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See Inside August 2011

Where House Cats Roam: Researchers Compare the Mysterious Wanderings of Pet and Stray Felines




Fahmi Sani Photography Getty Images

Anyone who has ever owned an outdoor cat knows that it tends to disappear for hours, sometimes days, at a time. Where do cats go when they are lurking out of sight? The question is of interest not just to pet owners but also to conservation scientists who study the impact of free-roaming cats on wildlife populations.  Scientists at the University of Illinois and the Illinois Natural History Survey recently attached radio transmitters to the adjustable collars of 18 pet and 24 feral cats in southeastern Champaign-Urbana and tracked the animals by truck and on foot for more than one year. The research, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, shows that pet cats maintain a rather lazy existence: they spent 80 percent of their time resting. They devoted another 17 percent to low-activity pursuits such as grooming and only 3 percent to high-activity pursuits such as hunting. Unowned cats rested just 62 percent of the time and spent 14 percent, mostly at night, being highly active. Feral cats roamed far more widely than researchers had expected: up to 1,351 acres. In contrast, pet cats stayed within an average of about five acres of home.

The small cats’ behavior is similar to that of their larger cousins. “Maintaining a ranging area is a very intrinsic behavior to cats,” says Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of the conservation organization Panthera. Like small cats, wild cats like to stay close to humans for easier access to food.  Jaguars in Latin America, for example, slink quietly through massive stretches of human land. It’s part of a cat’s nature to live on the interface of wild and human-inhabited land. 

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