Habitat Use of Suburban Cats: do they travel in the woods?

Owners’ of lost cats are frequently concerned with whether their cat might be hiding or lost somewhere in the woods.  This is a valid concern since 1) the probability of detection may be very low in the woods depending on the density and type of vegetation; 2) there may be many miles of woods surrounding the area where the cat went missing; and 3) there is a lower chance of sightings if the cat is spending the majority of its time in the woods.  Owners may also perceive wooded areas as more dangerous due to larger numbers of predators, which may lead them to give up sooner.  Anecdotal evidence from lost cat cases indicate that some lost cats certainly do enter the woods, but how often does this happen and how deep into the woods might they travel?  Lacking any research on lost cat behavior relative to habitat use, I decided to look at the habitat use of owned outdoor-access cats in suburban areas adjacent to natural areas (either woods, wetland, or heath).  Since lost cats are likely to seek areas that are familiar to them, this should provide a better idea on where to focus searches for lost outdoor-access cats.

Photo provided by Amy Adams of Lost Pet Resources

Habitat use studies of suburban cats near natural areas found that most cats spent the majority of their time at home or in neighboring yards and didn’t travel far into the natural areas.  The studies found that between 69%-91% of suburban cats’ locations were at their home/yard (Barratt 1997 = 75.3% home/yard and 17% suburban, Meek 2003 = 91% home/suburban, and Morgan et al. 2009 = 69% home).  The cats spent comparatively little time in adjacent natural areas with only 7.8%-9% of locations (Barratt 1997 = 7.8%, Meek 2003 = 8%, and Morgan et al. 2009 = 9%).  In all of these studies, some cats were more predisposed to travel into the natural areas than others.  Barratt (1997) found that only four of the ten cats traveled more than 100 m (328 ft) into the preserve, but even these cats only spent about 20% of their time in the nature preserve.  Morgan et al. (2009) found that cats living within 40 m (131 ft) of the wetland traveled farther and more frequently into the wetland, but they did not have larger home ranges than cats living exclusively in the suburban area.

I found one study particularly interesting because it was conducted in Albany, New York, and the habitat was probably most similar to my home area of New England while most of the other studies were conducted in Australia or New Zealand.  Kays and DeWan (2004) found that 80% of cat hunting forays were in the garden/yard or within 10 m (33 ft) of the forest edge, and only two hunts were more than 20 m (60 ft) into the forest.  They found that the average cat home range contained 3.8 gardens/yards and only 0.071 hectares (0.18 acres) of forest.  Kays and DeWan (2004) also conducted an interesting experiment with scent stations and surveillance cameras placed throughout several forested fragments in a suburban area.  They set up 108 scent stations (from the forest edge up to 800 m into the forest), and they only detected 3 cats (out of 25 total cats detected) farther than 40 m (131 ft) into the forest.  On average, cats were located 35.6 m (116 ft) inside the forest.

Some researchers also made observations of preferred travel routes, especially when cats were hunting.  Barratt (1997) found that travel routes during the day appeared primarily determined by available cover (including drains, tall grass, fences and shrubs) and the location of resting, sunning and hunting sites close to home.  At night travel routes were influenced by favored hunting sites toward the outer edges of their home range such as farm buildings, tall grass, and forest habitat.  Meek (2003) found that cats on hunting forays walked close to fence lines and vegetation boundaries rather than traveling in the open, and Morgan et al. (2009) found that cats were located most frequently on the periphery of the wetland or on perimeter trails.

The results of these studies suggest that cats in general are more likely to be found traveling in suburban areas or in the edges of woods (i.e. up to approximately 100 feet into the woods).  In a future blog post I intend to look at research on habitat use of feral cats since it is possible that a lost cat will act more like a feral cat, especially if s/he has been lost for a long time.

Literature Cited

Barrat, David.  1997.  Home range size, habitat utilisation and movement patterns of suburban and farm cats Felis catus. Ecography 20(3): 271–280.

Kays, Roland and Amielle DeWan.  2004.  Ecological impact of inside/outside cats around a suburban nature preserve.  Animal Conservation 7: 1-11.

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.

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