Why Cats Roam -- And the Surprising Places They Go

cat tracker project

Story at-a-glance -

  • A team of researchers in North Carolina has launched the Cat Tracker project – the most ambitious effort yet to learn more about the secret life of free-roaming housecats
  • Dozens of kitties have already been fitted with tiny GPS tracking devices that collect data on their outdoor behavior. The information is regularly uploaded and each cat’s activities are posted on the Cat Tracker website
  • So far, data collected has yielded some surprises for the researchers as well as cat owners
  • The NC scientists plan to add video cameras to the cats in the future. They hope to convince over 1,000 cat owners to participate in the project from all over the world
  • They want to understand more about why cats roam, how gender affects roaming, and the difference in the behavior of cats living in a variety of different climates and environments

By Dr. Becker

A team of researchers is determined to find out what housecats are up to while they’re outdoors cattin’ around.

The researchers, from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, have begun an ambitious quest to learn more about the secret life of cats. According to Rob Dunn, one of the scientists involved in the latest research project and an associate professor in biology at NCSU:

“We view cats through the lens of how we see them culturally, but seldom do we view their actual behavior. We want to change that.”

Initially, Dunn and his colleagues will use kitty-sized GPS tracking devices to snoop on the cats. In the future, they want to add miniature cat-mounted video cameras into the mix, along with daily kitty poop examinations.

The Cat Tracker Project Has Begun

Dubbed the Cat Tracker project, research is already underway with dozens of cats fitted with GPS devices. Most of the cats are in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, but there are also several in Charlotte and elsewhere in the state, plus others as far away as California in the U.S., Australia, and Germany.

The researchers’ goal is to convince the owners of over 1,000 kitties to participate in the project, which would facilitate the collection of vast amounts of information on cat behavior.

The current research project was prompted by a highly controversial 2012 study published in Nature Communications1 that suggested outdoor cats kill somewhere between 1.4 and 3.7 million birds each year, plus 6.9 to 20.7 million small prey animals.

These numbers are far from accurate according to experts, and have led to bitter debates between cat and bird advocates. What is not in dispute is that the behavior of free roaming housecats has consequences far beyond the significant risk to the cats themselves.

Tiny GPS Devices Record the Behavior of Free-Roaming Felines

The NC researchers believe data about cat roaming patterns and feces analysis will produce better information about the real impact of kitties on wildlife and the environment.

Troi Perkins, a student at NCSU, is charged with fitting local cats with their tiny GPS harnesses and then retrieving the devices and downloading the information they’ve collected. Each cat’s activities are posted on the Cat Tracker website and also on an international website that holds tracking information on thousands of animals of different species across the globe.

The poop collection part of the project is voluntary for cat owners – they can sign up for just the GPS tracking if they choose.

Cat Tracker Data Has Already Produced Some Surprises

Information already uploaded to the Cat Tracker site shows that cats are indeed interesting little creatures to spy on. Researcher Dunn’s cat, for example, stayed within a few blocks of home most of the time – until she suddenly got the urge to take a much longer trek to visit the family’s previous home.

“We would have thought she would never leave our backyard,” he said. “She’s old, and all her parts don’t work well, but she walked back all that distance, which suggests cats are doing all these things we don’t know about.”

Ultimately, the researchers hope to add video cameras so they can understand not only where the cats go, but why.

They’ve done a bit of testing already on a single cat, and learned that while the kitty stalked a lizard, he wasn’t able to catch it. Even more surprising was that the cat went on quite a long hike to meet up with another cat, for no apparent reason – not for romance, and not for a fight. The kitties stood around, laid in the sunshine for a bit, and then the traveling cat headed back home.

Future Cat Tracker Project Goals

The researchers hope to learn more about whether cats are drawn to one another for activities and friendship, or whether their outdoor meet-ups are mostly coincidental.

The scientists also want to explore the reasons cats roam, how gender might play a role, and what prevents kitties from roaming -- for example, a nearby coyote population.

They also want to track cats in as many locations as possible so they can document the differences in behavior between, say, cold climate cats and cats in the tropics.