Researchers Track Range of Feral and Outdoor House Cats

Posted on May 27, 2011

Researchers conducted a study to find out what feral and free-roaming house cats do when they're out of sight. The two-year study used radio telemetry and an activity-tracking device to capture the haunts and habits of dozens of owned and un-owned cats living at the southern edge of Champaign and Urbana, neighboring cities in Central Illinois. Together, the 42 adult cats originally radio-tracked for the study ranged over a territory of 2,544 hectares (6,286 acres).

"There's no (other) data set like this for cats," said Jeff Horn, a former graduate student in the University of Illinois department of natural resources and environmental sciences who conducted the study for his master's thesis with researchers from his department and the Prairie Research Institute at Illinois. "Without these sensors, it would require a field team of 10 to 12 people to collect that data."

In most cases the un-owned cats had larger territories than the pet cats and were more active throughout the year, which was expected. One of the feral cats had a home range of 547 hectares (1,351 acres), the largest range of those tracked. Like most of the feral cats, this lone ranger was seen in both urban and rural sites, from residential and campus lawns to agricultural fields, forests and a restored prairie.

"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."

The owned cats had much smaller territories and tended to stay close to their homes. The mean home range for pet cats in the study was less than two hectares (4.9 acres). Horn said, "Still, some of the cat owners were very surprised to learn that their cats were going that far. That's a lot of backyards."

The cats also differed in the types of territories they used throughout the year. Pet cats randomly wandered in different habitats, but un-owned cats had seasonal habits. In winter, feral cats stayed closer to urban areas than expected. And throughout the year they spent a good amount of time in grasslands, including a restored prairie. Most of the cats in the study stayed within about 300 meters of human structures, said co-author Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, a wildlife veterinary epidemiologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey at Illinois.

Territories between feral cats and outdoor pet cats often overlap. This spells trouble for the environment, the cats and potentially also for the cat owners, the researchers said. Cats can get diseases from wildlife or other cats and bring them home and infect their owners and other pets.

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