Should I get an Apple AirTag for my cat?
I already knew a little bit about AirTags, and how they help people find lost wallets and other belongings. But what about lost cats? I wanted to dig deeper into this technology and how it might work with cats.
What I learned is that there are a number of solutions to help you locate a missing cat, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages.
The purpose of this post is to explore the Apple AirTag, specifically, and whether it’s a good way to keep tabs on your kitties. But I will touch on the other technologies that are out there, too.
Keep reading to learn all about this fascinating little device.
What is an Apple AirTag?
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An Apple AirTag is a gadget designed to help you keep track of your stuff, with the help of an additional Apple device, such as an iPhone, iWatch, iPad, or iMac.
It’s a quarter-sized device, 1.26 inches in diameter, to be exact, that you can slip onto a key ring, or into your backpack, or luggage. If, for example (as I have done), you accidentally leave your wallet at a cash register at a store, and your wallet has an AirTag tucked inside, you can use an app on your iPhone to instantly help you locate it.
If your suitcase (with an AirTag in a pocket) fails to show up on the luggage carousel after your flight, you can use your iPhone to see whether it’s still sitting on a trolley on the tarmac, or has been misdirected to some other airport.
Note that Apple designed this device to help you find misplaced objects. AirTag was not designed to keep track of cats. Apple has been clear that it does not condone the use of its AirTag to keep track of pets or people.
There are actually some good reasons for this, which I’ll get into in a minute.
How could an Apple AirTag help you find a lost cat?
But what if one got “lost” in the house?
Growing up, I had an indoor cat who had a knack for hiding, and, periodically found herself locked in the linen closet or a kitchen cabinet while we were away at work and school all day.
Or what if Spaghetti or Meatball decided to venture out one day, slipping through the front door when no one was paying attention?
Would an Apple AirTag help locate them?
Finding your cat with an AirTag, if she is very close by
If, like my childhood kitty, your AirTag-wearing cat was just hiding under the bed, or stuck in a closet, you could use one of two features on your iPhone to help locate him.
Find your cat using sound
You could say to your iPhone, “Hey, Siri, find Meatball!” and the AirTag would make a beeping sound. This would, of course, require that you named your AirTag “Meatball” when you set it up, which I will explain in more detail below.
Alternatively, you could open the Find My app on your iPhone, find “Meatball” under “Items” and click “Play Sound.”
You could then follow the beeping sound until you found Meatball lounging on top of the clean laundry in the basket.
Hopefully, Meatball wouldn’t have been frightened by the beeping, but this noise is one of the potential downsides of using this feature with cats.
Find your cat using Precision Finding
If you are using your AirTag with an iPhone 11 or later, you will have an even better way of locating a cat who is nearby, thanks to the U1 ultrawideband (UWB) chip that is inside current-model phones.
Precision Finding will literally point you to your cat and tell you how far you have to walk to get to him.
It’s a little like that “hot and cold” game you played as a kid. There’s an arrow on your phone screen that acts as a compass, and as long as you’re heading in the right direction, the screen stays green. If you veer off, the screen goes gray and shows you how to correct your heading.
This is all well and good if your cat is sitting on the laundry, like Meatball. But if your cat is bounding around the house or yard like a maniac, Precision Finding can have a hard time locking onto a moving object.
Remember, AirTags were designed to be used on stuff that doesn’t have the ability to gallop around on its own.
AirTags use Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi
Note that these features use Bluetooth technology, which allows devices, such as your AirTag and iPhone, to talk to each other using radio waves.
If you have a wireless printer, for example, you already use Bluetooth to connect your computer to it without cords. If you play a song list on your phone in the car, you are using Bluetooth to connect your phone to your car’s audio system.
The reason this is important to know is that Bluetooth has a limited range. Apple won’t say how far your AirTag can be from your other Apple device, but we know that iPhones have a range of about 33 feet from other Bluetooth devices. So, we can infer a similar distance for AirTag.
That being said, there are other things that can shorten the distance that an iPhone can communicate with an AirTag. Concrete walls, for example, could potentially interfere with your iPhone’s ability to communicate with an AirTag on a cat.
Finding your cat using an AirTag if she is further away
If you have an outdoor cat who hasn’t returned for supper, or if you suspect your indoor cat somehow slipped out, an AirTag could help find him.
AirTag uses the power of millions of Apple users
There are literally two billion active iPhones, iPads, iMacs, and iWatches in the world today, and Apple has harnessed that incredible crowd power for AirTag.
As your AirTag-outfitted cat is trotting down the street, his AirTag would be sending Bluetooth signals that could be detected by any Apple devices in range: that guy at Starbucks on his MacBook, the runner using his iWatch to track his workout, and the lady standing at the bus stop with an iPhone in her purse.
These devices would send the location of your cat’s AirTag to iCloud, which is Apple’s very own cloud service. Apple software triangulates the location of an AirTag based on the strength of the signal from each of these devices. The location of the AirTag then shows up on the map in your own Find My app.
Go get that kitty!
What if my cat isn’t showing up on my Find My app map?
The problem with this technology is that sometimes those two billion Apple devices are not anywhere near your cat.
If your cat has escaped to the woods behind your house, her AirTag might never be close enough to any Apple devices for a signal to be received. If you live in an unpopulated area, with very few people walking around with iPhones, you’ll have the same problem.
You’ll see your cat’s last-known location (with a timestamp), but that might very well be your living room.
How Lost Mode can help you find your cat
As soon as your cat goes missing, you can put her AirTag into “Lost Mode” in your Find My app, even if (or especially if) her AirTag isn’t showing an updated location on your map.
When her AirTag is detected by another device, you’ll automatically get a notification. In other words, you won’t have to check your Find My map every 5 minutes, hoping there’s an update on your cat. Your phone will let you know when there’s news.
Meanwhile, if your AirTag is in Lost Mode, it will send a notification to any NFC-capable devices that are within reach, including Android devices. (NFC is the technology that allows you pay for things with your phone.)
To say it another way, Lost Mode alerts anyone (with the right kind of device) in the area that the cat attached to the AirTag is missing. The notified person could open his or her phone near the AirTag for more information.
Lost Mode also lets you provide more information to your cat's prospective rescuer, if you want to. You are able to add your contact information – phone and email address – in Lost Mode. A helpful bystander who finds your cat would then be able to call you directly.
If your cat is away too long, AirTag takes things into its own hands
If your cat has been away from you and your phone or iPad too long, your AirTag knows. It will start chirping after some period of separation, although Apple hasn’t said exactly how long this is. The AirTag (or really the cat) has to move to activate this feature.
So, if a helpful stranger were to hear the beeping, she could approach the AirTag and your cat for more information.
AirTag is not GPS
The main thing you should understand about using AirTag to keep track of your cat is that it is not GPS.
AirTag uses Bluetooth and the network of Apple devices out there in the world to pinpoint the location of your belongings (and thus your cat). Bluetooth has a limited range, and this system relies on other Apple users to be nearby.
GPS, on the other hand, uses satellites. GPS isn’t limited by range, and doesn’t depend on nearby devices to transmit the location of your cat. GPS can communicate directly with satellites, and provide live and reasonably precise updates on the location of your pet.
Your AirTag provides a kind of “last-known location,” while a GPS with a SIM card will provide a real-time location. That can be more useful when the thing you’re trying to find keeps moving.
The disadvantages of GPS
GPS has some obvious advantages in tracking pets, who are constantly on the move, or who have a preference for hiding or playing in places where there aren’t lots of people with iPhones nearby.
But there are disadvantages, too.
GPS devices are expensive, especially compared to AirTag, which sells for $29 for a single unit, or $99 for four.
GPS devices that are able to transmit the real-time location of your cat will also require a monthly cellular data subscription, over and above the cost of the tracker itself.
Note that there are some GPS products that use public frequencies, but they will only transmit their positions a few times an hour, which might not be very useful.
And GPS devices need to be frequently charged, whereas an AirTag has a battery life of around a year.
Finally, GPS is darn good at tracking someone or something anywhere in the world, but has a margin of error of around 16 feet. That doesn’t sound like a lot, until you’re bushwacking through shrubbery for a stealthy cat who doesn’t want to be found. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to track your cat with GPS, but use an AirTag and Precision Finding to pinpoint his exact location.
Are AirTags easy to use?An AirTag could not be easier to use, even if you are a complete technophobe.
Make sure you have Wi-Fi or cell service on, and unlock your phone. Open your new AirTag and remove the plastic strip that prevents it from being accidentally activated.
As long as your new AirTag is near your unlocked phone, your iPhone will recognize the AirTag and allow you to give it a name. If you’re using it to keep track of your keys, you can choose “keys” as the name. But if you’re using it for your cat, you can give your AirTag a custom name, the way my son did with Spaghetti and Meatball.
That’s all there is to it.
As for maintenance, you’ll only have to replace the battery about once a year. Your iPhone will let you know when it’s time. Use a CR2032 lithium 3V coin battery. Just make sure it doesn’t have a bitter coating.
Do I need to have an iPhone to use an AirTag?
You need an iPhone or iPad running iOS 14 (at least) to set up your AirTag, even if it belongs to a friend.
Beyond the setup, you can use an Android device to discover nearby AirTags using the Apple Tracker Detect app, which is available in the Google Play store.
Note that this app won’t be specific to your AirTag, however, and instead will pick up any AirTag that is nearby. This may be useful if you plan to limit the use of your AirTag to confirm that your cat is at home while you are also at home.
This app won’t tell you which direction to look for the AirTag that it has found, which can make it less-than useful for finding a missing cat, even if he is only feet away, in the next room.
This is because the app was really designed to let people know if a nefarious AirTag user slipped a tracking device onto your person or vehicle for purposes of stalking. It was not designed to help you use an AirTag to find a missing object.
I’m worried about my cat, but I’m worried about my privacy, too
You needn’t worry.
Use of an AirTag is completely anonymous, and all the data involved is encrypted to protect your privacy. Not even Apple knows where your AirTag is, or your identity.
The devices that are relaying information about your AirTag are anonymous. The identity of the owner of the device that finds your AirTag is anonymous. Your location, your data, and your history are not stored on the device, and are also completely anonymous.
Are there any competitive products that I should consider?
Tile Mate was the first product of its kind and is AirTag’s biggest rival. It has some advantages: it comes in a variety of sizes and has a longer Bluetooth range: 250 feet, or 400 feet for the Pro version.
The biggest disadvantage of Tile Mate is that it doesn’t have Apple’s extensive device network, and that is the key to finding lost things, including cats, with this technology.
Chipolo ONE does use Apple’s Find My network, but there is no Precision Finding tool with this product. It’s slightly larger than AirTag, and encased in plastic instead of stainless steel, but it’s also slightly less expensive.
The Chipolo is splash proof, but can’t be submerged in water, the way AirTag can. I’m not sure how it would fare on a cat stuck in a rainstorm.
Samsung Galaxy SmartTag suffers from the same problem as Tile Mate: a limited device network, and the basic version is missing some of the AirTag’s features. There is an upgraded “+” version that has technology similar to Precision Finding, but it costs about $10 more per unit than AirTag.
What accessories do I need to use an AirTag with my cat?
Since cats don’t come with pockets, you’ll need some way to keep the cat and the AirTag together.
There are many, many choices out there and they’re all pretty similar. Unfortunately, even though AirTag is a small device, it’s surprisingly large when worn on a collar around a cat’s neck. There are key-ring type accessories that could dangle from a collar, but I think these might interfere with a cat’s movement and might also get in the way of eating and drinking.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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