Kitty asks for the door. Being the good, obedient master you are, you let him out so he can stretch his legs a bit. What harm can it do?
Daredevil, murderer or beggar? The truth is, you know little about what your cat is up to outside the comfort of the house. Of its nine lives, the one spent at your side is potentially only one of many, all lived in parallel.
So, you think you know that fur ball you have at home, which you feed and pamper? Think again! Outdoor cats lead a secret existence, one that researchers are trying to bring to light.
Armed with harnesses, GPS and small cameras, some scientists around the world have abandoned wildlife research to study domestic cats. Where are they going? What are they doing? The mystery looms over these creatures that are so familiar to us.
In addition to satisfying the curiosity of owners, this type of study is of particular importance considering that domestic cats represent a threat to wildlife conservation. Even declawed and with bells on their collars, cats decimate the local fauna. In the United States alone, a minimum of one million birds and seven million small mammals die each year under the clutches of the Felis catus. Understanding how and why cats move around would help to minimize their impact on wildlife.
In order to answer these questions, scientists need public participation in what is called a citizen science initiative. Several owners have already come forth to offer their assistance. Once the device is in place, the innocent look displayed by Kitty when returning from its escapade no longer fools anyone. Its comings and goings are documented, its secrets revealed. Many were shocked to learn that their cat actually had two families! Alternating between houses, these opportunists enjoyed twice as much food and twice as many cuddles. Can we blame them?
In one noteworthy case, a cat travelled 1.2 kilometers to find a house where it had previously lived. Not only does this anecdote suggest that cats' spatial memory is good enough to navigate long distances, but it also shows how fearless our companions can be. To get to its destination, the cat in question had to overcome many obstacles, including a very crowded boulevard!
According to the data collected, cats engage in these risky behaviors about once a week. Crossing highways, exploring sewers, jumping from roof to roof, escaping a fox's bite, defending their territory... no wonder outdoor cats only live two to five years on average! They are more at risk of a sudden end, not to mention the diseases that threaten them: leukemia and AIDS in cats, but also serious diseases that can be transmitted to humans such as rabies.
For the sake of the wildlife, but also for the sake of your cat, it is therefore preferable not to let it roam freely. If you can't stop Kitty from parading around the neighborhood, vaccination and sterilization are more important than ever. That being said, there is no guarantee that kitty won't come back with its fur smelling of a strange perfume!
by Geneviève Coudé
Our Popsci author-in-chief, Geneviève Coudé, brings us a myriad of fascinating and astonishing facts about our feline companions. Geneviève has a Master of Science in Ecology from Sherbrooke University, in Quebec, Canada. Her passion for sharing scientific knowledge has brought her to write in a variety of scientific medias addressed toward the general public. She currently collaborates on two French-Canadian television shows geared towards introducing adolescents and young adults to the fascinating world of science.