Kitty, Exactly Where DO You Go When You’re Outside?

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A study in The Journal of Wildlife Management meant to provide background data for those opposed to free roaming cats comes up with some interesting results on where and how far kitty is going when you  let him out for the day. While your house cat may be exploring farther than you think, his neighborhood is smaller than that of his feral brethren.

Beyond the researchers own interests, the two year study of a small number of feral and domesticated house cats provides some interesting data on where and how far cats travel on their daily rounds and what their habits are.

The 42 cats were equipped with monitoring collars that allowed researchers to track their movements and activities as they wandered their territories in the area surrounding Champaign/ Urbana, Illinois.

At the far end of the scale, one feral cat’s range was over 1,300 acres, while the domestic cats averaged about 5 acres each. The total area covered by the cats tops 6,300 acres.

Of the study’s greatest wanderer, Jeff Horn says:

“That particular male cat was not getting food from humans, to my knowledge, but somehow it survived out there amidst coyotes and foxes,” Horn said. “It crossed every street in the area where it was trapped. (It navigated) stoplights, parking lots. We found it denning under a softball field during a game.”

Map showing the total area from the study shown in black, the territory of one feral in red and a domesticated housecat’s turf in the yellow dot.

The domesticated cats were only highly active about 3% of the time and spent much of the rest of the time – no surprise – sleeping. The ferals, who had to hunt or forage more for food, were highly active about 14% of the time.

Feral cats were found to remain fairly close to buildings for at least part of the day, causing the researchers to suggest that the ferals are at least somewhat dependent on us for their survival.

Though the families of those participating cats who have homes were surprised to find that their cats were wandering far further than expected, by comparison domesticated cats stay quite close to home and are fairly inactive. Their travels were described as random wanderings.

Unlike the domesticated cats, the ferals were found to follow seasonal habits, staying closer to urban areas in winter and spending more time in the fields and restored prairie lands in summer.

As one would expect, considering the researchers’ predisposed attitudes, they assert that the overlap of feral and pet cat territories outdoors spells trouble for the environment, the cats and potentially also for the cat owners.  To support this they cite instances where one feral might chase another out of a barn or a feral might lay in wait to chase a domesticated cat out of his own yard every day.

Many of us with outdoor cats can well relate to having the neighborhood toms come around to bully our own cats every day but find that shouting at them out the back door or approaching them authoritatively usually takes care of the situation. Thus the researchers dire conclusion on that point seems a bit overstated.

In an earlier study, one of this study’s researchers, Richard Warner, cites disease and cat on cat violence as the two major causes of death for outdoor cats. He also discuses disease transmission from wild animals, from cat to cat, and eventually to humans in some cases. Diseases cited included toxoplasma, FIV, FELV, rabies and cat scratch fever.

Warner also claims that since the domesticated cat’s range of habitat is smaller his impact on wildlife and the environment is greater since his activities are more narrowly concentrated.

These points are apparently intended to suggest that the cat who is a family pet is as much a threat to the earth and its creatures as is the unhomed feral cat.

One of the study’s feral cats wearing his monitoring collar.

Listen to Steven Mirsky’s podcast  from Scientific American for more on the story:


The study’s findings will no doubt be used in the growing effort by wildlife advocates and both cat haters and some cat advocates alike to curb feral cat populations and to eventually change perceptions of accepted behavior and further the push to keep cats indoors.

The journal provides this abstract by the study’s authors. We’ve highlighted the portion that reveals the study’s intent and purpose:

We used radio-telemetry and collar-mounted activity sensors to compare home range size, habitat use, and activity patterns of owned and unowned free-roaming cats on the outskirts of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, USA. Owned cats (3 M, 8 F) had smaller home ranges than unowned cats (6 M, 10 F), but we failed to detect consistent differences in home range size between the sexes or among seasons.

Home ranges of unowned cats included more grassland and urban area than predicted based on availability in all seasons, and farmsteads were selected in fall and winter. Within home ranges, unowned cats shifted their use of habitats among seasons in ways that likely reflected prey availability, predation risk, and environmental stress, whereas habitat use within home ranges by owned cats did not differ from random. Unowned cats were more nocturnal and showed higher overall levels of activity than owned cats.

Space use and behavioral differences between owned and unowned cats supported the hypothesis that the care a cat owner provides influences the impact a cat has on its environment, information that is important for making decisions on controlling cat populations.

© 2011 The Wildlife Society.

The key phrase here is “controlling cat populations”. Whether this will be used against feral cats only, and to what dire effect, or in efforts to keep all cats indoors remains to be seen.

Study authors: Jeff A. Horn, Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, Richard E. Warner, Edward J. Heske

Androsov photo

6 thoughts on “Kitty, Exactly Where DO You Go When You’re Outside?”

  1. Two of mine stay outside most the day, one goes out for a little bit, and the other four all stay in. We have a lot of woods behind our house that they generally stay in though. I would never let my cats out if we lived in a city.

  2. All of my kids are rescues; they know the Great Outdoors, and they know that INDOORS they have constant food, protection, and affection. They will on occasion sit in the window and watch the outside go by, but I can leave doors open all day and the most that’ll happen is they’ll curl up on the rug just inside the door and nap. They wouldn’t go out for ANYTHING unless in carriers.

  3. My cat usually jumps the wooden fence and goes to the neighbor’s yard. I’ve never figured out why.

  4. seems to me that any ‘problems’ the feral cats may cause originated with careless owners and now the cats are being vilified.

  5. I think this study is quite interesting! My cat is outdoors ALL the time. He was originally a wild cat when he was 1 month old I think? He still acts like a wild cat, and sometimes brings us “presents” into the house.

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