Can Apple’s AirTags Find Lost Pets?

We look at the pros and cons of using Apple’s AirTag tracking device to find our missing dogs and cats.,

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Today we’ll hear from Kaitlyn Wells, a staff writer at Wirecutter, a product recommendation site owned by The New York Times.

The panic that sets in when a pet goes missing is something no dog or cat owner wants to experience. Should your best friend get loose, GPS (Global Positioning System) pet trackers that follow your pet in real time can help reunite you, but the devices can be expensive (they average about $200), and some also require a pricey annual subscription. So when Apple announced its AirTag tracking devices in April, you may have wondered what I did: Would the $29 coin-sized device work as a pet tracker?

How is the AirTag different from a Bluetooth or GPS pet tracker?

GPS pet trackers use satellite signals and cellular data information to communicate your pet’s location to your phone, while Bluetooth-only trackers communicate its location only if it is within Bluetooth range of your phone — typically within 30 to 100 feet — or if someone else running on the same tracker ecosystem happens to wander past.

The AirTag uses both Bluetooth and a more precise positioning technology called ultrawideband (UWB) to pinpoint the tracker’s location. Like a souped-up version of Bluetooth, UWB will point you in your AirTag’s direction with compass-like accuracy if you’re using an iPhone close to the missing AirTag. If you’re farther away, Apple’s Find My app network and Bluetooth from other iPhone users can help you find it instead.

This difference — the near ubiquity of Apple devices anywhere you might be, helping to track your AirTag — is what makes Apple’s tracker far more useful than a Bluetooth tracker such as the Tile Mate, which operates within a far smaller pool of users.

Both AirTags and Bluetooth trackers are reliant on other devices, though, whereas GPS trackers harness the power of satellites.

Does Apple approve of using AirTag for tracking pets?

Technically, no. Though it’s small enough to affix to a dog’s collar using Apple’s own key rings or loops (my colleague Brian X. Chen made the hack work), Apple has stressed that the AirTag is meant for locating items, not people or pets. Still, the company does have a patent on its UWB technology and cites removable tags attached to a pet’s collar or a kid’s T-shirt as possible use scenarios in the filing.

Don’t be shocked if Apple launches pet-friendly trackers in the future, but right now, the AirTag as a pet tracker is considered an off-label use.

Is there any reason you wouldn’t want to use AirTags for pets?

The AirTag is more limited than dedicated GPS pet trackers. Currently, the Find My app won’t notify you immediately if you’re separated from an AirTag, though this feature is being added in iOS 15. GPS pet trackers do this if your pet leaves a designated area.

AirTags can’t be attached to a pet’s collar on their own either, so you need to buy an Apple AirTag Loop (which costs as much as the AirTag itself) or a less-expensive third-party holder.

Other GPS pet trackers Wirecutter likes

We’ve tested over a dozen pet trackers over the years, and one always leads the pack: the Whistle Go Explore. It costs four times as much as the AirTag, but it’ll immediately tell you if your pet escapes home, is more accurate than any other GPS tracker we tested and works with both Apple and Android phones.

But like most pet trackers we have tested, its GPS accuracy can be finicky when cellular service is spotty, and you pay a $100 annual subscription to keep using it. The rechargeable battery also lasts only about three days in “lost pet mode” compared with AirTag’s estimated monthslong battery life in that mode.

If you’re a price-conscious Apple user, the AirTag is more accurate than a traditional Bluetooth tracker, but it won’t be as responsive as a GPS pet tracker.

The AirTag is far better than nothing, but if you’re willing to spend a bit more, I’d recommend the Whistle Go Explore because it remains the most reliable, accurate and fastest way to alert you if your pet goes missing.

No matter which device you choose, make sure that your pets are microchipped and that their ID tags are accurate. The more ways you have to be reunited with your lost pet, the better.


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