Feral cats travel far and wide

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Left to their own feline devices, feral cats wander a wide, wide area, and eat a variety of foods, including some left by humans.

House cats? No so much.

A two-year University of Illinois study has found that one of 42 adult cats tracked with a radio collar traveled on a range of 1,351 acres south of Champaign and Urbana.

That was a male, mixed breed feral cat, and much of its travel was nocturnal and almost unseen by humans.

But your average well-indulged house cat? The mean home range for pet cats in the study was less than 5 acres.

The pet cats managed this despite being asleep or in low activity 97 percent of the time, a couch time even Homer Simpson would envy.

Feral or pet, most cats studied ranged within about 300 meters of human structures, said Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, a wildlife veterinary epidemiologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey at Illinois

The other authors are former graduate student Jeff A. Horn, Professor Emeritus Richard Warner and Edward J. Heske, a mammal expert in the natural history survey.

Mateus-Pinilla said owned cat had smaller home ranges than unowned cats, but the study “failed to detect consistent differences in home range size between the sexes or among seasons.

“Home ranges of unowned cats included more grassland and urban area than predicted based on availability in all seasons, and farmsteads were selected in fall and winter,” the study reports

“Within home ranges, unowned cats shifted their use of habitats among seasons in ways that likely reflected prey availability, predation risk and environmental stress, whereas habitat use within home ranges by owned cats did not differ from random. Unowned cats were more nocturnal and showed higher overall levels of activity than owned cats.”

Horn, who did much of the actual hands-on work tracking the casts, could not be reached for comment.

The results surprised Warner, who has done extensive cat research over decades.

“When I first did a major cat study in Ford County in the `80s, we worked with all the human residents in 20 square miles for five years, and radio-tracked the animals over some terrible winters,” he said.

Feral cats by definition have little or no association with or dependence on humans, but in reality all of them could traverse a farm and eat human-provided food, even if it were not meant for their consumption, Warner said.

“Considering what it takes to live outdoors — coyotes, disease, cold — plus what we know about cat mortality by fighting with other cats, these outdoor cats did surprisingly well with establishing a range, and sometimes a very impressive one,” Warner said.

Of the radio transmitters used in the study, 23 had tilt and vibration sensors that tracked the animals' every move, the study said, allowing Horn to do work that might ordinarily require a field team.

Living among coyote and foxes, not to mention humans with bad intentions, unowned cats did not always survive the two years. Three went missing and presumed dead, the researchers found, and another was found in a Dumpster.

Pet cats spent only 3 percent of their time engaged in highly active pursuits, such as running or stalking prey, the researchers reported. The unowned cats were highly active 14 percent of the time.