Microchipping your cat or dog is probably the first thing you should do as a pet owner (fortunately, my sister had Benny microchipped immediately). According to pet recovery service HomeAgain, 1 in 3 pets will go missing during its lifetime, and without proper ID, 90% never return home. The sensor is a little larger than a grain of rice, but the tiny RFID microchip can help make sure if someone does find your lost pet, the animal shelter will be able to discover your contact information. Here's a good overview of what microchipping entails, including the technology behind it.
But as my sister's current situation illustrates, once your pet has gone missing, the most frightening aspect of losing your loved one is not knowing exactly where the animal is hiding or wandering (and if he or she is okay). My sister's dog was only recently rescued and adopted from a shelter, and has been getting acclimated to his new home the last several weeks; he doesn't necessarily know the area as well as an older dog who has walked around the area for years, so the concern is he'll wander off too far, or worse, become injured or killed by surrounding traffic.
Here are some of the current options for keeping track of a pet's location before they become lost:
Tagg Tracker is a $100 dog collar with an integrated GPS tracking unit, permitting dog owners to track a pet’s location and activity from either a computer or via app at any moment. The collar can be programmed to warn you if your pet strays from a designated "Tagg zone", delivering alerts by email or text message. Tracking is viewable from a real time map, extremely helpful for recovering a lost pet who may have wandered too far from his or her recognized neighborhood.
The first 3 months of tracking service are free, but every month after costs $7.95, with each additional pet added to the tracking service for a reasonable $0.95 per month (up to 9 total). You may want to read this recent collar-on review from Wired's Geek Mom after trying the Tagg Tracker; her notes seem to offer a fair report about the pros and cons of what sounds like a good idea hampered by some cost issues and inconsistent warnings.
Garmin is already renowned for their travel, auto, and hiking GPS units for humans, but they also offer the ASTRO DC-40 GPS Dog Tracking Collar for our canine friends. This unit was specifically designed to help hunters find their hunting dogs out in the field, but this could also be used with regular household dogs while on walks or anywhere else outdoors. The GPS is good for up to 5 miles, with a big GPS antenna which may help bring attention to your lost pet while you're tracking him or her from afar.
The Love My Pets GPS Dog Collar is similar to the Tagg Tracker, but a little less refined in the design department, and coming with its own caveats. The GPS unit fits inside a little pouch attached to a dog collar, and once connected the unit and the canine, the GPS unit can be tracked via LoveMyPetsGPS.com. The collar also offers an "invisible fence" warning feature, but the unit+service is even more expensive than the Tagg Tracker upfront, and every month requires a fee: $229.00 for the GPS unit, a onetime charge of $19.95 for the activation and setup, and a monthly subscription fee of $14.95 per month.
The $119.99 SpotLite 2.0 is the latest updated pet tracking collar utilizing Securus’ eZoom GPS locator (normally used to track stolen vehicles), and partnered with a lifetime membership to dedicated pet recovery service, the American Kennel Club Companion Animal Recovery (AKC CAR). Pets can be tracked via website or from an iPhone, BlackBerry or Android device, with turn-by-turn directions for easier pet retrieval, and pet "safe spots" can be designated in advance. One feature which makes this unit stand out from the rest is the emergency button on the collar, which sends an alert directly to you that your beloved canine has been found. Unfortunately, reviews online from customers don't seem so glowing, making this less of a trusted insurance for wayward types than hoped.
The biggest strike against any of these devices beyond price per month and signal reliability is the required battery recharging schedule. Unlike your Roomba automated vacuum, Fido (or in this case, Benny) won't automatically return to recharge his GPS tracking collar, so it's up to you the owner to recharge the battery anywhere between every 1-5+ days. But when your pet has gone missing, I suspect every little bit of help finding your dog or cat is appreciated. Hopefully we'll continue seeing these tracking devices refined further into smaller form factors, offer stronger tracking signals, and will advertise more affordable fees per month.
Update: As I was finishing this post, I received a much welcome text message from my sister notifying us Benny was found. His back paw was hurt, but otherwise my sister's dog is reportedly fine. It was a neighbor walking her dog who heard Benny crying and hiding in a garden; she contacted my sister using her contact information on Benny's collar, proving technology is always second fiddle when compared to the kindness of our fellow neighbors.
(Images: Tagg Tracker; as linked above)