Cat Tracker Study Reveals the Secret Wanderings of 900 House Cats

Feral Cats

It took Cat Tracker six years to figure out where 900 house cats wander- even though we’ve all wondered about this forever. It’s a completely engaging study. Cat Tracker is an international project tracking cats on a scale never attempted. Almost one thousand cats living in four countries have been harnessed with GPS trackers for ten days. The goal? …to discover where they go, and how far away. The Cat Tracker team collected data from several continents and published their results in Animal Conservation. The team wanted to know where the cats were going, what were they eating, and why they do what they do. The team was particularly curious about how cats choose the landscapes available to them when roaming outdoors. Some questions which popped up were about whether a cat that lives in the tropics “meanders differently” than one that lives in the subarctic. Final documentation focused on whether cats vary in the ways they move around and why some cats travel farther away than others do.

The researchers dug even deeper into the secret lives of cats by using isotopic analysis of their hair and food. The scientists collected fur and food samples for this process. The carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios of cats’ typical food and fur were analyzed. Using this information as a base, they could then analyze the same items after cats had been roaming outdoors. If the isotopic signatures changed, then it would be obvious that kitty was either an eat-at-home kind of cat or a feline predator killing native species of birds and mammals.

To get a better idea of cat behavior, the researchers collaborated with Discovery Circle in Australia to use that program’s “Feline Five” survey. It evaluates 52 different characteristics to determine a cat’s personality. Ultimately, there are 5 feline personality traits which define feline behaviors. These are Dominance and Friendliness, Outgoingness, Skittishness, and Spontaneity. The project team for Discovery Circle tracked up to 1400 cats during their study. They learned that the traveling distance for a cat prowling away from home ranges from about 1,000 square meters to more than 300,000 square meters. About 40 per cent of cats whose owners think they are inside at night were actually outside and prowling around.

Cat Tracker is an amazing partnership among three entities:

Your Wild Life is a team of scientists, science communicators, students, and citizens who are passionate about exploring microorganisms in food and things so yucky you probably wouldn’t want to know.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is interested in discovering the extent that hunting house cats affect local animal populations due to their tendency to kill prey in their area of movement. These guys outfitted house cats with GPS devices so that owners could track their pets to see where they went. The researchers also measured distances traveled by the cats and reported how many “dead critters” they brought home. Working with citizen scientists, 925 pet cats were tracked in six countries. It turns out that pet cats kill billions of their prey in local areas each year.

Movebank is a free, accessible online database of animal movement data.

One fun thing about the Cat Tracker Project is that the favorite cats in the study are featured online, and you can see where they went in their neighborhood on a personalized map. Aya, was tracked in Copenhagen, Denmark. Catniss Everdeen was tracked in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Lupe was tracked in Arlington, MA. Nia was tracked in Savannah, GA. The list goes on and on. Pictures of the nighttime travelers are included for the favorite featured cats.

Cat owners can register to track their cats by using the Cat Tracker website. Filling out a Participant Questionnaire is required and signing the Informed Consent form is, too. Each owner is provided with DIY instructions for making their cat a GPS Harness to wear for tracking purposes. Owners set their indoor-outdoor cats loose for 5 days with the GPS harness safely on. After 5 days, owners follow instructions for downloading and uploading data. Then, they recharge and re-program the GPS unit and send kitty out for another 5 days. Once the time is completed successfully, the data is submitted online. Residents in Raleigh/Durham, Fairfield County, CT or Westchester County, NY can obtain a GPS harness rather than making one themselves.

In addition to tracking kitty, there is a Diet Study which is part of the overall Cat Tracker program. There’s a handy Diet Study Protocol Video that teaches cat owners how to collect kitty’s hair and food for testing. The way it’s done is user friendly. Samples collected are sent to The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences so that Dr. Roland Kays and his researchers can analyze the carbon and nitrogen isotopes with the signature of kitty’s usual pet food. If kitty is eating mice or wild birds somewhere else, those signatures will be different and tell the tale of what kitty is sourcing during midnight snack runs.

Who hasn’t asked of his or her kitty, “Where have you been?” Some felines are very proud of their nightly stalks and present their owners with their freshly killed prey. Many have found dead birds, mice, lizards, and other gross things (usually in bloody pieces) left on their door mats. Others simply disappear for random lengths of time until they feel like returning home. Following the assumptions of the researchers, it’s probably wise to consider that cats are only “theoretically domesticated”. If we really want or need to know what they’re up to when they leave, then tracking them is a viable option now and makes a lot of sense. They can, and do, get themselves into trouble when they ingest nasty poisons or tromp through flea-infested spaces. Not everyone on Earth appreciates cats and there are those who set out to harm cats will all sort of harmful substances.

The Cat Tracker Project protocols offer new ways to keep that pesky, unpredictable cat safer. It also gives owners the chance to be proactive about protecting the environment a cat inhabits. “I know where you’ve been, kitty” might just keep a dangerous stalker away from native prey or the neighbor’s prize chickens. So… go on…. solve that cat mystery….



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