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.

5 thoughts on “Habitat Use of Suburban Cats: do they travel in the woods?”

  1. I just found your article and found it very interesting. My indoor only cat escaped about 2-3 weeks ago. I’ve been looking for her everyday since in 2 main areas that overlap. One being my neighborhood the other a large apartment complex next store. There have been 2 sightings of her during this time.

    I’m considering investigating how I might be able to hire someone to track her.

    Any thoughts? Options I might consider.

    Thank you.

    1. Sorry for the late reply. I’ve been so busy with lost pet cases that I haven’t been on my blog recently. I hope that you have found your missing cat by now, but if not, I truly hope that you are still looking. I just helped two people recover their indoor-only cats after they had been lost for over 50 days. If you are having sightings, then a search dog may not be particularly helpful. Since most cats are frightened by dogs, very few cats are actually found during the search. The main purpose of the search dog is to help you locate the area that your lost cat is hiding out in, and if you are already getting reliable sightings, then this isn’t necessary. However, if you do have a strong interest in a search dog, check out the National Pet Detective Directory on Missing Pet Partnership (www.lostapet.org). They also have good information on lost cat behavior and recovery as does http://www.catsinthebag.org.

  2. Michelle Sandsmark

    HELP!!! I’ve been missing my cat since last Friday (8/3) night.
    She is a small calico who keeps herself well groomed. She is microchipped. She is spayed. She loves spending time outside and is frequently in and out all hours of day and as late into the night as we will allow, consistent on coming home when shaking her treat box. Can fend for herself with long claws. Likes to catch mice and birds. Friendly with people. Doesn’t like dogs. Will tolerate other cats but usually keeps to herself.

    From 10:30-11 she was going in and out like she normally does. (Like 3-4 times) She was last seen near the greenbelt area of SE 8th and 240th way-where she always hangs out and is seemingly her ‘territory’.
    At 11:15 my mom hears something outside (maybe two animals fighting? My mom said there was no hissing but couldn’t really describe the sound) anyway; my dad runs out and said whatever was outside ran away into the greenbelt. They tried getting her to come in by shaking her treat box but got no response. They send me a text saying get mana is still out, so as soon as I got home (at 1:30am) I tried to get her to come in, and again nothing.
    Not knowing about the animal sounds and figuring she would be curled in our patio chair in the morning we went to bed. I was worried, but she had spent a few nights outside before. I woke up early (at 7am) and found she was still missing. I had work, so told my fiancé to keep calling for her and we’ve been anxiously waiting her return ever since.

    I have posted on over a dozen lost pet sites. Made sure her microchip was current and notified the chip company. I registered her lost with king county. I posted fliers around the neighborhood both hand delivered and posted in common areas. I put up posters at main intersection and neighborhood entrances. I have left food and water out. Kept the doors open all day long and hung out on the patio as much as possible. Shook her treat container at all hours of the day and night. Battled blackberry bushes and inches of dead leaves and spiderwebs trying to navigate the greenbelt. And sprinkled her soiled litter around the perimeter (I did this when feeling helpless and hopeful to try anything before I read about that tip being controversial- not sure I should/could undo that).

    •Is there any other tips, tricks, insights on recovering lost/scared outdoor access cats?
    •How wide should my search perimeter be?
    •If she is likely in the woods, what’s the best way to draw her out?
    ***I plan to go out searching between 1-4am bringing a strong headlamp and her treat box, and a can of food. I will be calmly talking to myself (as per someone’s suggestion)

    1. Michelle, did you find your precious cat? It seems to me that you have done everything in your power to locate your cat. Sometimes they just come home, like mine has 2 or 3 times before. Well, I live in the woods with 40 acres, and my cat has been gone for a day and a half ?

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