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How Far Does Your Cat Roam?

Heidy Kikillus and a cat fitted with a GPS unit and harness to record its wanderings as part of the Cat Tracker project.

Heidy Kikillus and a cat fitted with a GPS unit and harness to record its wanderings as part of the Cat Tracker project.

By Heidy Kikillus, Philip Roetman & Roland Kays

It’s 10 pm. Do you know where your cat is? Would you believe it could roam up to 30 km in a week?

Despite living alongside humans for so long, cats can have a very aloof and mysterious nature. It is fascinating that one of the animals that we commonly keep around is also the one whose habits we know the least. What other pet do we allow to wander freely and unsupervised for the majority of the time? Dogs must often be registered and contained to their owners’ property, yet in many areas cats are allowed to roam where and when they want.

Where do pet cats actually go when they leave through the cat flap? Previous research on the ranges covered by pet cats has typically focused on very few cats, making it difficult to generalise the results beyond the cats involved in the particular study.

The Cat Tracker project was deliberately established to track a large number of cats. It was initiated in the USA but has expanded through international collaborators to several other countries, including Australia and New Zealand.

While cats are popular pets, they are also introduced predators in these countries and may negatively impact rare native wildlife. Hence, a better understanding of their movements may help balance cats and conservation.

As part of the Cat Tracker project, we fitted a large number of pet cats with harnesses and GPS loggers to record their movement. The GPS units were pre-programmed to begin recording at least a day after being put on the cat. This lag enabled the cat to become accustomed to wearing the equipment before any data were collected. Many cats had never worn a harness before, so we made sure that they were comfortable with the tracking equipment. There was no point collecting data from an unhappy cat hiding under the bed! We tracked the cats for a week, and a map of each of the cat’s travels was generated and shared online.

We tracked a total of 637 pet cats (209 in New Zealand and 428 in South Australia). Their home ranges varied widely, from less than one hectare to more than 200 hectares. The median home range was slightly more than one hectare – about the combined size of eight Olympic swimming pools. Our analysis revealed that male cats generally travelled further than female cats, but movements did not appear to be influenced by whether cats were “moggies” or purebred.

We classified cats with home ranges greater than one hectare as wandering cats, while cats that stayed closer to home were classified as sedentary. In South Australia, wandering cats were typically younger, seen with prey more often, and showed signs of being in cat fights more than sedentary cats. In both South Australia and New Zealand, wandering cats typically spent more time outside than sedentary cats.

The amount of time that owners spent with their cats was not related to the home ranges of the cats. Cat tracks are publicly available to view on the Cat Tracker New Zealand and Cat Tracker Australia websites.

Before our tracking study, many cat owners were unsure about how far their cat roamed away from their home, and those who did venture a guess tended to underestimate their cat’s travels. In New Zealand, one cat went above and beyond any cat in either country, travelling more than 30 km! Additionally, more than 20% of New Zealand cats and almost 40% of South Australian cats that were reported to be contained at night had travel patterns covering more than one hectare between sunset and sunrise – revealing that some cat owners are unaware of how much time their pets are spending outside.

As well as better understanding the movements of cats, the project aimed to share views about the management of pet cats. A questionnaire that ran alongside the cat tracking component of the project was completed by almost 6000 South Australians and New Zealanders. This has revealed some similarities and some differences in opinions about the management of cats in the two countries.

Most people agreed that de-sexing and microchipping of pet cats should be mandatory. Most people also agreed that there should be a limit on the number of cats allowed per household. However, cat owners generally proposed that the limit should be higher than people who did not own cats.

The results were more complex for potential regulation mechanisms such as registration and night-time curfews. In both South Australia and New Zealand, half of the respondents thought registration of pet cats should be mandatory. However, cat owners were typically more unsure or negative about registration than non-owners. In South Australia, most respondents reported that they would support night-time curfews for pet cats, with more than half of the cat owners and non-owners signalling that they were supportive of such a regulation. In contrast, in New Zealand, while around three-quarters of non-owners reported that they would support a night-time curfew, fewer than 40% of cat owners reported such support.

Cat Tracker is also running in the USA and the UK, and the next step will be to see if cats from other continents differ in their wandering patterns. Cat Tracker has also expanded in Australia, with a national project now underway. If you are interested in enrolling your cat visit https://www.discoverycircle.org.au but be quick as spaces are limited!

Heidy Kikillus is a Research Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington, Philip Roetman is a Research Fellow at the University of South Australia, and Roland Kays is a Research Associate Professor at North Carolina State University.