Cat owners greatly underestimate the vast distances their moggies travel, according to results from a citizen science project that tracked more than 200 cats day and night.
Dr Heidy Kikillus, an urban ecologist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, will today present her results to the joint conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and the New Zealand Ecological Society in the Hunter Valley.
‘We wanted to know what cats are up to when we’re not looking,’ said Dr Kikillus. ‘As part of the Cat Tracker New Zealand Citizen Science project, we fitted 209 cats with a GPS unit to track each of their wanderings for a week.’
She said the area cats moved in ranges from 0.1 to over 200 hectares, the equivalent of the area of a suburban block up to the area of a small forest. ‘The average distance travelled – their Fitbit score, if you like – was about 5 km in a week,’ said Dr Kikillus. ‘We found that male cats travel further than females, but the distance wasn’t influenced by a cat’s age or breed.’
The Cat Tracker project included a survey of 2610 people, of whom 75 per cent were cat owners. ‘Many people could not estimate how far their cat went, and of those who did make an estimate, not many were right,’ she said.
‘Cat owners had significantly different views on the need to regulate cats. Most people agreed on mandatory de-sexing of cats. However, those without cats were more in favour of regulation such as microchipping, registration and night-time curfews.’
As well as better understanding the movement of cats, the project aims to help owners manage their pets to reduce the harm to wildlife. ‘We want to balance cats and conservation. The information can help cat owners make informed decisions about actions such as fitting ID tags and collars, or keeping them in at night. On broader scale, the results will inform local government decisions about policies and regulations.’
Dr Kikillus said that similar studies have been done in Adelaide and in the US, and will soon be completed in the UK. ‘It will be fascinating to put the results side by side,’ she said. ‘New Zealand is unique as we have no native land mammals (except for bats), so cats are the top of the food chain. But as US cats have predators such as coyotes they may not travel as far.’
‘In New Zealand we had a lot of variation between couch potato cats and highly mobile cats that didn’t come home during the week. We had one outlier cat, a super cat, that went above and beyond any cat in any country – travelling over 30 km. That really threw out my averages.’
The Cat Tracker NZ research (www.cattracker.nz) was funded by Victoria University of Wellington, the Wellington City Council and WWF New Zealand. EcoTAS 2017, the joint conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and the New Zealand Ecological Society, is being held from 26 November to 1 December in the Hunter Valley, NSW. The Conference Program is available at: https://ecotas2017.org.au.
Dr Heidy Kikillus with one of the Cat Tracker participants