The Secret Lives of Our Roaming Cats

The University of Georgia and National Geographic teamed up to find out what exactly our urban kitties are up to when they free-roam the neighborhood. Sixty indoor/outdoor cats in Athens, Georgia were outfitted with a “Kitty Cam” video collar, so that researches could get a cat’s eye perspective without disrupting their behavior. The goal was to assess a cat’s impact on wildlife, as well as learn about the risks confronted by outdoor roaming cats.

Via the Kitty Cam, the research team measured cat predation on wildlife as well as quantified health risks faced by free-roaming cats. These images are more powerful than words and collectively, they tell a story more accurate than anecdotal cat tales from human observers.

The cats wore the lightweight, waterproof units equipped with LED lights and a break-away collar for seven to 10 days and the resulting footage was recorded on a mini SD memory card for easy download and viewing. Fifty-five of the 60 cats provided usable footage and on average, 37 hours were recorded per cat.

The results?

Almost half (44 percent) of the cats hunted wildlife, but only 30 percent were successful. The majority of suburban prey came from three categories: small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates. Hunting cats averaged two items per seven days of roaming. Carolina anoles (small lizards) were the most common prey species followed by Woodland Voles (small mammals). Birds were often observed by the cats, but rarely caught. Interestingly, 23 percent of the prey was brought home as “gifts,” while the majority (49 percent) was abandoned at the capture sight, but 28 percent of the prey was actually eaten. Cat age, sex, and time spent outdoors had little influence on hunting behavior — but weather had a significant influence. Cats roaming during the warmer months exhibited more hunting behavior and caught more prey than cats roaming in cooler weather.

The most common risk factors facing suburban free-roaming cats in Athens included crossings roads (45 percent of cats in study), encountering strange cats (25 percent), eating and drinking substances away from home (25 percent), exploring storm drains (20 percent), entering crawl spaces where they could get trapped (20 percent). Eighty-five percent of the cats in the study exhibited at least one risk behavior. Male cats were more likely to engage in identified risky behavior than female cats, as were younger cats. Not surprisingly, the total time outside free-roaming also impacted the risk exposure.

One of the most surprising outcomes of the study — especially to the owners of the cats — was that some of the cats led double lives. In other words, they made themselves at home with more than one family! One shocked owner said she felt like one of those women on a talk show that finds out her husband is cheating on her!

I already know one of my cats (Mittens) unabashedly cheats on me and sometimes sleeps at the foot of my neighbor’s bed and eats their food, but nevertheless, I would LOVE to have a kitty cam for my three cats to see just what they are up to when I am not looking. I do know that two of my cats, Rikki Tikki Tabbi and Sushi, do not roam far and rarely leave our yard. The one I worry about is Mittens, who as noted above, is all about free love, and loves to roam. He is extremely social, loves other cats, reasonable dogs and people – and they all seem to adore him back. I really would love to have the video footage of all of his daily encounters, so just maybe I will have to get Mittens a Kitty Cam all his own!

For a great overview of the Kitty Cam study, listen to this interview by Melissa Block on NPR, and get more info on the study (including photos and videos) at the Kitty Cams Project website.

Should I Keep My Cat Indoors?
Why Cats Leave “Gifts”
Kitty Cam Reveals Feline Behavior (video)
The Secret Life of Cats (video)

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Elisa F.
Elisa F3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Michele Wilkinson

Thank you

Melania Padilla
Melania P4 years ago

Cats rock!

Rosann Thiessen
Rosann Thiessen5 years ago

I kind of did a study on my own, but it was just observing the neighbors cats. My cats are indoor, however I had my front porch totally enclosed with lattice, of course I included a door for fire safety, but I installed 3 latches for their security, so they can be out in the fresh air all they would like. There is one cat I did follow very closely, and when he showed on my door step I deemed him as a unowned cat "as if a cat can really be owned, they own us" I took him to the vet and had him neutered! I continued to keep track of him, he had taken up with 4 families that I knew of! they really do kind of lead double lives!

Abbe A.
Azaima A5 years ago


Robert O.
Robert O5 years ago

They really live interesting lives don't they? Thanks.

Eric Luu
Eric Luu5 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Cats have always seemed different to me.

Jaime  Alexande Alves
Jaime Alves5 years ago

Cats are amazing.!!

Antiope K.
Antiope K5 years ago

Very interesting!!!Thanks a lot sharing :-))

David V.
David V5 years ago