Thanks to a study utilizing GPS data from 925 pet cats, we are able to quantify what cats are actually up to when you let them out of the house. The numbers are surprising!
The study, published in Animal Conservation, was conducted in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand over the course of about a week. What we now know is that most cats keep to their neighborhoods, maintaining a surprisingly small travel area within about 330 ft of their home. But this is a problem for small wildlife. They also crossed the road at dangerously high rates that exceeded what most of their owners assumed.
This is incredibly dangerous, and proof that “my cat knows not to cross the road” is simply untrue. In fact, when the study’s researchers followed up with the cat owners several months after the study was conducted, many of the cats had been hit by cars. This is proof that a cat doesn’t have to travel far to still be at high risk of death, even in neighborhoods with low speed limits on roads that are familiar to them.
More sad news about outdoor cats: they are having a very disproportionate effect on local wildlife. Owners reported receiving an average of 3.5 “gifts” of dead prey from their cat monthly, or 42 each year. But that’s just what they bring home. Researchers estimate that our not-hungry-at-all, cuddly little balls of fluff are actually killing 2-3 times that many each year. That is a very high number of kills of native wildlife no matter how you look at it, but it’s a significant problem when compared to how small their travel territory is and how many different cats are roaming around the same neighborhoods doing the same thing each day.
Our well-fed cats are killing songbirds, baby bunnies, beneficial lizards, butterflies, and more at higher rates than the natural, wild predators in the same areas who do depend on the kills to survive.
One point the study did not address is the variance in lifespan of indoor-only cats vs cats who spend time outdoors. The estimates vary from source-to-source, but across the board, there is consensus that indoor cats typically live years longer than outdoor pet cats. This is for a variety of reasons that range from the dangers of cars or ingesting toxins (for example, eating a rodent that had been poisoned by a neighbor) to increased exposure to disease and parasites.