Scientists Want to Know Where Your Cat Goes All Day—and What It May Be Hunting

A new research project tracks felines and their diet to better understand their impact on wildlife.

(Photo: Theirry Zoccolan/Getty Images)

Aug 14, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Cats may be cuddly and cute, but they can be a deadly menace: A 2013 study estimated that felines are responsible for killing between 1.3 billion and 4 billion birds and between 6.3 billion and 22.3 billion small mammals a year in the United States alone.

Now a new project is tracking house cats with GPS to find out what they’re up to in the great outdoors.

“There is all this talk of how cats are major predators globally, but we still have no idea where the cats are going,” said Troi Jenkins, a zoology and fisheries science student who works on the Cat Tracker project at North Carolina State University. “Are they roaming the neighborhood or headed to wooded areas?”

About 375 cats are enrolled in the project, mostly near Research Triangle, N.C. Jenkins and the other researchers fit the felines with harnesses that contain $50 GPS units they carry between their shoulder blades. The GPS tracks the cats for about a week.

The project is also analyzing the feces of a handful of cats to determine what they’re eating while they’re out and about.

“By analyzing the microbes in your cat’s feces, we want to understand whether the movements of your cat relate to the health of its microbiome,” the project’s organizers say on the Cat Tracker website.

The preliminary data is already revealing insights into feline behavior.

Jenkins said that in multi-cat families, one usually stayed closer to home while the other strayed far. In general, cats roamed nearer to their houses than their owners had estimated. There was also quite a bit of individual variation.

One cat in the study, Chicha, proved particularly interesting. While Chicha’s owners were away for the weekend, the tracker showed that she traveled more than a mile. That’s unusual for an aging cat and made the research team wonder if the equipment was malfunctioning. By following Chicha’s path on a map, the researchers realized that in her owners’ absence, the cat had returned to the house where the family previously lived.

The team also wants to outfit cats with video cameras that would give much more detailed information about what they do when they travel. “Video would be able to tell us exactly what these cats are doing,” said Jenkins. “For example, cameras could tell us if the cats are hanging out in groups or if they’re all hunting.”

Jenkins said the researchers hope to gather data from 1,000 cats in the U.S., and similar projects are cropping up in New Zealand and Germany.

While her own cat stays indoors—which is safer for the cat and the local fauna—Jenkins said that anyone can participate in the project by putting a GPS unit on a pet and uploading the data to Cat Tracker.