While the behavior of lost cats is likely to differ from that of outdoor-access or free-ranging (stray, feral or farm) cats, we can still learn something from studying their normal movement patterns. In this post, I want to focus on research studies that measured how far cats normally traveled within their home ranges and the maximum distances they traveled from their homes.
First let’s get an idea of the distances traveled for suburban outdoor-access house cats. The average distance traveled for outdoor-access cats was only 47 meters (155 ft). I calculated this as the weighted mean of three studies; Meek 2003 (wandering cats = 34 m and sedentary cats = 9 m), Morgan et al. 2009 (mean = 72 m), and Schmidt et al. 2007 (mean = 31.2 m). In comparison, Barratt (1997) found that the average maximum distance that outdoor-access cats traveled from their home was 311 m (0.2 miles) with a range of 20 m (65 ft) to 940 m (0.6 miles). Interestingly, Morgan et al. (2009) also found that cats younger than six years old traveled significantly farther and had larger home ranges than older cats.
Since outdoor-access cats in suburban areas generally have small home ranges, we can get a better idea of the distances cats are capable of traveling by looking at movements of free-ranging farm cats in rural areas. Liberg (1980) found that farm cats in Sweden rarely traveled farther than 600 m (0.4 miles) from their home farm. In comparison, Warner (1985) found that farm cats in Illinois traveled an average maximum distance of 1,697 m (1 mile) from the farm with a range of 956 m (0.6 miles) to 3,013 m (1.9 miles). Germain (2008) found similar distances for farm cats in France with two cats that traveled 1,500 m (0.9 miles) and 2,500 m (1.6 miles) from the farm in a single outing.
It is important to keep in mind that all of these measurements are the straight-line distance that the cat traveled, and they do not tell us how far the cat actually walked. In reality, cats may walk considerably farther each day/night than these numbers indicate. One free-ranging (intact) male cat in rural Spain was continuously tracked for two 12-hour tracking periods (Palomares 1994). During one 12-hour tracking period, he walked 4,076 m (2.5 miles), but he stayed in the vicinity of one house. They don’t specify how far from the house he traveled, but 73.9% of his locations (over 5 months) were within 400 m (0.2 miles) of a house. This is the only published study I could find that calculated actual distance traveled.
In a future post, I intend to look at dispersal distances of free-ranging cats and what dispersal can teach us about lost cat behavior. Dispersal occurs when a cat leaves its current home range in search of a new home range.
Barrat, David. 1997. Home range size, habitat utilisation and movement patterns of suburban and farm cats Felis catus. Ecography 20(3): 271–280.
Germain, E., S. Benhamou, and M.-L. Poulle . 2008. Spatio-temporal sharing between the European wildcat, the domestic cat and their hybrids. Journal of Zoology 276(2): 195-203.
Liberg, O. 1980. Spacing patterns in a population of rural free roaming domestic cats. Oikos 35: 336-349.
Meek, Paul. 2003. Home range of house cats Felis catus living within a National Park. Australian Mammology 25: 51-60.
Morgan, S.A., C.M. Hansen, J.G. Ross, G.J. Hickling, S.C. Ogilvie, and A.M. Paterson. 2009. Urban cat (Felis catus) movement and predation activity associated with a wetland reserve in New Zealand. Wildlife Research 36: 574-580.
Palomares, Francisco and Miguel Delibes. 1994. A note on the movements of a free-ranging male domestic cat in southwestern Spain. Hystrix 5 (1-2): 119-123.
Schmidt, Paige, Roel Lopez, and Bret Collier. 2007. Survival, fecundity, and movements of free-roaming cats. Journal of Wildlife Management 71(3): 915-919.
Warner, Richard. 1985. Demography and movements of free-ranging domestic cats in rural Illinois. Journal of Wildlife Management 49: 340-346.