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Keeping Track When Your Cat Makes Tracks

This was first published in Technocopia in 2000. I have updated the links. Remember the technology may have changed in nine years.

I heard a vet on CBC radio say that cats need a square mile of territory each, hence why they fight so much in the city. My cat certainly likes his outdoors but if he actually traveled a square mile he’d be made into road pizza by the semis that hurtle along the road several blocks away. So where does he go during the day when he’s not eating and sleeping?

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s also bitten Technocopia’s readers who have asked a similar question: How can I keep track of my cat (or dog)? Of course, most vets will admonish that the way to keep your cat safest and to know where it is, is to keep it indoors. For those who believe in individual freedom for felines tracking them is not such a problem, or is it?

What happens if Sigmund your purebred Burmese is catnapped, or Frodo the Pekingese dog escapes house arrest yapping into the wild blue yonder and isn’t seen for hours? There are even people in the agricultural sector who would love to know where their cattle get rustled to or find that little lost sheep in the hills giving birth to three-headed twins.

While people are interested in tracking their animals for different reasons, the technology has not lived up to need. Global positioning systems (GPS) on the market for everything from yachts to directional maps in cars have not been viable for tracking animals. The cat’s collar would need a receiver for gathering information from the GPS satellite, and a transmitter to send to the home base—your home PC or a receiving center.

GPS tracking has the additional problems of losing transmissions emitted from building interiors, too big and heavy for most animals to wear, only certain regions are covered, and it would need constant battery replenishment to operate twenty-four hours a day. Until the units become more compact and lighter they’re not a good bet for finding your cat.

The GPS problem seemed solved when a company called Global Trak announced devices such as Pet Trak, Execu Trak, Senior Trak and Kid Trak, a line of personal GPS tracking devices small enough to put in a purse or on the wrist of a child. For about $695 you could purchase a regional license and a demo unit. However, Pet Trak turned out to be more elusive than your cat before going to the vet’s. People who paid the money and expected goods in 1998 are still waiting. Bob Parks wrote a very informative article for Wired and today you will find nothing when you do a search.

Microchip embedding is currently used in the UK as well as the US, Canada and other countries. While this technology helps identify an animal it will not help track one. Peter Watson for Bayer UK said that all cats and dogs imported to the UK are required to have microchips. Many animal protection societies and vets are using these regularly.

The implant (is encased in bioglass, an inert material, and is about the size of a small rice-sized pellet. It is subcutaneously injected into the dorsal area of the neck. Recorded on the chip is a ten to fifteen-digit alphanumeric code that designates the country where the chip was implanted, the manufacturer and an ID number. The microchips should last about ten years and can be easily removed by a vet using a local anesthetic. It is now called Tracer Advance and could be smaller longer lasting. You can check it at: http://www.tracer-microchips.co.uk/

The handheld reader for the implant (costing about £370 in 2000) transmits a weak radio signal of one frequency, which is absorbed by a small coil attached to the microchip. This powers the microchip with enough energy to transmit the encoded information back to the reader’s receiver. The reading range is just two inches so this is best for identifying an animal once it’s found.

Destron Fearing of St. Paul’s, MN also supplies their HomeAgain microchipping. The American Kennel Club (AKC) endorses HomeAgain and part of the registration fee they collect goes toward funding free distribution of scanners to veterinarians and animal protection agencies across the US. http://www.akc.org/public_education/responsible_dog_owner.cfm So far, as of 2000, over 500,000 animals have microchips implanted and over 28,000 animals have been located and returned to their owners.

HomeAgain uses the BioBond anti-migration cap, which is a porous polypropylene polymer that inhibits the migration of the pellet by building up fibrocytes and collagen fibers within the animal. Cost is about $12.50 and a vet injects the chip. The scanners are similar to Bayer UK’s and work on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). http://public.homeagain.com/index.html

Having your animal tagged in some way for identification would be helpful if it does become lost then found. Pellets can be implanted on animals as small as birds or reptiles and as large as horses.

Another monitoring system had been developed by CompuGuard Services in Oakwood Village, Ohio (looks like they filed for bankruptcy in 2003). They specialized in prison bracelets or house arrest technology and were slightly incredulous that we would consider such an item for tracking animals. A base unit was attached to the phone line and had a built-in delay feature of several minutes. This allowed for the unit to make sure the person had left the area where they were supposed to be. Once the unit confirmed the person was gone it transmitted on a special radio frequency to the monitoring center. Maybe everyone escaped and they went out of business. A special drive-by unit (if a person phoned in that he/she was attending an AA meeting) would allow CompuGuard to confirm that the person was in the vicinity within five hundred feet.

The most promising development in tracking wayward animals was Micro Trax by Harris Corp, in Melbourne, Fl. Harris hoped to have Micro Trax up and running in twelve months of funding. Micro Trax was a radio-based system and would require an infrastructure of call centers.

With Micro Trax, a domino-sized receiving unit, which could easily fit on an animal collar, woud transmit a spread spectrum wave signal. The receiving center picks up the signal that can penetrate buildings, car trunks, basements, glove boxes, etc., and accurately locate an animal to within ten meters of its location. If you were up in the mountains in a log cabin Micro Trax might not work. Its efficiency would depend on the widespread infrastructure of operating centers and less populated areas were bound to have fewer of these centers.

The biggest problem with Micro Trax or any other unit attached to a collar is that the collar can fall off or be taken off if your feline is catnapped. Brian Holt of Harris Corp. believed the bigger market would be in making sure your dog or cat stayed within set perimeters and if it went beyond, the receiving center would send a message to you via Internet or by phone.

Likewise, he said it would be one way of keeping track of whether your child ends up where he/she is supposed to be. Micro Trax could also be placed with certain household items or jewelry. However, the unit could be removed in the rare case of abduction or theft. If the unit is made so it can’t be removed there runs a risk of injuring the wearer in the attempt to remove it.

Holt said that units would probably run about $100 with a monthly service fee of $10, comparable to buying a pager. Different services could be offered with varying price ranges. As well, units could be devised of different sizes and ruggedness depending on the need.Harris Corp. was determining the market viability and what consumers actually wanted. If you check therir site today http://www.rfcomm.harris.com/ they’re big on communications for defense, military and emergency aid, but there is nothing about Micro Trax.

 Until some other company comes up with the infrastructure for locating your favorite, wayward pet, there are several other precautions to take for the safety of your animal. You can try any of the following:

  • Make sure the animal has a safe collar with proper identification.
  • Have it tattooed at the local SPCA or by your vet.
  • Check your area or your vet for microchip implant availability.
  • Keep your pet indoors.
  • Fence your yard or put your dog on a long chain (advisable for dogs but cats need to be away from climbable objects so they don’t hang themselves).
  • Take your dog to obedience classes so it learns the rules.

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