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How Does Wireless Cat Fence / Invisible Fence / Electric Fence for Cats Work?

Choosing the right solution for allowing your cat or dog safe outdoor space is riddled with options and misinformation. Catios, kennels, fencing, shock collars, and the list goes on and on. There are factors such as cost, ease of installation, effectiveness, and even just plain old personal preference. It can be a daunting task, to say the least.

One of the more heavily marketed options (and often misunderstood) is the radio fence. Invisible / Radio Fence often called radio fence, wireless cat fence,  electric pet fence, invisible or underground fence, is a popular pet “fence” most commonly used to contain dogs but is also marketed for use for cats. It uses a radio broadcast with an electric shocking receiver collar system to shock the animal if they attempt to leave the containment area.

A Note About Electric Shock to Animals

Electric shock is unlike any naturally occurring pain an animal will encounter and its use as a training tool is controversial. For the purpose of discussing the effectiveness of underground wire radio fence as pet containment, this article will not cover the ethics of intentionally inflicting pain to an animal as means of changing their behavior.

How Does A Invisible Fence for Cats or Dogs / Electric Fence Work?

The system uses a wire, typically buried a few inches underground, to broadcast an FM radio signal with a total range of several feet in all directions from the wire. The signal weakens further from the wire but is still detectable several feet from the wire. The FM transmitting wire is run in a loop that follows the perimeter in which an animal is to be contained. For the FM signal to do anything, the companion animal needs to be wearing a special “shock” collar that detects the FM signal. When the shock collar is within several feet of the wire in the ‘weak signal” area, an alarm will beep to alert the animal that proceeding will mean a shock. The signal to shock is triggered once the collar enters the “strong” FM signal within a few feet of the wire. In principle, an animal is to be trained to understand that the beep noise is a warning of the impending shock and they are not to proceed forward.

Invisible wireless cat fence diagram

These “fences” can form an effective invisible perimeter for containing companion animals in the right circumstances. The “right circumstances” come down to the setting of the containment area and the temperament and trainability of the animal.

Proper and thorough training is essential for success since the systems provide no physical barriers at all. The effectiveness of the system is completely dependent on the animal being well-trained which can take weeks or even months.

Typically, the “warning beep” perimeter is marked with a series of small flags. The animal needs to then be trained to stay within the area delineated by the line of flags. The manufacturers of the systems provide recommended training procedures.

A quiet backyard is the ideal setting for this system. Conversely, a busy area with lots of traffic or pedestrians (or worse, pedestrians walking dogs) could prove too enticing, scary or distracting for even a well-trained animal to stay within the containment area. Other factors possible in any setting (including an ideal setting) such as a loud car accident, sirens or other loud noises like gunfire or thunder, could cause panic in an otherwise well-trained animal.

Another issue with the system is that it has no effect on any other animals or people. Other animals and people can cross the perimeter at will. The radio fence does nothing to protect a companion animal from anything entering the containment area. It takes a well-trained dog indeed to stay within the pet fence perimeter if a squirrel or neighbor cat wanders in! The use of this type of pet containment is also risky in areas with coyote, fisher cats, bobcats, cougars, other predators and neighboring cats/dogs since nothing is keeping these animals from entering the containment area. Possible spreading of bacteria and viruses along possible physical harm are ever-present.

What Happens if your Cat or Dog Leaves the Containment Area?

An excited or a panicked animal may ignore the beep and run through the ‘strong signal” shock area. Once out of the “strong field” area the shock stops. Now the animal is outside the invisible underground fence. It is important to note that the animal will encounter the same warning beep as it would inside the radio fence / invisible underground fence as it approaches the “warning beep” perimeter from the OUTSIDE of the perimeter. They were just shocked leaving the system so they received a strong reminder of what the warning beep means. Essentially the animal’s training will tell them NOT to go back into the radio fence because they will get shocked. This is one of the biggest shortcomings with this type of pet containment.

Some pet owners have had good success with these systems. That said, it is not a physical barrier. It does not keep other animals out and it will not keep an overly excited, frightened or panicked pet in. Invisible fence for cats, in particular, are less likely to be effective due to the difficulty in properly training them, not to mention that many people tend to have multiple cats. So training them and keeping all the collars in working order can be overwhelming. Batteries are also an issue, many of these systems require constant replacement of batteries and components to keep the system in working order.

The Bottom Line

Purrfect Fence is a supporter of humane containment options for all animals. Recognized as the leader in keeping pets safe and happy outdoors, we offer innovative physical barrier fences for both cats and dogs that allow your pet to roam freely in designated space without the need for radio shock collars. If you are considering an electric fence for cats, first consider looking at our Existing Cat Fence Topper if you already have a traditional fence installed. If you are looking to build a cat barrier from the ground up, consider our Freestanding Cat Fence System. Gain the benefits only a physical barrier can offer with a level of effectiveness that is unmatched vs. invisible fence for cats.

If you have a dog that is climbing over, getting through, or jumping your existing fence consider our Dog Proofer Systems.

A good resource about using electric shock as an animal behavior modification technique: Electronic Fencing - What you need to know

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