and charges $99, $186, or $248 for one, two, or three years, respectively. Fi offers a 30-day trial period, after which subscriptions are nonrefundable.
Like all of the GPS trackers and collars for cats and dogs we tested, the Whistle Go Explore isn’t immune to service interruptions or false location data. The app occasionally pinged that the tracker was outside of the “safe” zone (the home’s address) or showed a zig-zag travel trail stretching a few houses down that never even happened. You can reduce false alerts with a strong home Wi-Fi network and by enlarging your home’s safe zone in the app. Similarly, if your pet gets out when the battery is low or is in an area with poor AT&T 4G LTE coverage, your chances of finding Fido greatly decrease. None of these trackers, not even the Whistle, can claim to be a panacea for pet escapes. Consider one as an extra line of defense that may help you in a worst-case scenario.
The Whistle’s battery capacity is below average. We shipped it across the country and back to ourselves to illustrate how it might perform over an extended, long-distance escape. The Whistle’s battery lasted three days in transit in lost mode—and not nearly as long as its competitors. The Fi collar lasted a full week, and we estimate the Apple AirTag, Pawscout Tag, and Tile Mate (2020) can last several weeks in continuous lost mode (when not in lost mode they can last a year).
Whereas the Apple AirTag and Tile Sticker (2020) are each the size of a coin, the Whistle Go Explore is about the size of a nail polish bottle (minus the cap). It’s also one of the heaviest trackers, weighing just over an ounce. Most others, like the Apple AirTag, Pawscout Tag, and Tile Mate (2020), each weigh less than a half-ounce. But since the Whistle was recommended for pets over 8 pounds during our testing (Whistle has since changed its guidance to over 20 pounds), we don’t believe the extra weight should be a problem. It’s a bit clunky to wear, but in testing, our 9-pound Chihuahua mix didn’t have any issues playing or sleeping with the Whistle strapped on.
Despite its name, the Whistle is totally silent. Unlike with the Link AKC Smart Collar or Bluetooth trackers, with the Whistle you can’t use the app to trigger a sound to help you find a pet hiding in the underbrush. (We realize that any sound emitting from around a pet’s neck may scare them off anyhow.) Instead, you can activate a flashlight on the tracker that’ll blink at a slow or fast speed—an ideal feature when searching for your pet at night. The Fi also has a blinking flashlight, but it’s dimmer and harder to spot from a distance at night. And we couldn’t get Fi’s flashlight to consistently work during testing.
Although Apple hasn’t specifically advertised the AirTag as being for pets, the tracker performed well in our tests. Unlike the Whistle, which uses a nationwide cellular service and GPS to track your pet, the AirTag uses a combination of Apple’s ultra-wideband (UWB) technology and Bluetooth to pinpoint the tracker’s exact location—including for pets (PDF). If you’re within 30 feet or so of the missing AirTag, your phone can pinpoint it very accurately and calculate a path to your pet. If you’re farther away, the Apple network kicks in. The Find My app can trigger sounds from the AirTag or flag the item as “lost.” When it’s in lost mode, you’ll receive notifications if the tag is near another Apple user, and you’ll get the exact address of its location. It’s more likely that there will be someone with an Apple device near your lost pet than someone with a Tile tracker (or the equivalent). So we think an AirTag will make reuniting with a lost pet easier and faster compared with using other Bluetooth trackers.
As with most Bluetooth trackers, AirTags are affordable, the user-replaceable battery has a lifespan measured in months, and you don’t need a subscription.
But currently, the Find My app won’t immediately notify you if your AirTag is separated from you (though this feature is being added in iOS 15). And even though the service is great for (and able to piggyback off of) almost any Apple product user, that inherently blocks Android users from the service. Additionally, an AirTag can’t be attached to a pet’s collar on its own, so owners need to purchase Apple AirTag holders or third-party holders if they want to go this route.
If you’re worried about losing your stuff, a Bluetooth-enabled tracker can help. We have recommendations for iPhone and Android users.
For non-Apple users, there are still a number of other appealing Bluetooth trackers. The technology has existed for decades, and it works with both Apple and Android devices. And Tile Mate (2020), for example, costs less than half the price of even the cheapest of these GPS pet trackers. You also don’t have to pay an ongoing subscription fee (but you will need to buy a $30-per-year Tile Premium plan for real-time tracking alerts). Battery life is roughly a year, not days. If you’re in an urban area with a decent number of other Tile owners, the tracking can be fairly accurate.
The problem is that a Tile or other Bluetooth tracker would help you find your pet only if you’re very close to them (within about 100 feet), or if someone else who uses that brand of tracker is very close. And with the latter, there’s usually a delay before you get a notification, at which point your pet may be long gone. The location pinpointing is also less precise. While testing, we received an email notification from Tile pinpointing the intersection where our “lost” tracker was found—there was no specific address, just a dot on a map. The free plan also lacks automatic real-time smart alerts; you need to manually check and recheck the location yourself. At best, the crowd-finding feature of a Bluetooth tracker can give you an idea of the general area your pet was last in.
A Bluetooth tracker may work in the right scenario. According to senior staff writer Nick Guy, Tile reports that “6 million items are found daily, and of those marked as lost, Tile says 90% are found.” But if you’re concerned about finding an escaped pet, we think the peace of mind a GPS tracker or collar offers is worth the extra cost, as substantial as it may be.
When you sign up for any sort of tracking service, you exchange some of your personal data for that locational information. But when it comes to protecting user privacy and security, not all services are created equal. Each of our picks takes a similar (and generally expected) approach to guarding your information.
We read the privacy policies of each tracker we recommend and asked each company questions about our most critical concerns regarding these types of trackers. Here’s how they compare:
It’s no surprise that many GPS and Bluetooth trackers can locate a user in real time and pull up location history. This can be useful when you contact customer service for troubleshooting, and it is a reasonable expectation in our book. However, during testing, we discovered that at least one company tracked us without our express consent.
Tile partnered with silicone ring brand Qalo to create a trackable ID tag, Qalo Traq. It’s basically a Tile Mate (2020) covered in brightly colored silicone, and at $50 it’s double the price. Qalo says the non-toxic silicone is durable and waterproof up to 1 meter deep. Pet owners can customize the tag on both the front and the back, leaving plenty of room to add both their pet’s name and the pet owner’s contact information.
Tile is a launch partner in Amazon’s Sidewalk program, which should allow Tile users to receive location information from people who own Amazon smart devices. We’re not sure how widespread this functionality will be, but it should at least allow you to tap into more people to help find a lost pet.
Whistle announced the Whistle Switch Smart Collar, which was set to launch in July 2021. This small tracker attaches to an integrated proprietary collar. Suited for pets as small as 5 pounds, the Switch includes two interchangeable battery packs, so you can always have one ready to swap out. The Whistle Switch uses the same AT&T network and user-friendly app as the Whistle Go Explore, so it should provide a similar performance.
The Pawscout Tag was unreliable in our tests, and it regularly said our pet was out of range or within 96 feet of our location, even though we were standing next to each other.
We considered testing the $450 Petfon Smart Tracker Home Kit for this update because it uses a mesh network that allows precise tracking around the house (so you can check on your pet while you’re out), as well as more-traditional GPS tracking if they get out. But we were unable to reach customer service during testing and worried about the company’s reliability should a pet owner need its help if their pet runs away.
The Tile Sticker (2020) uses the same technology as the Tile Mate (2020), but it attaches to objects via a sticker, rather than a split key ring. The sticker isn’t very strong, and it’s easy to peel off the Tile and move it between objects. We worried the sticker would fall off a dog’s nylon collar, which is something a pet owner never wants to have happen. (You could attach it to a metal tag, but you’d potentially be hiding important contact information.)
Kaitlyn Wells is a staff writer covering all things pets and style. She has never met a pet she didn’t like, although she can’t say the same thing about shoes. Her first picture book, A Family Looks Like Love, follows a pup who learns that love, rather than how you look, is what makes a family.
Nick Guy is a former senior staff writer covering Apple and accessories at Wirecutter. He has been reviewing iPhones, iPads, and related tech since 2011—and stopped counting after he tested his 1,000th case. It’s impossible for him not to mentally catalog any case he sees. He once had the bright idea to build and burn down a room to test fireproof safes.
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