by Sheila Murphy, School of BEES
Many animals move within characteristic areas called home ranges in the search for food, shelter, or mates. While it is not always obvious why individual animals move, particular patterns of movement can sometimes be explained. For my final year BSc Zoology research project I investigated the ranging behaviour of domestic cats. I used a combination of GPS tagging of individual cats and an online questionnaire completed by cat owners to try and determine the main factors influencing how far cats range. I hypothesised that, due to differences in habitat and lifestyle (for example, less physical barriers and competition with neighbouring cats, and less regulated eating habits), rural cats range farther and hunt more often than suburban cats.
There was a great response to the online questionnaire, with over 250 completed, providing lots of interesting information. Ten cats were tracked using a GPS tracker attached to the cat’s collar. Figure 1 shows a cat wearing the GPS tracker.
The results of this study indicate that the sex of a cat, as well as the type of area in which a cat lives, are significant influences on how often a cat is seen with prey and how often a cat stays out at night. Responses to questionnaires showed that a higher than expected number of females was never seen with prey and a higher than expected number of males was sometimes and often seen with prey (Figure 2).
The type of area in which a cat lives is also a significant influence on whether or not cats are observed with prey. A higher than expected proportion of rural cats was seen with prey (sometimes and often), and a higher than expected proportion of urban and suburban cats was never seen with prey (Figure 4).
The GPS results showed that cats often followed roads and pathways while out and about (Figure 5). The majority of cat owners commented that their cat was most active at night and that cats from multi-cat households kept different schedules to other cats in the house. Only one of the cats tracked in this study lived in a house without other animals, and it would be interesting to further investigate the influence other animals in the home have on the ranging behaviour of cats.
Tracking data also showed that rural cats travelled farther than suburban cats and that male cats travelled farther than female cats. All cats in the study were well fed so I will need further data to examine the question of food supply and distances travelled.
While a much more in-depth investigation is needed to determine exactly what impact cats are having on native wildlife, this study has successfully shown that certain factors have a significant influence on the ranging and hunting behaviour of domestic cats. As cats do not hunt only to feed, it is not too surprising that diet may not be a significant influence on hunting behaviour; keeping a cat well fed will not necessarily reduce its likelihood of killing wildlife.
I would like to extend my thanks to all the people who completed the questionnaire survey and to those who allowed me to track their cats.
This project was supervised by Dr Fidelma Butler and Dr Amy Haigh (School of BEES).