National Geographic News

Jennifer S. Holland

for National Geographic

Published August 7, 2014

Ever wondered where your cat slinks off to when it goes outside?

Cat Tracker, a new crowdsourced mapping project, encourages owners to put GPS collars on domestic cats to monitor their movements and activities around—and sometimes well beyond—the 'hood. (Watch a video about the secret lives of cats.)

The resulting data could help conservationists save wildlife that the cats prey on, as well as reveal new insights into cat behavior, experts say.

Our pet cats are a pretty lazy bunch, sleeping or at least lying around well over 90 percent of the time. But still, when that screen door shuts behind them, our felines are prone to roam. (Also see "What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised.")

One thing that makes the Cat Tracker project different from other animal-tracking efforts is that anyone in the U.S.—and now in New Zealand and Australia—can participate. A cat owner must simply buy or borrow a GPS unit and make a harness to hold it on the cat, using a method explained on the Cat Tracker website.

After seven days, owners download the tracking data (also explained online), and boom, the cat's movements are transformed into a starburst of lines on a satellite map.

So far, the Cat Tracker team—a partnership between Your Wild Life and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in collaboration with Movebank, an online database that houses animal-movement data—has posted movement maps for about 50 cats. They're aiming for at least a thousand before this phase of the project wraps up.

In the Footsteps of Felines

The data may help scientists figure out what impact cats are having on their environments.

In the U.S., for instance, "ecologists are concerned about where cats go, because they have a reputation for killing lots of native birds and mammals," said Roland Kays of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, one of the project leaders.

"There are so many cats in the country [some 95 million are pets, plus millions more are feral] that they could be doing damage to our wild animal populations," he said. "But it really depends on if they are hunting in urban areas or moving out into our nature preserves." (See "Vasectomies Could Cut Feral Cat Population.")

Anthropologist Barbara King of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, an expert on feline behavior who isn't involved in the project, said Cat Tracker is a great way to solve this important mystery, since more hard data on cat predation is "sorely needed."

Not to mention, as King said, "it would just be fascinating to learn how far they go and where!"

In addition, following in feline footsteps could elucidate how their "outdoor diet" relates to disease and parasites, noted NC State veterinarian Suzanne Kennedy-Stoskopf, who's part of the project.

Kennedy-Stoskopf has a list of questions she hopes Cat Tracker will answer: "Do presumably well-fed cats kill and eat wildlife routinely? Is it just a subset of cats that do this? Is there any relation between the quality of indoor diets and outdoor prey behavior?"

And finally, "Do cats that ingest wild prey have greater parasite burden in their digestive tracts, and do any of these parasites pose a risk to their owners?"

Curious Cat Owners

Meanwhile, some of us are simply curious to know if our cats are cheating on us with other cat-loving households. (Also see "How Cats and People Grew to Love Each Other.")

After years living in another house, "the first cat we tested, belonging to Rob Dunn [of Your Wild Life], went back to its old house," just over 0.75 mile (1.2 kilometers) away from its current home, Kays said.

"That was a surprise"—not many studies have assessed how well cats can navigate and remember past routes, he said. But anecdotal evidence suggests they are better at it than we think.

A smaller cat-tracking project in central Illinois in 2011 revealed the travels of 42 adult cats ranging over more than 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) of land. Unowned cats proved to be the most active and had the highest mileage. (See National Geographic readers' pictures of cats.)

One feral male had a home range of more than 1,300 acres (520 hectares), almost double the size of New York's Central Park. It wandered through a combination of urban and rural sites that exposed it to a variety of dangers, from busy streets and parking lots to coyotes and foxes.

So far Cat Tracker's subjects haven't covered nearly as much ground—the longest trip so far belonged to Natasha, at 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers)—but its still early in the project, with hundreds of mystery movements yet to be mapped.

"I expect we'll get lots of surprises," Kays said.

Kitties, take your marks...

Follow Jennifer S. Holland on Twitter.

28 comments
John Ortlieb
John Ortlieb

It also looks like the fatter the cat the less the movement in patterns and distance just like humans. (Lester, boris, james, tasha).

Dr Bob Rhoda
Dr Bob Rhoda

I was raised on a farm.  We ALWAYS had a couple of cats around the barns.  In the winter they would sleep in the basement of our house.  They had ID tags in case they got lost or picked up somewhere but we never considered tracking their travels.

There are great dangers for cats who are allowed to roam freely especially if they have been de-clawed. They may get attacked by a dog, picked up and sold for science experiments, hit by a car, abused by kids and on and on.  Anyone who just lets their pet roam randomly should not be allowed to have a pet.  Horsewhipping might also be a viable option.

The ONLY reason I could imagine to  track my cat would be to try and keep him/her safe.  But, let's say you cat is two blocks away and gets attacked by a dog.  What good is your tracker.  You couldn't get there in time to save the cat no matter what.

Case in point:  We have a fenced yard.  Some years ago we had a Chow Dog which spent a great deal of time in our large yard.  Every once in a while, I would find a dead cat in the yard.  Not eaten or anything, just dead.  One day I watched as a large cat walked slowly back & forth along the top of our wooden privacy fence meowing and generally driving our Chow crazy.  I sprayed it with a hose & it left.  It was back the next day but ran as soon as I came out of the house.  This continued several days with the cat incessantly pestering the dog from the top of the fence.  The dog began to lay there & watch the cat rather than reacting right away.  Each day the dog lay a little closer to the fence and you could see the dog's eyes tracking the cat back & forth, back & forth.

The cat got used to this and stayed on the fence longer each time.  One day the dog was lying in the grass 5 or 6 feet from the fence as the cat carried on.  SUDDENLY the dog sprang.  She covered that 5 or 6 feet in a bound, leaping about half way up the fence & striking it with all four feet.  Now the dog weighed around 65 pounds and when she hit the fence the impact threw the cat right into the yard.  The dog was on her before I could react.  One snap & she was done. 

A better solution for cats is to have them spayed or neutered.  Spayed & neutered cats seldom wander far from home. AND, they don't drop litters under everyone's porch.  Also fence the yard and just keep them inside most of the time.  Cats adapt very well to inside and stay healthy & safe that way. 

As an added "cat-note", I read an article in a British science journal a few years ago in which someone made a scientific study of cats in metropolitan London.  The conclusion of the article was that cats, allowed to run free, killed an average of 80+ birds a month.  THAT'S a LOT OF WILDLIFE.  Another good reason to control you cat.

Anyone I love cats, when they're someone else's cat. That way I never have to clean a litter box.

Grant Sizemore
Grant Sizemore

I am encouraged to know that more research is being done to assess the impacts cats have on wildlife. On a larger scale, previous research by scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have estimated that all the outdoor cats in the U.S. kill about 2.4 BILLION birds and about 12.3 BILLION mammals every year. Contributing to these admittedly unfathomable values are 22 birds and 40 mammals killed per owned cat every year. 

What about if we look at individual cats in suburban areas? Among owned cats allowed outdoors, another cat tracking study (called "KittyCam") showed that only about 23% of prey items were returned to the home, suggesting that cat owners and studies relying on prey returns have historically seriously underestimated total predation.


However, it is important to recognize that direct predation is not the only mechanism by which cats impact their surroundings. Research has shown that cats indirectly reduce the success of nesting birds by merely being around. The birds are stressed by a cat's presence and must devote more time to anti-predator behavior at the expense of caring for their young. The result is fewer and less healthy birds.


Understanding the magnitude of these direct and indirect impacts is certainly important, but it may be time to simply admit that cats are a threat to wild animals and probably shouldn't be roaming outdoors in the first place. Out of all the many problems our environment faces, this is one that could be easily remedied if we would just decide that a healthy, functioning ecosystem is more important than letting our cats wander the neighborhood. And if a cat still seems to need the walk, why not use a leash?

Suzanne Barnes
Suzanne Barnes

Cats can be surprisingly resourceful when it comes to bringing prey home.  My family took a stray in that promptly delivered four kittens; when they reached the age where they could eat solid food, nothing would do but that their mother had to supplement their cat chow with her catches... but she had an interesting take on what 'prey' might be.  One day she found some poor hunter who had been cleaning the quail he had shot (probably outside, readying them for the freezer) and who left them within reach for too long; we found six dirty, chewed-up cleaned and dressed quail carcasses on our front porch with the kittens crawling all over them.  She would also bring home cooked pieces of bacon (gods alone know where from), the occasional piece of Kraft American cheese still in a plastic wrapper and, once, a dead parakeet.  Like I said, resourceful.

Jason Newstedt
Jason Newstedt

I'm getting SO tired of theseneo-hippies whining about how cats "destroy the ecosystem with their hunting." No matter how much you complain, you cannot change nature (there's nothing more anti-ecology than preventing it from doing what it wants). Besides, the hunting instinct is one of the main reasons why I love the cat. It is a huge asset to our home in that they keep the rodents out. If they happen to take out a bird or two so be it. The bird has been on this earth for millions of years. It's not going anywhere.

Susan Nordvall
Susan Nordvall

Because I found my cats abandoned in an alley, they would fight to get outdoors.  I do let them out with shiny collars and bells.  They are well fed and don't even eat the occasional mouse that meets up with them.  I know the problem is not eating, but the hunting instinct.  Future cats will be kept indoors or on a porch or 2nd floor deck.

Ana Golici
Ana Golici

I kept my cats indoors for their first 9 month, than I let them go out daily. Because I fed them cat food, they do not eat raw meat. They aren't aggressive, only curious about other wild life creatures roaming around. I don't think they will be able to kill a bird or even a mice. So far they haven't. Their mother didn't have time to teach them how to hunt. We adopted them when they where kittens. Once I've had another cat which was an indoor cat for most of his life. He couldn't hunt anything.

Should these cats become hungry, I think they will develop hunting skills out of necessity, but as long as there is plenty of food in the house, why bother?

It must be disgusting for them to eat something dirty, covered with feathers or fur. Think about it.


Jocelyn Caron
Jocelyn Caron

It is an interesting study, but the problem, for wild life, is that cat owners have no obligation to keep their pet on a leash as we must do for our dogs. A domestic animal should always be on a leash.

Paula Baptista
Paula Baptista

what if the problem is actually that people are building right on every other critter's territory?! 

they're blaming it on cats now?! seriously

Seamus Cameron
Seamus Cameron

"The resulting data could help conservationists save wildlife that the cats prey on,"

You know what would really help? If irresponsible Cat owners kept their pets indoors. Domestic Cats prowling outdoors are a menace.

Joe Cuviello
Joe Cuviello

I've noticed some interesting reader comments on a recent blog post about horse communication, and now this, cat roaming and wildlife predation. As first hand observers, we all have great intuition about what our pets are capable of and are probably doing. I've read comments that the opinion is, we already know what they are doing. However science needs to take a ground up, no short cuts, systematic approach to developing hard data to prove these sometimes obvious assumptions. For instance, cats have territories and evolved from generations of wild cats that know how to get around. Same with dogs. They all hunt to some extent. But science needs to put the numbers together. The data along with the proof of a theory then allows for actions to be taken. In this case, this study will become more useful as greater numbers of wild animals become endangered. Sure humans destroy habitat, but add to that we let our cats roam and destroy also. I doubt humans are going to give back habitat. But at least maybe we figure out how important it is and work on ideas about how to protect wildlife in areas that need more protection.

Sharif Sircar
Sharif Sircar

Its hard to concentrate on that video

when my head is thinking i just want to hug~ that white cat <3 

Sandy Wilt
Sandy Wilt

When we moved exactly 5 miles up to town our cat Tabbers who had never left the farm

found her way back to it 4 times. Our neighbor would call us and tell us that she had showed up and we would go bring her back. She finally decided she was going to stay.

She plays with bugs but has never that I know of killed a bird. My other one always brought me live snakes but never anything that was not alive. It would be fun to see where he go's as he loves to roam.

Lisa Hunter
Lisa Hunter

My kitty and I live in the country. She mostly brings me mice, lots and lots of mice. Once or twice a year she'll bring me a bird, though I did get a big frog a couple of months ago. He was ok, I put him back outdoors

Wayne Johnson
Wayne Johnson

I love the idea but why must everything about cats be presented in this presumptuous defamatory manner? "Killing our wildlife"? Let's find out first how many animals they are killing and then compare that to wildlife being killed by humans by hunting, fishing, destruction of habitat etc.

Colleen Heagy
Colleen Heagy

We had a Blind dog that would somehow find my Dad, at his then girlfriends house,

only ever being there blind and on leash a few times. Through our neighbour hood and a few large fenced in horse paddocks (the equivalent of 5/6 large city blocks) . Somehow he knew how to get there on his own to get my dad, would just show up on the deck. ... Animals are way more in-tuned with their natural spacial navigation, more than we can ever imagine!

Marc Myers
Marc Myers

"about a mile (0.6 kilometer)"

----------------------------------

A mile is 1.6 kilometers.  A kilometer is 0.6 miles.

TrOi PeRkInS
TrOi PeRkInS

@John Ortlieb Thank you John! That is an interesting observation that we haven't even thought to look at! I will definitely be keeping that in mind while we continue the project.

ge fitz
ge fitz

"...why bother?"  Because they are cats, not people.  You are probably mistaken if you think your cats are not at least attempting to hunt/kill.  Cats clean themselves after their kill, don't they?  Just because they aren't bringing you the "presents" doesn't mean they aren't reacting to their instincts.

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore

@Joe Cuviello  Thank you for your comment. I'm a National Geographic editor, and every day I see comments alleging that scientific research is wasted or obvious from readers who don't understand we need basic science to prove assumptions we already know about the world. I hope you'll pass this sentiment on—more people need to realize it!


"I've read comments that the opinion is, we already know what they are doing. However science needs to take a ground up, no short cuts, systematic approach to developing hard data to prove these sometimes obvious assumptions." 

Tu Fur
Tu Fur

@Wayne Johnson Exactly!!! Its like the people are trying to create a funding money pot by developing a nonexistent problem. We'll know for sure when they say cat overpopulation is caused by global warming. And they appear to already have a cult following.
 

L C
L C

@Wayne Johnson Nothing presumptuous here.  Loss et al 2013 found that cats are killing billions of animals annually.


Further, cat predation IS a human caused impact.  When people allow cats to roam or dump their pets or re-abandon them through TNR, those are all human actions that result in the deaths of wildlife.

Sheila Collins
Sheila Collins

@Christine Dell'Amore @Joe Cuviello I wish I could do this with my cats. I have 13 - almost all of them former strays. 3 always-indoors, 2 indoor-outdoor, and 8 (almost) always outdoors. All are grown & range from about 1 year old (guessing) to a 13-year-old that was born here (to a stray mother). All are neutered/spayed.

I live in a rural area & they used to roam with impunity, before coyotes discovered them. Now they stay mainly on my porches, in my yard, or in the surrounding brush & kudzu. I rarely see them with prey, though I do find them with an occasional rat or chipmunk, and even more rarely - maybe once in a year - a bird. I see them stalking insects more than anything else - grasshoppers, cicadas & such.

Speaking of birds and other wildlife: my area teems with birds, and the small wildlife includes both red & gray foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, squirrels, several species of snakes, turtles,and of course , deer, along with the coyotes. I'm pretty sure my cats don't have much of an impact on the wildlife, .They sit and watch birds at my feeders, but they learned long ago that they can't reach them. 

I don't think that the verdict is really in yet, on the supposed impact that domestic cats have on the environment. This nationwide tracking program is a terrific idea.  

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