A gross imposition on feline liberty, or a sensible safety precaution? Opinions vary as to whether cats should have collars, and both side have a point. Unless trained to collars from kittenhood, most cats bitterly resent having to wear one, but it is indeed true that a cat with a collar is a safer cat. In the past, collars had a bad reputation. A number of accidents left cats injured or suffocated after a collar became entangled with a tree branch or other obstacle. Cats love to sneak through small spaces, and there is nothing that they would naturally get caught on, so they fail to realize the risk of their collar hooking them up. Also, because they are not fond of collars, some cats have tried to remove them, and ended in severe difficulty with a leg trapped between neck and collar. Nevertheless, when one compares the number of cats which are lost every year with the number of cats which sustain injury from the collar, the overwhelming answer has to be that collars save pets. If your cat will wear it, choose a collar. But which collar to choose?
The market is flooded with cat collars of different shapes, design and colour. There are standard buckled-on collars which are easy to put on, elasticated collars which slip over the head and adjust, and reflective collars to make a cat more visible in the dark. Now technology is also catching up with cat collars with GPS and radio. So let's look at all these different collars in more detail.
Although for you the design and colour may be important, the primary consideration for your cat is a good fit. If the collar is too tight, at best it will be uncomfortable, and at worst it can cut off the cat's blood and air supply. If too loose the collar is more likely to get caught on tree branches, fences, etc. Loose collars are also easier for cats to get out of. Collars come in different sizes and are usually adjustable. This is particularly relevant when buying for kittens since they grow out of each setting quickly and collars need to be regularly let out.
Many cat collars nowadays come with breakaway panels or buckles that will immediately free a cat which gets snagged on something. This is a very important feature and these safety collars are strongly recommended. The difference in price in negligible. It is true that some smart cats quickly learn how to unbuckle their safety collar, but overall it is really a very good idea. If you can't buy a safety cat collar, at the very least choose one made with fabric which can be easily cut through if the cat gets into trouble.
The main purpose of the collar is to carry information about the cat's identity and the human's contact information. A clearly-written phone number is definitely sufficient. Never put a full address for security reasons. Many people choose to attach a small bell or another type of noise-making device to alert small animals or birds of the catís presence. They rarely work. Cats do their hunting by lurking in ambush, and keeping very still. When they make their rush, their prey suddenly knows they are there, extra tinkly bell or not. But by then it's often too late. Bells don't save little feathered or furry things, but they help the collar to get caught on branches. Best remove them.
Reflective collars have a fluorescent strip which shines in the light. These are particularly useful on a cat which tends to go out in the evening. Road traffic is by far the biggest danger for a free-roaming cat, as cats tend to be suicidally stupid when it comes to cars. So the reflective collar can help the drivers to see a cat on the road and avoid it.
Now, the high-tech collars: GPS collars and radio collars. GPS collars work on the same principle as the GPS device in a car. The GPS collar periodically sends its longitude and latitude to a base station by transmitting it over a cellular phone network. Once received, the location information is uploaded to a website which allows the cat's location to be monitored and movements tracked. Although this is a very good idea, at the moment GPS collars are still very hard to get. There are some places which advertise them in Europe but not in other areas.
There is also a problem with the size. The European GPS collars weigh about 90g which is rather heavy for a cat. Imagine how you would feel walking around with a 1kg (2.5lb) weight on your neck. In time we should certainly see smaller and more widely available GPS collars, which should save many man-hours spent wandering around the garden banging a food dish. There is an extra expense though - with GPS collars, there is a monthly fee.
So maybe another type of tracking collar is preferable - a radio collar. Radio collars are more widely accessible. They are also much lighter because they have a small transponder which works with a coin battery. These collars use free radio frequencies so there is no monthly fee. Unlike the GPS locators, it is not possible to pinpoint the exact position of a radio-collared cat but the receiver can give fairly precise information about distance and direction, which should be sufficient. Although radio collars have a short range, cats do not normally stray very far from home so that should not be a problem - but it does limit the collar's usefulness in finding a lost or strayed cat.
It is becoming fashionable to take a cat for a walk on a leash just like a dog; especially if the cat is otherwise a fully indoor cat. Never attach the leash to a cat collar. A cat which struggles on a leash attached to its collar may suffer serious spine injuries. There are special harnesses which are designed to be used with a leash - get one of these.
Is there any alternative to a cat collar?
Most cats hate cat collars and have a knack of taking them off. Many humans find that their cat regularly slips her collar, and find it under the bed, behind the sofa or in the garden instead of on kitty's neck. It is therefore strongly recommend for all cats to be microchipped as safety measure number one. A microchip is a small (pin sized) chip which carries a unique number. This number is stored in the national pet database with the details of which human should be contacted if need be. Once injected under the cat's skin, the chip stays there permanently and can be read by a microchip reader. Almost every veterinary clinic or cat shelter has a microchip reader and it can identify the cat very quickly. The downside of the microchip is that the cat cannot be identified immediately by a person who finds a lost cat. However, once brought to a competent authority the cat can be immediately identified - and elsewhere on this website, we tell of cats that have been reunited with their humans up to a decade later. Only microchipping makes this possible.