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Cat Homing Behavior Survey Results

Cat resting after returning home

Cat resting after returning homeSince there is so little information on cat homing behavior, I am currently conducting a survey and these are the preliminary results.  If your cat has ever displayed homing behavior, please consider taking this very short survey.  To take the survey, click here.

Homing Definition

Some lost cats are able to find their way home using homing behavior.  Homing is the inherent ability of an animal to navigate towards an original location through unfamiliar areas.  Cat homing ability is poorly understood, but it may be due to an “unusual sensitivity to the geo-magnetic field of the earth which enables [the cat] to keep a compass fix on their home region regardless of distance and direction traveled” (Beadle 1977).

Possible homing scenarios include:

  • You move to a new home and your cat travels back to your previous home.
  • You are traveling with your cat or visiting a strange location (e.g. the vet’s office or a friend’s home) and your cat escapes and travels back to your home.
  • Your cat accidentally travels in a vehicle (e.g. gets into a contractor’s truck or a moving van) and gets out at a different location and then travels back home.
  • Someone intentionally takes your cat and dumps it somewhere and it finds its way back home.
  • You adopt a new cat and it travels back to its previous home.

Characteristics of cats that displayed homing behavior

Table 1 - Characteristics of cats that displayed homing behavior
Characteristics of cats that displayed homing behavior.

Outdoor Experience

Nearly all of the cats that displayed homing behavior were allowed outdoors (84% outdoor-access) or lived strictly outdoors (11% outdoor-only).  Although I have heard of a few instances of indoor-only cats displaying homing behavior, this seems very rare.  (Note: Escaped indoor-only cats will frequently return to their point of escape, which could possibly be a homing behavior, but the current survey only focused on cats that traveled from an unknown location to a known location.)

Age and Sex

Most (67%) cats were adults followed by 21% young adults.  Without more data for comparison, this could indicate any of the following.  There could be fewer kittens and/or senior cats in the cat-owned population or they are less likely to go missing away from home.  It could also mean that kittens and/or senior cats have poorer homing ability or they have equal homing ability, but they may be less likely to successfully travel home.

Slightly more (62%) male cats displayed homing versus females (39%), and most cats (74%) were spayed or neutered.

Circumstances of Homing

Table 2 - Circumstances of homing behavior in catsMost (40%) of homing incidents took place when the owner moved to a new home and their cat traveled back to a previous home.  This was followed closely by 37% of cats that were lost away from home and traveled back to their home.  Only a small number of cats were lost due to accidental transport (12%) and intentional disposal (7% – i.e. when someone intentionally takes a cat and dumps it somewhere else).  Most of these cats traveled back to their current homes though one accidental transport traveled back to a previous home.  Recently adopted cats only accounted for 7% of homing incidents, and these cats traveled back to their previous owner’s homes.

Eighty-six percent (86%) of cats were reported either very familiar or familiar with the location that they homed back to.  Thirty-three percent (33%) lived there more than 5 years and 40% lived there for 2-4 years.  Only 14% of lost cats homed back to a location where they had lived for less than 1 year.

Time, Distance and Speed Traveled

The survey results found that most cats were missing one day to 90 days and traveled 0.2 miles up to 14 miles (0.3-22 km).  Only three people reported long distance travel (40 miles over 6 months, 17 miles over 12 months and 52 miles over 30 months).  These results were removed from most of the analyses because they skewed the results.  Hopefully more people will submit survey results for long distance homing and these can be analyzed in more detail in the future.

The average distance traveled was 3.5 miles (5.6 km), and the average time missing was 12 days.  Distance was either self-reported by the owner or it was measured as straight-line distance between start and end locations (if reported).  Therefore, actual distance traveled by the missing cat is an unknown distance longer than the reported distance, and occasionally owner’s may over-estimate distance traveled possibly by using distance traveled by car.  I found that owner’s reported distance tended to be 0.7 miles (1.2 km) farther than the straight-line distance that I measured.

Days lost and distances traveled by cats displaying homing behavior.
Days lost and distances traveled by cats displaying homing behavior.

The average speed of travel was 0.5 miles per day (0.8 km/day) with a range of 0.06 – 1.4 miles/day (0.1-2.3 km/day).  This average may be a useful to estimate possible distance traveled by a missing cat that may be displaying homing behavior.  However, this is not likely an accurate estimate of actual travel speeds of missing cats because we don’t know the actual distance traveled by the cat and the cat may not have been immediately found once it returned to the home area.

These speeds are considerably slower than those reported by Herrik (1922) in a study where they intentionally transported a cat between one to three miles from home to test her homing behavior (see article Homing Ability of Lost Cats).  This cat traveled an average speed of 0.095 to 0.26 mph (0.15 to 0.4 km/hr) which converts to 2.28 to 6.24 miles/day (3.7 to 10 km/day).  Two factors may account for these faster speeds.  This cat had kittens near weaning age and may have been highly motivated to travel home quickly.  Also, in all but one case, the cat was able to travel home in less than 12 hours and possibly in as few as four hours.  Therefore, she may have been able to sustain a higher average rate of speed.

Possible risks encountered while traveling

Terrain and potential hazards encountered while traveling.
Terrain and potential hazards encountered while traveling.

As part of the survey, I asked people if their cat likely traveled through the following types of areas – Urban (city), Suburban, Rural (country), over a 2-lane highway, over a 4-lane highway, or across a stream or river.  Thirty-four percent (34%) reportedly crossed a 2-lane highway while 12% crossed a 4-lane highway.

Forty-six percent (46%) reportedly crossed a stream or river.  In 18 cases, I could view a map of potential travel routes, and most water crossings appeared to be streams or creeks.  However, there were several potential crossings of rivers from 30 feet wide to over 300 feet wide (as measured on Google Maps).  Most appeared to have bridges at some point.

How to use this information when searching for a lost cat

Unfortunately, there isn’t any research on how frequently cats display homing behavior.  Precht and Lindenlaub (1954) found that at distances of 3.1 miles (5 km) or less, only 60% of cats appeared able to determine the direction of their home, but most cats were unable to do so at greater distances.  The results of this survey found that the majority (66%) of homing excursions were 3.5 miles (5.6 km) or less.  However, 25% of cases were between 3.8 – 14 miles (6-22 km) and 7% were 17 – 52 miles (27-83 km), so don’t rule out longer distances.

Based on the results of this survey, homing is more likely if your cat was allowed outdoors, if he went missing 3.5 miles or less from his current or previous home and had lived at that location for at least 2 years.  Some cats do travel across 2-lane and 4-lane highways and streams/rivers so don’t rule out the possibility of homing due to these potential obstacles.

A few important notes – please read if your cat is missing

Please keep in mind that there are many reasons why an outdoor-access cat might go missing from a new home and many cats that get lost away from home do not attempt to travel back home.  In fact, many of them do not travel far from their point of escape.  Although cats are capable of traveling 0.5 miles/day or more from where they go missing, in most situations lost cats do not travel far (less than one mile is common), and they may circle around back towards the point of escape rather than traveling in a linear direction.  If your cat goes missing and fits one of the possible homing scenarios above, then consider homing as a possibility, but make sure that you understand typical lost cat behavior and follow all the suggested search actions including large florescent lost cat posters in the neighborhood where s/he went missing and a physical search of all property for at least 3-5 houses in all directions from the point last seen.

For more information on lost cat behavior and recovery, see Pet Detective Services and Lost Pet Resources.

If you are moving to a new home or traveling with your cat, consider purchasing a radio-tracking device or GPS collar for your cat.  Learn more in this article.  Be sure to check out the new Nuzzle GPS tracker, which is small enough for cats and does not have a monthly fee.

Literature Cited

Beadle, M.  1977.  Chapter 14: The Little Differences in The Cat: History, Biology, and Behavior.  New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.  Reviews the available scientific research on cat homing behavior as well as psi-trailing.

Herrick, F.H.  1922.  Homing Powers of the CatThe Scientific Monthly 14(6): 525-539.

Precht, H., and E. Lindenlaub.  1954.  Uber das Heimfindevermogen von Saugetieren. I. Versuche an Katzen.  Z. Tierpsychologie 11: 485.  I was unable to find an English translation of Precht and Lindenlaub (1954), so I had to rely on the summary of the study written in Beadle (1977).


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Using a Search Dog to Track a Lost Outdoor-Access Cat

Many people with a lost pet think that a search dog is the best method for finding their pet.  However, most people tend to have unrealistic expectations and a lack of understanding of how a search dog works.  I previously wrote an article on considerations for Using a Search Dog, and in this series of articles, I plan to go more in-depth on how search dogs are used to search for different types of lost pets starting with lost outdoor-access cats, specifically those lost from their home.  An outdoor-access cat is defined as a cat that is allowed outside and unsupervised.  These are the most difficult type of lost pets to find because of the number of possible scenarios for their disappearance and due to the nature of their scent trails.

A Brief Overview of Scent & Types of Search Dogs

Scent being deposited on the ground as a cat walks and upwards through body air currents.
Scent being deposited on the ground as a cat walks and into the air through body air currents.

Our cats are constantly depositing scent wherever they go.  Scent theory describes scent as small rafts of skin (i.e. clusters of skin cells) that are constantly being shed from the body and that are then being broken down by bacteria (Syrotuck 2000).  Some scent is deposited with direct contact with the ground while additional scent flows off the top of the body through air currents and travels through the air before being deposited on the ground.  Scent will be stronger in areas where a cat repeatedly walks such as on preferred travel routes throughout their territory or where they rest.  Large concentrations of scent can also collect (i.e. scent pools) where a cat spends a period of time such as a sleeping spot or refuge such as under a porch.

There are several different types of search dogs that may be called by many different names: tracking dogs, trailing dogs, area detection dogs, air-scenting dogs, cat detection dogs or remains detection dogs to name a few.  Scent-specific dogs (generally tracking or trailing dogs) are trained to follow the individual odor of a missing person or animal.  This individual odor is composed of the skins rafts and personal bacteria of the individual and is catalyzed by body secretions of that individual (Syrotuck 2000).  Tracking dogs are trained to follow the scent left by the actual tracks of the missing animal, while trailing dogs are trained to follow the greatest concentration of scent on the ground.  Since scent is also deposited in air currents from the animal, this scent may travel several feet to over 100 feet from where the animal actually walked.  Although there is technically a difference between tracking and trailing dogs, they are often both referred to as “tracking dogs” by the general public.  For simplicity, I will also refer to tracks or trails interchangeably, but if you were to study scent theory, you would find that there can be a lot of variation between the two.  Area detection dogs (e.g. air-scenting or cat detection dogs) are trained to search an area and locate the concentrated scent of any cat.  Ideally this scent is “air scent” coming off of the actual lost cat, but the dogs may also indicate on a scent pool such as under a deck where the cat hid for a while.  Both tracking/trailing dogs and area detection dogs are usually also trained to indicate on the scent of a deceased cat though some dogs are trained to specialize in just this task.  Most people tend to assume that a tracking/trailing dog is superior to an area detection dog, but once you understand the challenges of tracking a lost outdoor-access cat, you may find that this is not always the case.

Challenges of Tracking a Lost Outdoor-Access Cat that Disappears from His Home Range

Outdoor-access cats usually have a home range where they regularly travel and rest.  This may also be referred to as the cat’s territory though technically it is only truly a territory if the cat defends it from other non-resident cats.  For more information on cat home range size, read this article.  The following illustrations show a very simplified version of a cat’s home range and movements.  The first series of pictures (Tracks 1-6) show a cat regularly traveling around his home range culminating in Track 7, which shows all his travels for that week.

An example of a series of cat tracks throughout his home territory.
An example of a series of cat tracks throughout his home territory.
An example of a cat traveling around his home range for a full week.
An example of a cat traveling around his home range for a full week.  Older scent trails are light while newer ones are a darker blue.

If the cat then goes missing, you can now imagine how difficult it would be for a tracking or trailing dog to follow the scent trail of the missing cat.  A well trained dog can differentiate between an older and newer trail and direction of travel, but this is made more difficult with the many regularly traveled trails that will have an accumulation of scent and trails going in both directions.  The difficulty of locating the lost cat is often compounded by the lack of an uncontaminated scent article.  The scent article is an item that will be presented to the search dog so that they know what scent trail to follow.  Most cat owners have more than one cat or dogs in the home, and it can be very difficult to find an item that is unique to the missing cat (i.e. uncontaminated from other pet scents).  If the scent article also contains scents of other cats/dogs that go outside, then the search dog may also follow the numerous additional trails left by these pets.

How Different Probabilities Influence the Effectiveness of the Search Dog

When an outdoor-access cat goes missing from their home, there are different probability categories (or scenarios) for what might have happened to the lost cat.  These include: 1) Theft, 2) “Rescue” (i.e. when someone takes your cat because they think it is a stray), 3) Intentional Transport (e.g. a cat hating neighbor or angry ex-boyfriend kidnaps your cat and dumps him somewhere), 4) Unintentional Transport (e.g. your cat gets into the plumbers van), 5) Trapped (e.g. stuck in the neighbor’s shed), 6) Injury, Illness or Death (e.g. hiding because sick or injured or deceased due to illness or hit by car), 7) Wildlife Kill (i.e. victim of a predator attack), and 8) Displacement (e.g. chased out of their home range or otherwise leaves their home range). When an outdoor-access cat is lost away from home, this is a very different scenario and will be discussed in a future article.  In some search probabilities, specifically theft, rescue, or any type of transport, the tracking/trailing dog has no chance of successfully finding the lost cat because the cat has been removed by a person and there isn’t a scent trail to follow.  A search dog will also be unable to locate a cat outside if the cat is actually hiding or trapped inside the home, and this happens more frequently than people assume.

A tracking or trailing dog might be able to locate a missing cat within their home range (or just outside of it) if the cat is trapped somewhere outside, hiding and injured (such as from a severe cat fight or hit by a car) or deceased (such as hit by a car or killed by a predator).  An area detection dog can also be used to successfully locate a cat under most of these circumstances.  The picture below shows examples of where a cat might be located in each scenario.

Locations where a lost cat might be found within his own home range.
Locations where a lost cat might be found within his own home range.

Keep in mind that this is a very simplified scenario, and most cats will have a larger home range (usually 3 yards or more in each direction) which contains many more scent trails for the tracking/trailing dog to work through.  In neighborhoods where the houses are close together and fenced, a tracking/trailing dog will have a much more difficult time because he will be unable to follow the trails made by the cat since cats frequently climb under or over fences from yard to yard.  In these cases, an area search dog may be more effective to quickly check each yard for any sign of your cat.

Additional Challenges of Locating the Displaced Cat

One of the more common scenarios for a lost outdoor-access cat is that the cat has become displaced from his home range.  This may occur if he is new to the area and becomes lost or if he is scared out of his territory (such as by fireworks, construction, a loose dog, or another cat) and either becomes lost or is afraid to come back.  As much as we cat lover’s want to deny it, some “lost” cats will also choose to leave their homes when there is a significant change in the household such as a new baby, puppy or roommate.  Some cats are more sensitive than others and may leave due to a change in routine (such as a prolonged injury or illness of their owner) or even a small change in circumstances (such as a remodeled living room or change in brand of cat food).  In either case, the lost cat has left his home range and there may only be one scent trail leading to his new location.  The photo below shows an example of this scenario where the lost cat traveled to the neighbor’s home and got in a fight with their new cat and was chased across the busy road.

Map showing trails of a cat throughout their home range and a single trail leading away.
Map showing trails of a cat throughout their home range and a single trail leading away.

When a lost cat is displaced from their home range, it can be challenging for a tracking/trailing dog to work through all the scent trails and scent pools to find the one most recent track that leads away from their home.  This is made more difficult the longer the cat has been missing because the scent deposited throughout the home range might be an accumulation of years of scent while the trail leading out of the home range is only a single scent trail.  How long scent survives is a whole other discussion that I will blog about in a future article.  There has been some research that accumulated scent pools/trails may be viable for up to six months (Phillips 2006) while there is considerable debate on whether a single scent trail lasts for only 12 hours, a week or two, or even a month or more.  Personally I am skeptical of those who proclaim to track scents more than a month old.

If the search dog does successfully find the displaced cat’s scent trail, it is unlikely that they will actually locate the lost cat during the search.  These are referred to as “walk-up” finds and they usually only occur in less than 20% of searches and rates of only 5% or less are not uncommon.  Unless the lost cat is stationary (e.g. hiding, trapped, severely sick or injured or deceased), it is unlikely that the search dog will be able to find the exact location of the cat.  A cat that is being searched for by a dog will likely feel hunted and will evade the search dog team.  In fact, a well trained search dog team will likely stop the track for your lost cat if the search dog indicates that the scent is very fresh and the cat is likely nearby.  Using a search dog in this situation can provide some very useful information including where your cat went after leaving their home range and the area that they are currently hiding out.  This information can help you determine where to put up additional posters, distribute flyers, and perhaps set up a wildlife camera and/or humane trap.  Sadly, many people put all their hope (and often money) into hiring a tracking/trailing dog and then do not follow-up with the necessary search tactics after the search dog leaves.

Literature Cited

Jones, Phillip.  2006.  Scents and Sense-Ability.  Forensic Magazine (online edition).  April/May 2006.

Syrotuck, William G.  Scent and the Scenting Dog.  2000.  Barkleigh Productions, Inc.  Mechanicsville, PA.

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New Insights into Cat Behavior Using a GPS Logger and Cat-cam

The secretive nature of cats makes it nearly impossible to observe their natural behavior when outdoors.  Likewise, few cat owners know where their cats travel or what they do when allowed outside.  A new study conducted in Britain used GPS loggers to map the travel of outdoor-access house cats.  What makes this study more innovative than most is that they also used a small video camera attached to the cat’s collar (i.e. a cat-cam) to see exactly where the cat was traveling and what they were doing.  The project was led by world renowned cat behavior expert Roger Tabor.  Here’s a preview of the documentary and a link to the report summary: The Secret Lives of Cats.

I haven’t yet been able to find a copy of the full documentary so I don’t know if it’s even available yet.  If you want to look for it, it’s produced by BBC and not to be confused with the “Secret Life of Cats” by National Geographic.  The report summary is interesting, but I’m really hoping that they actually publish some of their results in a scientific journal.

Pat4Cats GPS logger from PawTrax

Another exciting aspect of this study is that it could easily be replicated by anyone who wants to learn more about outdoor-access cat behavior.  They used the Pat4Cats GPS logger from PawTrax, and this is nearly identical to the i-gotU GT-120 GPS logger.

The Eyenimal Cat Video Camera available from

Both GPS loggers use the @trip PC software.  Here’s an example track from my dog Dante with me on a mountain bike ride.  Please be aware that a GPS logger is not the same as a GPS tracker.  The logger will record and save locations that can later be downloaded to your computer, but it will not send a live location to your cell phone or internet should your cat go missing.  The cat-cam that they used is the Eyenimal Cat Video Camera.  However, after doing a little research, I found that the Mr Petcam may be a better design and at half the price.  I am planning on purchasing a cat-cam myself to learn more about the habitat use and movement patterns of outdoor-access and stray cats in New England.  Understanding normal outdoor cat behavior is an important step toward understanding lost cat behavior.

Here’s a fun example of another cat-cam video.  This one was done using Mr. Lee’s CatCam.

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New Study on Free-Roaming Cats

I was excited to recently learn about a new research study on the behavior of free-roaming feral and pet cats.  Here is a link to a summary of their findings from the Illinois News Bureau.  The full research article is available free for download at The Journal of Wildlife Management website.  I will also be updating my posts on cat home range and travel using data from this research.

Literature Cited

Horn, Jeff A., Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, Richard E. Warner, and Edward J. Heske.  2011.  Home range, habitat use, and activity patterns of free-roaming domestic cats.  The Journal of Wildlife Management 75(5): 1177-1185.

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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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How Far Do Cats Travel?

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.

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.

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.

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Cat Research Study Overview

Before covering additional topics on cat behavior, I wanted to take a moment to review cat research in general.  Although the cat is the most popular pet in the US, there is surprisingly little research on its natural behavior.  So far I have only been able to find five research studies that focus on the home range, movements, and activity patterns of outdoor-access cats in suburban neighborhoods (Barratt 1997, Kay and DeWan 2004, Meek 2003, Morgan et al. 2009, and Schmidt et al. 2007).  Two of these studies were conducted in the US, two in Australia, and one in New Zealand.  There are significantly more research studies that have been conducted on free-ranging cats.  Free-ranging cats may be feral, semi-feral, stray, farm, or perhaps lost cats.  I have compiled a bibliography with abstracts (i.e. research summaries) when available for all the research studies that I have found so far.  I will continue to update this document as I conduct more literature research.

Research Studies on the Behavior of Outdoor-Access and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats:  Bibliography with Abstracts

If you are interested in learning more about cat behavior, I would also recommend the following books:

Turner, Dennis. C., and Patrick. Bateson, editors. 2000.  The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge University Press.  (This is the best compilation of cat research studies to date, but it is so dense that it can be difficult to read.)

Tabor, Roger.  2003.  Understanding Cat Behavior.  F&W Publications Inc.  (This book is an easy read, but still informative.)

Johnson-Bennett, Pam.  2004.  Cat Vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat. Penguin Books.  (While not research study based, this book offers useful insights into cat social behavior.  It also has very good information on how to reintroduce a cat back into a multi-cat household, which could be useful for people who find their lost cats.)

There are many other books available on cats, but most focus on how to take care of a cat or how to fix cat behavior problems.  Keep in mind that just because something about cat behavior is published in a book, it doesn’t necessarily make it true.  People can pretty much write anything that they want in books and even people that may be experts on cat behavior problems, don’t necessarily have a good understanding of cat biology.  In contrast, all scientific journal articles must be reviewed and edited by other scientists in the author’s field of research before they are published.

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What is the average size of a cat's home range?

A cat’s home range is the area that the cat normally uses in its daily activities.  A home range is different from a territory in that it may not be defended from other cats, but non-biologists frequently use the terms interchangeably.  When an outdoor-access cat goes missing, it probably means that something has happened to prevent the cat from coming home.  Some of the possible circumstances that could prevent a cat from coming home include being injured or killed by a vehicle or predator, hiding due to illness or becoming trapped somewhere.  Under these circumstances the lost cat is probably still present within its own home range.  Missing Pet Partnership suggests that owners of lost outdoor-access cats should search their cat’s territory.  However, most cat owners do not have an accurate understanding of where their cat travels when it is let outside the house.  I researched the scientific literature and compiled a summary of the mean home ranges of owned and free-ranging domestic cats in urban/suburban and rural areas.  Free-ranging cats may be lost, stray, feral or farm cats.  Please see the attached file for a summary of results and literature reviewed.  In general, I found that these home range summaries conformed well with Missing Pet Partnership’s recommendation of physically searching for a lost cat within a three to five house radius from the cat’s home.

Summary of Domestic Cat Home Ranges