lost animals

Technology offers new ways to bring your animal home if he ever gets lost.

“Hopeless and helpless.” That’s how Massachusetts native Jenni Kung says she felt when her dog Lexy went missing. One day, the Lab/terrier mix deviated from her usual routine; instead of trotting indoors after Jenni, she bolted after a neighbor’s dog into the path of a minivan. Despite being injured, she kept on running. Jenni ran after her, but before she knew it, Lexy was out of sight.

Millions of animals go missing each year in the US and Canada. If it’s ever happened to you, you know the feelings of panic and dread, the inability to rest until you get him back. You search the streets. You phone animal control, shelters and animal hospitals. You plaster utility poles with pictures and posters.

The good news is that technology is making it easier to locate lost and missing animals. Along with traditional ID tags and microchips, there’s now a growing market of collars or collar add-ons that use GPS (global positioning systems), Bluetooth technology, cell phones and smart phone applications to locate lost animals (more on these later). And thanks to the internet and social media, numerous online networks are sprouting up to help reunite missing animals with their families by spreading the word far and wide whenever a dog or cat gets lost.

For Jenni and her boyfriend, Mark Puglisi, the hours following Lexy’s disappearance were fraught with anxiety.“It was already starting to get dark,” Jenni says. She and Mark cruised up and down the streets of Quincy and surrounding towns. Although Lexy was microchipped, she wasn’t wearing an ID tag, so Jenni – unable to sleep – spent the rest of the night calling police, leaving messages with animal control, local shelters and pet hospitals. She posted Lexy’s disappearance on Facebook and checked and rechecked Craigslist for found dogs.

The next day, Mark continued searching by car while Jenni roamed the area on foot looking for any sign of her dog. “At that point, I just knew Lexy was nowhere near home,” she says. “She would have come back.” And then, someone who had seen Jenni’s Facebook posting sent her a link to the Missing Dogs Massachusetts (MDM) website.

MDM is one of the many networks of volunteers dedicated to reconnecting dogs with their human parents. Established this past January, the organization’s Facebook page attracted 10,000 followers within a month. “The more ‘eyes’ we have, the better,” says Beth Corr, Board President.

Beth adds that when an animal goes missing, fear naturally takes over. “People panic and don’t know what to do.” For anxious guardians, MDM’s website offers a recovery blueprint: step-by-step instructions on what to do and when. It shows you how to create eye-catching posters and flyers, as well as fill out a form that MDM volunteers can use to create a virtual lost-dog fl yer on their Facebook page. The volunteers will even set up live traps and help post signs around neighborhoods.

By now, Lexy had been missing for 36 hours. Jenni and Mark spent the morning writing up “lost dog” signs according to MDM’s template. Yet another day went by. Then someone who had seen Jenni’s flyer on MDM’s Facebook page contacted her. The caller was certain she’d spotted Lexy in an industrial park five miles from Jenni and Mark’s home. They jumped in the car and drove.

Until recently, the identification technology most of us relied on may have been our animals’ microchips. But an embedded chip is a passive device; it requires a veterinary clinician or shelter officer to scan the number, and then track the animal’s family down. “Today’s technology helps you find your own animal,” says California-based electronics engineer, Synette Tom. “And that reduces worry.” Here are three examples of high-tech ways to track down missing animals.

1. Along with her sister, Sheri Loui, Synette is the creator of Gibi, a slim, lightweight GPS-based device that attaches to existing dog and cat collars. It can track and display the whereabouts of an animal in real time. “Someone who lives in Los Angeles but has traveled to New York can see on the app exactly where her animal is back in California,” says Synette, adding that the device also works well for locating lost dogs or cats. You define “safe zones” using your desktop computer, tablet, Smartphone or Android device; safe zones could be a backyard, a dog park, or the route to your kids’ school. If a Gibi-enabled animal goes beyond those boundaries, you’re alerted via text or email, and the app allows you to see on your screen where he can be found.

When it comes to satellite technology, accuracy is affected by atmospheric conditions like temperature, air pressure or humidity, and terrestrial features such as dense undergrowth or tall buildings. Synette says the Gibi is accurate to within ten feet, and operates within a temperature range of 14°F to 131°F.

2. PetHub is another company that uses technology to streamline the process of finding lost animals. You add your dog or cat to the company’s National Recovery Database, buy one of their digital ID tags, and link the tag’s individual QR code with the PetHub Protection Program. If your animal goes missing, you can fl ag him as lost on your account and the service forwards a lost-animal profile to local shelters, pet stores, and other locales.

Someone who finds your animal can tap the tag with a Smartphone or scan the QR code to access your contact numbers. GPS data can be pulled from the mobile device used by the finder so that both you and PetHub know exactly where your animal was scanned. The person finding your animal can also call the company’s 24-hour hotline, or log onto the website; the operator then accesses your animal’s profile, calls you, and facilitates his return. It’s proving to be an effective system. Since its start-up five years ago, PetHub reports that 500 animals have been returned to families worldwide – 97% of them in less than one day and 25% of those in under one hour.

3. Fear of losing her own dog Midi has inspired singer/songwriter Jann Arden to design the Arden pet collar, which comes out this fall. It will not only use GPS, but also cellular SIM technology (SIM is an acronym for “Subscriber Identity Module”, a smart microprocessor chip). This acts as a backup tracker when a satellite cannot read an animal’s location because he taken cover under a bridge or in deep foliage. In either tracking mode, the Arden application will map the animal’s location on the device so his person can fetch him immediately.

Even more SOPHISTICATED technologies are starting to appear, including facial recognition software as well as embedded GPS devices powered not by batteries, but by the animal’s own muscle energy!

Additionally, when you activate the Arden app’s emergency “strobe” mode, the silicone collar will flash bright LED lights that keep a roaming animal visible both day and night. For the person who finds the dog or cat, an NFC (near field communications) chip automatically displays information that enables him/her to reunite your animal with you. A Smartphone within two feet of the animal can retrieve contact information and any other data the owner has entered. (To ensure privacy, this info appears only in strobe mode.) For those without cell phones, a web address will be embossed into the collar, and the finder can retrieve the animal’s information via the internet.

Nearly 45 hours after her dog went missing, Jenni found Lexy at the industrial park. The dog was sore and dehydrated after her ordeal, and Jenni and Mark drove her straight to the vet, where she received the treatment she needed. Jenni was awed by the number of complete strangers who helped her bring Lexy home, and grateful for the technology that connected them. She and Mark are now also considering a GPS-enabled device. When asked what it was like to find her dog after almost two days, Jenni said,“I’ve never felt joy like that before.”