Indoor/outdoor cats create all sorts of problems. GPS tracking can solve some of them. | Cover Collections

VIOLET CHOSE TO BE AN OUTDOOR CAT. Almost as soon as I brought her home in 2017 from Animal Friends Rescue Project in Pacific Grove, she found an escape route. Her litter-mate, Bixby, seemed perfectly content to take in the happenings of the outside world from the window sill. (Though he has since embraced his outdoor lifestyle too, becoming an expert tree climber. Yes, the fire department was once called by a neighbor concerned that Bixby might not be able to get down from a 30-foot tree. No, the fire department did not come. Yes, Bixby is fine.)

As a then-new cat parent, I was chastened by a stern lecture at AFRP that under no circumstances was I to let these animals outdoors. I hadn’t really given the question much thought when I brought my kittens in for their first wellness checkup, and the vet gave some advice straight out of a zombie movie: If I kept the cats indoors only, I should be on the lookout for dental health problems. Crunching on raw bone, she told me, was the best way to keep their teeth healthy. Not to mention it would also allow my cuddly little lap cats to have a double life, fulfilling their predatory instincts. I would have the bonus of knowing that every mouse/gopher/lizard/bird would save us all from some horrific, expensive dental procedure down the road. Win-win.

Of course, it’s not a win for the hunted. Everyone in my neighborhood, even my more squeamish neighbors, appreciates when Violet or Bixby eviscerate a gopher (one point for the gardeners) or slow-torture a mouse for their own amusement. Pest control gives them extra credit. But there is a dark side: Predation by domestic cats is the number-one direct, human-caused threat to birds in U.S., according to the American Bird Conservancy. Outdoor cats kill some 2.4 billion birds every year. Violet and Bixby probably kill 10 of those between them.

There are other, less obvious impacts on wildlife. A 2019 study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B determined that parasites commonly found in housecat poop, such as Toxoplasma gondii, were infecting and killing sea otters in Monterey Bay.

None of these are the reasons that AFRP directs people adopting cats to keep their cats indoors. “AFRP does not adopt out to homes where they know they’re going to be outside,” says Executive Director Darla Smith. “We can’t keep them safe if they’re not in.”

These days, during spring kitten season, AFRP is receiving 1 – and 2-day-old kittens that require bottle feeding every two hours by their foster parents. “We love them, and we want them to survive,” Smith says. “I do believe cats can have a really great quality of life, indoors.”

Smith herself used to let her cats outdoors, until one was hit by a car and another was poisoned. Since then, she built an outdoor catio – it’s elaborate, allowing tree-climbing adventures – to keep her pets safe.

Tracking Cats

Bixby rarely strays further than the front yard.

These are all factors to consider. But tragedy can strike even indoors. Just a few months after I adopted Violet and Bixby, a visitor to my apartment wearing heavy boots accidentally stepped on Violet’s tail. She sprang to get away, dislocating it from her spinal column, and her tail was paralyzed. What followed were thousands of dollars in vet bills for a tail amputation, a long recovery, and the cutest, littlest bobcat I have ever seen.

The first day Violet was allowed back outside after recovery, my neighbor reported Violet was doing just fine: Before I’d even finished a cup of coffee, she was on the second-floor deck, watching the world go by.

In the years since, Bixby has had a few squabbles with neighbor cats, climbed a lot of trees and caught an unknown number of rodents. He spends most of his time at home or just outside of it, and causes me no worry.

But Violet has continued to be quick and sneaky, and she’s staged more than a few disappearing acts. Of all the hazards that I worry about – and every time Violet doesn’t show up around dinner time, I worry about everything Smith says I should – I mostly worry about cat-nappers.

Violet is the kind of cat who invites herself in. She’ll make herself at home on your couch or bed if you let her (please don’t let her). And she spends most of her day roaming the neighborhood. That sometimes includes crossing busy, dangerous streets. When I used to live in Pacific Grove, Violet sometimes crossed Central Avenue and waltzed into Zumba classes at Chautauqua Hall. Now I live on a quiet street in Seaside, and a few times have found Violet on a busy corner, acting like she belongs there.

Years ago, I gave up any hope of keeping this free-range cat contained. A lot of nights, I could find Violet by walking up the block and calling for her. Sometimes, I could not, but she’d always reappear the next morning.

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Living with a nearly constant low-level anxiety about my cat’s whereabouts just became the norm. Until I realized I could put a GPS tracking device on Violet’s collar, and watch her every move.

Tracking Cats

A GPS tracker shows that she stays within a half-block of home, but averages 3 miles a day in a zig-zag from yard to yard. Tractive has roughly 500,000 subscribers worldwide, with 150 in Monterey County.

ANIMAL TRACKING DEVICES HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR A LONG TIME. Bird banding began more than a century ago, and the use of radio transmitters to track wildlife began in the 1950s. Hunters have been using GPS devices for well over a decade. But the use of household devices to track your pets – some are also marketed to track children or older adults – is relatively new.

Tractive launched in Austria eight years ago, selling small GPS trackers for dogs. A device that attaches to a collar is $50, and a year-long subscription to the tracking software is $96.

The company now sells devices and subscriptions all over the world (except in Russia and North Korea). There are more than 500,000 active subscribers. The majority are dog owners, but ever since a new device, designed specifically to attach to cat collars, was introduced in January, that has been a fast-growing market, says Andrew Bleiman, executive vice president for North America, speaking from Tractive’s Seattle office.

Bleiman attributes the popularity to nervous pet owners like me. “If your pet goes missing, it is an incredibly anxiety-inducing experience, whether that is two days or two weeks,” he says. “Maybe the pet comes home on their own, but gosh – most people would trade anything to not have those periods of panic.”

The big evolution in technology from wildlife to pet tracking is twofold: One is better cell coverage. That allows the device to be powered with a smaller battery – it connects to GPS via cell towers, just like cell phones. (Another evolution is bluetooth, which works best in densely populated areas with good connectivity, and if you are close to your pet.)

These devices are much smaller and ping more often than wildlife trackers. Tractive updates every two to three seconds, designed to help a pet owner retrieve a missing pet. “If you are tracking a shark off the coast of Monterey, an update every week may be sufficient,” Bleiman says. “There is a direct tradeoff in how frequent updates are and the life of a charge of a battery.” Tractive’s batteries last about eight days; wildlife tracker batteries need to last much longer.

I got a Tractive tracker for Violet, and set up her account. It’s like a Fitbit for an animal; based on her age, weight and length of her hind leg, the app now tells me where she is all the time. I can hit “live” from anywhere, and know where she is in real time.

Heat maps confirm that she spends most of her life within a half-block radius, hanging out at various houses and on back patios. I haven’t yet located any overnight cat-nappers – she’s been coming home – but a few spots stand out.

One is my corner neighbor, Nitha Nandan, who says she has never been a cat person until meeting Violet. She likes her visits from Violet, but likens it to being a grandparent – fun and cuddles, without responsibility. “I don’t want that kind of responsibility,” Nandan says. “At least I know Violet has parents who love her and she’s safe at home.”

Violet’s gotten stuck in Nandan’s house more than once; she was once awakened by scratching at the window in the middle of the night, with Violet trying to get out.

The maps of Violet’s life look like a wild scribble. She zigs and zags across the neighborhood, covering roughly 3 miles a day in her half-block zone.

I asked Bleiman – who has two guinea pigs, a toy poodle named Mathman and a cat named Hunky – if he thought I might find the cat-napper using Tractive. He suggested looking at the heat maps. “If there’s a neighbor’s back porch [on the heat map], it’s a pretty good bet that cat has a secret Canadian family,” he says.

Violet, it turns out, has about a half-dozen secret Canadian families. For now, I will keep on sharing the love. It doesn’t feel like there is any other choice.