Cat roaming outdoors
If your cat goes outdoors, you wonder where he goes when he’s out of sight. Katie Burke says of her cat Banjo, "When she was a teenage cat, she used to come home smelling like cigarettes and perfume. I used to wonder where she had been and kind of gave her a hard time about cheating on me."

Likewise, Becky Antworth and her husband couldn’t help but be curious about Roukus’ travels. "We seem to constantly be meeting neighbors where the reputation of our cat precedes us," she says. "We’ll start talking to them and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you don’t have a black cat, do you?’ ‘Yes, that’s our cat.’ " 

Scientists wonder, too, although for different reasons — and now you can help them and possibly answer some of your own questions at the same time.

Why Track Cats? 

There was a time when most people let their pet cats wander outdoors. Now experts recommend cats live inside for their own safety, but the ones who still go out are at the center of a controversy: A 2012 article in the journal Nature Communications estimated that roaming felines kill between 1.3 billion and 4 billion birds a year in the United States.

Researchers at North Carolina State University are at the start of what is already the largest GPS tracking study of pet cats, in hopes of learning more about their interactions with wildlife. Dr. Roland Kays says, "What we don’t know is where they’re doing this hunting. That’s important, because if they’re hunting in backyards and other developed areas, that might be less of a concern than if they’re getting into our protected areas and parks and other areas that might have more sensitive species."

So they’re hoping to recruit owners all over the country for the Cat Tracker study, as well as collaborating with researchers in Australia and New Zealand.

Mostly Homebodies

Cat owners who’ve volunteered to participate have found out some interesting things about where their cats hang out.

"There are certain houses that now I know that she frequents," Burke says. "It’s funny to know she’s got her own friends and her own social life when I’m gone to work during the day. One good friend said that she didn’t know Banjo was hanging out by her house — she has her own cat, and they’re like frenemies. There’s one other house I noticed she was frequenting. I was kind of happy she was going there because they lost their cat a year ago. I thought maybe she’s keeping them company."
Banjo's Cat Tracker Map
Like the researchers, owners are curious about the distance cats go. Kays says that although they haven’t yet done formal analyses of range sizes, cats don’t go very far most of the time. "Most of them of them go two houses away, on average," he says.

Burke’s cat goes a little farther than that, but she was still relieved that it wasn’t as far as she thought it might be. "I was really glad that she doesn’t cross any major roads — except [for] now and then, she stays in the blocks around my neighborhood, about two blocks around me on all sides."

Longer Trips

There are exceptions to the rule that cats stick close to home, though, which can be interesting to both owners and scientists. Antworth says that her cat will walk along the beach with her for almost a mile, and apparently she’s just as happy to make such long treks on her own. 

"It was definitely a surprise to see how far she was going away from home, how much she was going into other people’s yards and around others’ homes, and just how active she was — how much time she spends making circles around the territory," she says.

Chicha's Cat Tracker Map
Even cats who are usually homebodies sometimes go on longer jaunts. Cat Tracker team member Troi Perkins’ favorite story is about Chicha, who belongs to Rob Dunn, another faculty member. "This cat is 14 years old, and they had always mentioned that she seemed like she just laid around the backyard and seemed kind of skittish about outdoor things," she says.

When they got Chicha’s data, there was one trip so far away that they assumed it had to be an equipment error, but Dunn looked at the map and saw that Chicha had gone to a house where they used to live.

"The cat had gone a mile away and hung out the entire day at their old house," Perkins says. "It’s really cool from a scientist’s perspective — cats really can remember stuff from a long time ago, and they have this spatial memory." And from the cat owner’s perspective, it’s interesting too: Perkins says that Dunn’s reaction was, "I wonder what kind of memory she has about the old house? Does she have cat friends she goes and hangs out with?"

The data the team is collecting has the potential to contribute to the study of other questions about animal behavior and cognition. "As we get a big enough sample, we’ll get enough of these anecdotes that we’ll be able to piece together some interesting results about animal movement in general," says Kays. "About how animals learn about their environments and how memory affects their behavior."

Why Stay Close to Home? 

When you’re studying what might affect the movements of cats, it’s important to remember that they are not just predators, but also potential prey. Coyotes are big enough to catch cats, and Kays counts even owls as predators after doing a little experiment.

"We were curious what would attack a cat, so we went to Toys R Us and bought a cat robot, and stuck it in the woods with a camera trap on it, " he says. "An owl flew down and tried to carry it away."

Predators may be having an effect on keeping cats away from more sensitive natural areas. "There’s two main ways that predators can affect the prey species," Kays says. "One is direct: They can kill them, and that can reduce the population. But there are also indirect effects, generally classified as fear effects: They change the animals’ behavior. They don’t want to go into the scary woods because there’s coyotes in there." 

To test these effects, the study’s leaders are particularly looking to get volunteers on Long Island, New York. It’s the only place left in the continental United States that hasn’t yet been colonized by coyotes, since it’s difficult for them to get there with New York City in the way. 

"Everyone figures it’s a matter of time before they get there, but right now Long Island is coyote free, and we want to try to get the ‘before’ data so we can compare it to the ‘after’ data," Kays says.

How to Participate

Previous studies have tracked cats’ movements, but they’ve been very small. With around 60 participants thus far, Cat Tracker is already the largest. But the researchers are hoping to get many more; their ambition is to sign up 1,000 cats. It’s important to have large numbers because, although the average cat sticks close to home, there are those individuals who roam much farther.

"If you have many millions of cats, even if only 10 percent are moving far, that could be a lot of cats out there in protected areas," Kays says. "That’s why we want a large sample size, to be able to look at the variability." 

If you live in the Raleigh-Durham area, you can borrow GPS units from the research team. If you don’t, the website gives do-it-yourself instructions. For more information on how to join the study and see where your cat is roaming, check out the project description.

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