The Secret Lives of Feral and Free-Roaming House Cats

A first look at the daily lives of feral and free-roaming house cats.

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CHAMPAIGN, lll.—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 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 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.

“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.