What does your cat do when it goes outside? To answer this question, Royal Veterinary College researcher Alan Wilson put special GPS-enabled tracking collars -- similar to the ones he used to track cheetahs in a recent study -- on 50 cats in the English village of Shamley Green.
The cats were then tracked over 24-hour periods. Some cats’ collars were also equipped with micro-cameras that gave scientists a cat’s-eye-view of the world.
Results and videos from the cat study will be aired Thursday night in the U.K. on the BBC Two program “Secret Life of the Cat.” But we already learned a few things:
1) If you let your cat outside, he probably won’t be heading for the hills: “We were particularly surprised by how small the ranges of most of the cats were, and how few of them went into the surrounding countryside,” Wilson wrote for the BBC. “They tended to remain within the confines of the village and roamed in those areas.”
Most of the cats in the study stayed within 1,000 feet of their homes, and the average ranging area was about a couple of acres. Ginger, a cat whose ranging area covered about .7 acres, was a fairly average representative of the group, researchers said. One reason house cats might stay close to home is that it could be easier to hunt for food around human habitats, according to Wilson.
2) Formerly feral cats retain some old habits: One of the cats in the study, a tomcat named Orlando, used to be a feral cat in Hong Kong. Orlando shuns cat food for much of the year and instead tends to hunt around the house, and is one of the few cats that prefer to range into the grasses and woods around the village.
3) Hermaphroditism may lead to restlessness: The cat that covered the largest area of the study was a hermaphrodite (named “Hermie”). Admittedly, Hermie is a sample of one, so there's no substantial link between hermaphroditism in cats and wide-ranging behavior. But the difference between Hermie and the other cats is striking. Over a 24-hour period he (or whatever gender-neutral pronoun one uses with cats) covered an area of around eight acres.
“He was regularly on the move within this area and was generally a very active cat when compared to others," the researchers said.
4) Cats may “timeshare” territory: Two cats followed in the study, Phoebe and Kato, had a habit of getting into fights when they crossed paths. But for most of the day, the pair tends to avoid each other, staying in when the other is out and about, and vice versa -- suggesting that they may have had some type of "agreement" about the use of shared territory.
5) You probably have no idea what your cat is up to outside of the house, but they’re probably doing fine: One of the cat owners that participated in the study, Catherine Edwards, wrote for the BBC that she was relieved to find the cats only rarely crossed the road, as she feared. And it was a surprise to find out that of her six cats, the shyest one, named Patch, had the largest territory.
“When we go to bed he is asleep on our bed, when we get up at 6 a.m. he is still asleep on our bed, yet overnight he has been miles!” Edwards wrote.