Fitbit for fur babies: tracking cats' hunting
What do our feline friends get up to when they’re not innocently lying by the fire or sunning themselves in their favourite spot? Cat owners in Taranaki used GPS trackers to find out.
Locals in New Plymouth have been discovering their cats' secret lives through CatMap, a project borne out of students at Welbourn School partnering with digital mapping experts at MAIN (Mapping, Analysis and Information Network) Trust New Zealand.
The students' mission was to investigate how their pet cats are interacting with sensitive natural areas, and find ways to alter cat behaviour to both protect endangered species and aid the cats' welfare. They found that domestic cats wander long distances, particularly in rural areas. But, like humans, cats also have their own personalities - some are homebodies while others are more adventurous.
The team also sought to find out about cats’ hunting ability, says project co-ordinator Josephine Fitness at MAIN Trust. “We wanted to find out if a domestic cat has everything it needs, does it go hunting and why?”
Cat wearing a GPS tracker
Tracking cats with GPS
CatMap used tiny GPS units attached to cat harnesses to follow the cats’ travels via satellite, similar to how a Fitbit tracks where wearer walks or runs. The device recorded the time and location of the cat every three minutes, with the data being downloaded so the students could follow and process the results.
Josephine says more work is needed to find out why some cats are more adventurous than others, and two cats from the same rural home were a particularly interesting example.
“Nudge stayed close to home, while Angel walked distances of up to 500m from the home, walking the edges of the conservation reserve beside the property, in sheds and going along fence lines.
“If Angel was hunting a lot we would expect that she would go deep into the forest area. She may have spent time in outbuildings due to a sunny spot, or if there were mice and rats there.”
Maps showing a cat's travels at night (purple) and during the day (yellow).
The cats’ hunting behaviours were tested using collars that either glow or have bells attached.
Josephine says the tracking showed that cats are habitual in their roaming. “The bell or glow collar doesn’t keep them closer to home. They still catch mice and rats but not birds because birds will see the glow collar and hear the bells.”
Discovering dark secrets
Josephine Fitness holding a glow collar
The children were fascinated that the tracking showed where their cats went and what they got up to, Josephine explains. “The cat might be asleep on the bed when they go to bed at night and it might be there in the morning, but a lot of the night they are out roaming.”
Project lead Elise Smith, also at MAIN Trust, adds, “They didn’t realise their cat was visiting the neighbours, out crossing the road or getting up to naughty things.
“This has made them realise that their pet is a natural creature, when previously they may have thought it was just something to cuddle. They have learnt that the cat has got its own agenda.”
The children studied the questions of what the cats might be doing and why, and how to tackle these behaviours.
“They came up with some interesting ideas on how to train their cat to stay home,” says Elise. “Even some of the adults were horrified realising how much their cat roamed - but now they know they can make simple little changes to prevent that.”
Some children are asking their parents to shut their cats inside at night, while others are keen to use glow collars.
Whatever tactic they decide to use, the outcome is clear: both students and parents are now taking action to stop their cats hunting at night and help protect native birds.
Students using the maps to make observations about their cats' movements
About the project
CatMap is run by MAIN Trust New Zealand in partnership with Welbourne School, with support from the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform.
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