Cat tracking program makes owners re-think pets’ behaviour and how they manage their moggies

Willie is one of seven cats living with Stephen Barnes in Lithgow, where the cat tracking program took place. ABC Central West: Melanie Pearce

The old nursery rhyme may have questioned where the pussy cat had been, but a new research program reveals that just like the moggy that went to London, Australian domestic cats love to roam.

Using global positioning system (GPS) devices, the program used at Lithgow, in central-west New South Wales, tracked the daily movements of a group of pet cats.

The results shocked some of their owners.

Stephen Barnes (left) helps Peter Evans attach the GPS to one of his cats. ABC Central West: Melanie Pearce

Tracking cats with GPS

The program was run by the Central Tablelands Local Land Services (LLS) with funding from the Commonwealth’s National Landcare Program.

Senior land service officer Peter Evans said the ‘citizen science’ project was designed to raise awareness about just how far domestic cats could roam.

“When you speak to a lot of cat owners they say: “Oh my cat just sleeps on the end of my bed, it doesn’t go anywhere,” Mr Evans said.

“[But] we’ve seen some work that’s been done down at the University of South Australia in Adelaide and we actually know that’s not the case.”

Nearly 30 local pet owners showed interest in the program but the number of cats eventually tracked decreased to 13 after some animals refused to wear the harnesses fitted with GPS devices.

Fitting a global positioning system tracker to Semi’s harness to allow recording of the animal’s movements. ABC Central West: Melanie Pearce

Surprising results

Mr Evans said the participating cats each wore the tracking devices for up to 10 days and in total, more than 100 cat track data sets were collected, each representing 24 hours in the life of the animal.

The GPS points tracked by the devices were then superimposed on aerial maps of Lithgow, creating a series of yellow lines that look a lot like a pre-schooler’s scribble.

Mr Evans said the results were fascinating.

“If you look at some of the tracks, it’s phenomenal how much they’re out in the streets,” he said.

“Some of the cats have stayed relatively close — 10, 15 or 20 doors down — and we’ve actually had one cat that’s gone three kilometres from home.”

One day’s movement of a domestic cat in Lithgow, as recorded via a GPS device attached to a harness. Supplied: Central Tablelands Local Land Services

Moggies’ movements shock owner

Stephen Barnes has seven cats: Semi, Squid, Shoebert, Good Mother, Suri, Wally and Willie, and two of them took part in the tracking program.

He said before the program, he thought his cats did not roam much.

“I thought Semi particularly would be just local — bottom of the garden or next door’s yard,” Mr Barnes said.

“Squid I wasn’t so sure about because he’s always been a bit of a wanderer but I always saw him a couple of doors down.

“What it revealed was really quite shocking as far as my perception of where they went.

Photo: One of Stephen Barnes’ cats, Good Mother, in his backyard at Lithgow. (ABC Central West: Melanie Pearce)

Mr Barnes realised Semi was going into bushland and “over the hill and far away” while Squid preferred a wander through town, including visiting the high school and crossing Lithgow’s main street.

“It started me thinking what’s he’s actually doing in these areas? Has he become a bit of a mascot in these areas?” Mr Barnes said.

“Is he looking for food which is probably the primary thing because he’s usually around eight and a half kilos which [the vet says] is far, far too heavy.”

Changing behaviour about pet management

Since the result of the GPS tracking program, Mr Barnes has restricted the times his cats go out.

“Now I bring them in for their dinner at around two to half past two and I close the windows, and unless they’re really, really desperate, I don’t let any of them out,” he said.

Mr Barnes said he was worried about how far his cats were travelling and the potential dangers of traffic, fights with other cats and contracting feline AIDS.

He has bought his own GPS tracking devices and will continue to monitor the prowling of his pets.

Four different cats in Lithgow were tracked for a day with a wide range of movement occurring. Supplied: Central Tablelands Local Land Services

National project proposed

Mr Evans said the Lithgow survey had raised more questions than it had answered but he hoped the tracking data would be a visual tool to spark discussion.

“We believe cats play a very important role in the companion animal scene,” he said.

“We’re not saying cats are bad or anything, but perhaps they can be better managed to control where they go.”

The Central Tablelands LLS will now roll out the cat tracking program to other local government areas in the surrounding region.

It is also working with the University of South Australia on incorporating the results into a national tracking program.

Photo: Stephen Barnes says he has changed the way he manages his cats since the project. (ABC Central West: Melanie Pearce)

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