The Importance of Shelter for Lost, Stray, and Feral Cats

Pet detectives may advise owners’ of lost cats to search locations that offer safety and familiarity to the lost cat.  The general knowledge is that domestic cats will seek shelter in locations that most closely resemble locations that they are familiar with; therefore, a house cat is most likely to seek shelter near or in human structures as opposed to taking off into the woods.  Based on what I’ve read on cat behavior, it makes sense to me, but I (as usual) find myself asking the question, “is there any research that supports this theory?”  Unfortunately, all of the information available on where people actually find lost cats is biased towards where they search and the probability of detection in that area.  In other words, most people spend more time searching near human habitations and unless the cat is deceased and you use a search dog, it is very unlikely that you will actually locate a lost cat loose in the woods.  Therefore, unless you somehow take into account all of the cats that are not found, the percentage of cats found hiding or sheltering near human habitations is not highly informative.

A worn trail of cat prints leads under this shed.

I did find one interesting research paper that looked at the relative importance of food and shelter for free-ranging cats.  While most of these cats were probably feral or stray rather than lost, understanding the normal behavior of free-ranging cats is an important step towards better understanding lost cat behavior.  Calhoon and Haspel (1989) studied cat populations in two distinct residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn, NY.  Sector A primarily contained apartment buildings, many abandoned structures, and voluminous refuse in uncovered containers.  In contrast, Sector B contained primarily private homes, few abandoned buildings, and partially covered refuse containers.  Not surprisingly, Sector A contained a significantly greater density of free-ranging cats than Sector B.  The difference between free-ranging cat densities in urban and rural areas is often attributed to the abundance of food in urban areas.  However, Calhoon and Haspel found that neither season nor supplemental feeding had a significant effect on population density.  Rather, the availability of shelter (in this case primarily abandoned buildings) was the most significant factor effecting population distribution.  They even found that the number of cats in each sector was directly proportional to the number of floors in abandoned buildings. It is a very fascinating article, and it does seem to support the importance of human habitations as shelter whether or not the resident cat has ever lived in the comfort of a human home.

Calhoon, Robert E. and Carol Haspel.  1989.  Urban Cat Populations Compared by Season, Subhabitat and Supplemental Feeding.  Journal of Animal Ecology 58: 321-28.

Granted, Brooklyn probably doesn’t have much available woodland habitat.  Perhaps human habitations are the only available shelter.  In a future blog I intend to look at the relative use of wooded areas by outdoor-access house cats.

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