Researchers track the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats

Researchers track the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats
One of the feral cats in the study, a mixed breed male, had a home range of 547 hectares (1,351 acres), the largest range of those tracked (red outline). A pet cat in the study, by contrast, stayed very close to home (yellow dot). Credit: Jeff Horn

Researchers (and some cat-owners) wanted to know: What do feral and free-roaming house cats do when they're out of sight? A two-year study offers a first look at the daily lives of these feline paupers and princes, whose territories overlap on the urban, suburban, rural and agricultural edges of many towns.

The study used radio telemetry and a sophisticated 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).

Of the radio transmitters used in the study, 23 had tilt and vibration sensors that tracked the animals' every move.

"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."

As expected, in most cases the un-owned cats had larger territories than the pet cats and were more active throughout the year. But the size of some of the feral cats' home ranges surprised even the researchers.

One of the feral cats, a mixed breed male, 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 , 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 ," 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 significantly smaller territories and tended to stay close to home. The mean home range for pet cats in the study was less than two hectares (4.9 acres).

"Still, some of the cat owners were very surprised to learn that their cats were going that far," Horn said. "That's a lot of backyards."

The pet cats managed this despite being asleep or in low activity 97 percent of the time. On average, they spent only 3 percent of their time engaged in highly active pursuits, such as running or stalking prey, the researchers reported. The un-owned cats were highly active 14 percent of the time.

Researchers track the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats
The cats were fitted with radio collars and tracked over two years. Some of the collars also had devices that continuously monitored the cats' every move. This un-owned cat was one of those tracked. Credit: Illinois Natural History Survey

"The un-owned cats have to find food to survive, and their activity is significantly greater than the owned cats throughout the day and throughout the year, especially in winter," Horn said. "These un-owned cats have to search harder to find food to create the (body) heat that they need to survive."

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.

"Even feral cats were always within range of a building," she said. "That shows that even though they're feral, they still have a level of dependency on us."

One feral cat chased another out of a dairy barn. Another feral cat waited for a pet cat to emerge each morning and tried to chase it out of its own backyard, Horn said.

The overlap of feral and pet cat territories outdoors spells trouble for the environment, the cats and potentially also for the cat owners, the researchers said.

In an earlier study, co-author Richard Warner, an emeritus professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at Illinois, followed the cats of about two-dozen rural residences over several years.

"Two of the leading causes of cat deaths in that study were other cats and disease," Warner said. "And both of these leading causes of death are sitting here waiting for these owned cats outdoors."

Cats also get diseases from wildlife or other cats, Mateus-Pinilla said, and can bring them home and infect their owners and other pets.

"For example, Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite spread primarily by cats, may cause neurological, reproductive and even respiratory problems in humans, cats and wildlife, depending on the species affected," she said. Rabies, cat scratch fever, feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus are also of concern to pet owners whose cats encounter other cats outdoors, she said. Vaccination of pet cats will reduce but not eliminate the threat of disease transmission, she said.

Even though pet cats have relatively small ranges and are active only in short bursts, Warner said, their impact on wildlife in the immediate vicinity of their homes is likely much more intense than that of a feral cat that wanders over a larger territory.

Unlike other feline predators, such as bobcats, that are native to the Midwest, domestic cats are invasive species that have a disproportionately damaging effect on wildlife – either through predation or disease, Horn said.

Wild animals that have adapted to ecosystems that are already fragmented, such as the prairies of Central Illinois, are even more endangered because domestic are disrupting the ecosystem by hunting, competing with native predators or spreading disease, he said.

Explore further

Cats pass disease to wildlife, even in remote areas

More information: Home range, habitat use, and activity patterns of free-roaming domestic cats, DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.145

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.

Citation: Researchers track the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats (2011, May 26) retrieved 17 July 2019 from
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May 26, 2011
Another feral cat waited for a pet cat to emerge each morning and tried to chase it out of its own backyard

I've seen that happen a bunch of times.

I had a cat a couple years ago that would go for walks with me. It would stay right beside me all the way around the neighborhood, just like dogs do. My car odometer said that was about a mile and a half. I've never seen a cat do that before.

May 26, 2011
I had a cat a couple years ago that would go for walks with me. It would stay right beside me all the way around the neighborhood, just like dogs do. My car odometer said that was about a mile and a half. I've never seen a cat do that before.

My cat follows me when I go for walks, granted I live in a wooded area with no neighbors. That's pretty neat that it would follow you while walking through a neighborhood.

May 26, 2011
I had a cat that would follow me through a neighborhood to, but it would walk close to bushes and stuff.

May 26, 2011
The state of california had program offering free spay or neutering of cats and the result was a rodent problem, since the program has been canceled the rat problem is under control again. And yes cats will come when called by name, follow you, beg for food, follow voice commands ,expect you to play with them much like a dog or other pet.

May 27, 2011
It would be interesting to study the range of feral cats in Australia where feral cats are a serious menace to indigenous wild life. A similar study of Australian ferals could yield really useful information for control strategies such as the required density of traps.

May 28, 2011
How nice to see that the ecological disaster that cat-lovers has caused is getting even worse, not better.

These invasive species have devastated the natural food-chain in my woods. All foxes, owls, and other predatory animals that depended on all the wildlife that cats destroyed (not ate) starved to death. After a 15 year effort of my own, including raising native mice and voles to repopulate just a couple of the species that their cats destroyed, and on advice of the local sheriff to shoot every one of them (collared or not), my woods have finally started to head back into a direction of natural balance. Including seeing wild-turkeys, grouse, and other ground-nesting birds again.

May 28, 2011
No animals that *should* be predators of cats will even go near them. Due to the varying coloring patterns bred into these cats (by selective breeding, a form of genetic engineering), wildlife perceives these bold patterns as warning signs for toxicity or having olfactory defense mechanisms. It would take eons of adaptation before native species put them on their preferred prey list, but ONLY if they didn't get sick from all the potentially deadly diseases that cats now carry too, and ONLY if cats' coats finally settled down into one drab coloring pattern. Otherwise predators will never get a lock on which are safe to eat and which are not, resulting in them avoiding them all. Wildlife not eating cats might be the only thing that's saving wildlife from even faster mass-destruction by cats at this point. Cats have no more right to be out in nature than a genetically engineered insect that, if released into nature, will destroy all life.

May 28, 2011
I hope your next study is of cat-lovers' true motives. You can then confirm what I've already come to know:

Territorial Behavior By Expendable Proxy

I have come to the firm conclusion that all cat-lovers that let their invasive-species roam free, especially those that want feral cats to invade public property, are only using cats as a proxy for their own territorial behavior. Like youth that will disrespectfully use loud music to stake-out territory. If they can have one of their cats destroy another's yard and the owner not have any recourse, the cat-owner owns that territory. It's time stop them and their "cute kitty" excuse for usurping others' property. If they want territory they can buy it. Instead they're putting (and sacrificing) live animals for their goals. They only want your yard or forest while making all other life suffer. Bottom line--they want to control you and your property. It's why they don't care if their cat nor anything else is harmed by their lack of values.

Jun 02, 2011
Mmm probably not.

I think cat-lovers just love cats and put them outside because they meow for it.

I hope you're being sarcastic. So hard to tell on the internets.

Jun 07, 2011
Why TNR Advocates Exist ...


The Toxoplasma gondii parasite changes the brains of whatever organism it infests. In mice, they lose the fear of cats. Making the asexual phase of its life-cycle complete more quickly into its reproductive host cats. This loss of fear and apprehension manifesting in humans, when common-sense tells them to depend on that fear or doubt for survival.

Other ways is has been known to alter the minds of humans: http://wildlifepr.../?p=3929

I suspect it is responsible for cat-lovers' totally contradictory behavior of putting cats, all animals, and humans in harm's-way through promoting TNR, to ensure Toxoplasma gondii throughout the food-chain and more humans. Being controlled against all reason and common-sense by this parasite in their cats.

Sci-fi come to reality. Real-life "pod-people". They can't reason beyond the survival of Toxoplasma gondii. It won't let them.

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