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What I've Learned
When your cat comes in, if you ask, "Where did you go?" it will answer tersely, "Out." (Cats are fond of the letter M and tend to drop final consonants the way the French do, so this may sound more like mooouuu.)
If you ask, "What did you do?" it will stretch, yawn, and stroll away. Or it may give you a cryptic waaaalll, which probably means walk – as in "I went for a walk."
A researcher in Illinois, not satisfied with such answers, hooked up tracking devices to 42 adult cats, some domestic and some feral, and spent two years mapping where they went. About half the cats also had tilt and vibration sensors that could tell more precisely what each was doing at any given moment.
Jeff Horn, the researcher, did the study for his Master's thesis. He learned how far tame and wild cats tend to roam and what percentage of the time they are active.
Domestic cats, on average, stayed within a five acre area, centered around their home. That's still a fair piece of ground for a cat to explore.
Of all the cats we've owned over the years, probably the most traveled was Eva. She was born feral and adopted shortly after her eyes were open. Though happy to snooze inside and eat cat food, she preferred to be outside. I would often see her several blocks away, bounding off into the weeds after something, or sitting by the side of the road, watching me as I drove by.
People a block away said she often visited their back yard to chase small critters around in the grass.
Others of our cats liked going out, but none as much as Eva. Sometimes she would go out and not come back for days.
Jeff Horn's study showed that feral cats roamed much further then did domestics. One feral, a male, put our Eva to shame. He had a stomping ground of more than 1,300 acres. The cat crossed streets, parking lots, hung out under the bleachers during a softball game, went pretty much anywhere he darn well pleased.
It is not surprising that ferals roamed larger areas, since they were not being fed and must forage and feed themselves. But even ferals tended to stay within 300 yards or so of buildings, showing their dependence on humans. Under the bleachers at a ballgame is a good place to snag dropped hot dogs and other eatables.
When domestic cats are out, Horn found, they spend only about 3 percent of their time running, stalking, and being active. The rest of the time they settle down and rest, or even snooze.
Feral cats spend about 14 percent of their time active – a much higher percentage then domestics because they must fill their own bellies. The other 86 percent of the time, ferals are relaxing.
When there is a study that interests me, I want to read the actual study, not just what others have to say about it. This case was no different. Horn's paper is entitled "Home Range, Habitat Use, and Activity Patterns of Free-Roaming Domestic Cats." I found it online, but unfortunately there was a paywall separating me from the full text. The site wanted me to add the talk to a cart, enter in all my credit card and personal info, and proceed to checkout without telling me first how much reading the study would cost. No thanks.
People interested in doing their own cat-travel studies have good options these days. Miniature GPS tracking devices are not very expensive, and some are especially designed for pet collars.
Also, cameras are small enough now that people have been attaching them to cat collars and capturing video of where their pets go. A number of these have been posted on YouTube. Some of the videos are too jiggly to watch, the cameras swinging wildly about as the cats move. Some are not so jiggly. A few, rather than post the video, have extracted a series of still pictures to document their cat's travels. These, to me, are the most interesting. It would be great to have done something like that with Eva.