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Through a Cat's Eyes

Have you ever wondered exactly what your cat gets up to once it goes out the back door? Well, thanks to the wonders of modern technology humans have now sneaked a quick look into the private life of cats. In a unique experiment, researchers at the University of Georgia fitted 60 cats with minicams to see what happens when there are no humans around.

The cats were all indoor/outdoor cats from the town of Athens GA, volunteered for the experiment by their humans. Each cat wore the camera for 7 to 10 days at a time, and all activity outdoors was recorded on a small memory card in the camera. Afterwards, the researchers analyzed the footage from each cat and cataloged the findings.

While in the past similar experiments have been performed with other animals, only recently has technology progressed to the point where a camera can be made light and compact enough for a cat to wear on its collar. If the camera were so heavy or bulky that it made the cat uncomfortable, this would not only be unkind to the cat, but it would prevent the cat from acting naturally and so make the experiment pointless. With their 'Kitty Cam' the researchers were confident that they had cracked this problem.

They hoped that cats fitted with their special camera would provide answers to two particular questions. The first of these is one that many humans ponder as they let their cat out of the house:

Exactly how dangerous is it out there?

Within most homes, a cat is about as safe as it gets. And indeed indoor-only cats tend to live longer. But this longevity comes at a price. Many feline behavioral psychologists stress that a confined home environment may sentence a cat to unhappy years of ennui and boredom. Some cats are left alone at home for most of the day until their humans get back from work - and then the human may be too tired or stressed to interact with the cat anyway.

Ask any cat - it wants the outdoors. And psychologically speaking outdoor access is good for the cat. This is one reason why, even though indoor cats live longer on average, the vast majority of real feline methuselahs of 22years+ are indoor/outdoor cats. (See oldestcats.htm).

Some people try for the best of both worlds by creating special totally-enclosed and secure areas for the cat to play in. Many others think that their garden is a safe enough environment. And unlike the static interior of a house, a garden presents a cat with a multitude of things to watch and get interested in. Even without a Kitty Cam one can watch a cat studying every moving insect with the utmost attention, climbing fences, or just sprinting from one side of the garden to the other for no other reason than because she can. The outdoors is great. But freedom too comes at a price. Letting a cat roam freely always contains an element of danger, and the Kitty Cam is the first scientific attempt to quantify that danger.

The researchers paid particular attention to certain hazards - crossing roads, meeting other animals, eating and drinking when outside, getting into tight spots such as crawl spaces and storm drains, and aerial adventures involving trees and roofs.

By far the most common dangerous activity the cats indulged in was crossing the road. Male cats were more likely than female cats to take this risk, probably because the home range of a male cat is much bigger that of a female. Approximately half the cats in the study crossed a road at least once.

Although most cats are street-wise and recognise cars as danger, car headlights confuse them. Cats are poor at measuring distance and speed, and may make a dash for safety once the headlights have passed, only to run into the rest of the vehicle. Most fatalities happen at night. Statistics from a study some 10 years ago suggested that each year in the USA approximately 5.4 million cats are hit and killed by cars. Fortunately all the cats in this study survived uninjured, though some interesting details of road-crossing techniques were revealed on camera.

A quarter of the cats studied participated in the next most dangerous activity - freelance eating and drinking outside the home. The dangers here are not only poisonous plants and things like rat poison, but more subtle dangers, such as sweet-tasting anti-freeze and de-icer on garden paths. Both of the latter are very dangerous for a cat if ingested.

Then there is the question of meeting other animals. Some cats are relatively social, and have other outdoor cats they like to hang out with. Others are fiercely territorial, and border warfare is common. However, inter-cat skirmishes generally involve - at worst - a trip to the vet. The real risk with your cat meeting strange felines - friendly or otherwise - is the possibility of picking up parasites or disease.

Other animals include the omni-present dog - though most cats seemed to have figured out what to do about these - and geographically diverse threats varying from foxes in Britain to coyotes and rattlesnakes in North America. In some areas large owls have been known to take small cats. However, in the inter-species meetings recorded on the Kitty Cam, the subjects avoided harm by larger animals, and successfully inflicted it on smaller ones - as will be seen.

First though, we finish the description of risks by noting that the cameras showed about 20% of cats getting into crawl spaces or climbing trees and roofs. Cats are good climbers and normally don’t injure themselves, but if you have a particularly tall tree it may be an idea to remove the lower branches so the cat can’t risk getting into trouble in the first place.

Overall around 85% of the cats recorded at least one dangerous activity during the period when they were monitored. In the wider sphere, this means that the average cat will get up to something potentially life-threatening at least once a week while roaming outdoors. (Though to put this into perspective, you take a similar but somewhat lower risk every time you go shopping.) As it turned out, none of the cats in the study died or were harmed, but one cat that was to take part was killed before it could do so.

The second question addressed by the researchers is one of growing importance: how much harm do cats do to small creatures in the outdoors?

Some campaigners point out - with increasing loudness - that free-roaming cats have a negative impact on the environment, in particular on the bird population. They are supported by statistics which show declining numbers of songbirds in areas with high cat populations. Cat lovers retort that areas with high cat populations generally have high human populations as well. And humans harm birds directly with everything from car windscreens to wind turbines (the latter is something of a dilemma for some environmentalists), and indirectly with garden pesticides and habitat destruction. So the scientists in the Kitty Cam were particularly interested to see what havoc their subjects would wreak upon the local wildlife.

So, what did the cats kill? Where did they do it, and how often? Well, not that often as it turns out. In fact over half the cats didn’t kill anything on camera. The remaining 44% killed just once or twice a week, with the statistics bumped up by a pair of particularly enthusiastic hunters who each clocked up five kills in the week they were monitored.

Just over a quarter of the small animals caught were turned into meals. Another quarter were brought home for the delectation (or otherwise) of the humans living there. The other half of kills were purely for the joy of the hunt, with the cats losing interest in their prey once it was dead.

The nature of that prey was not what the researchers were expecting. Songbirds ranked bottom of the menu, even below small rodents. Reptiles and amphibians, probably because they were easiest to catch, were the most frequent victims. Of the 39 kills observed during the study, five were birds. These were mostly taken in the warm months between March and November, with only one bird killed in the winter. This conformed with the general study, which showed that most cats preferred to do their hunting while it was warm. Also noted was the fact that while cats did have a small but noticeable effect on the bird population, they also had a more significant effect on the rat and mouse population, acting as the town’s unpaid rodent sanitation officers.

Interestingly, whether a cat hunted or not was a matter of that cat’s individual personality. Male or female, young or old, cats either enjoyed hunting or didn’t.The preference was spread across both genders and all age groups.

So when it comes to a cat’s hunting habits it appears that you should be more concerned about the frogs in your garden pond than other creatures out there. But of course, if opportunity presents itself, a cat will do what comes naturally. Normally though, cats are what are known as crepuscular hunters. That is, a cat’s preferred times for hunting are dawn and dusk. During the day they are much less likely to actively seek prey.

So to keep a cat safe (from traffic and other crepuscular hunters) and to keep creatures safe from your cat, a good rule is indoors at night, out by day. Common sense measures, such as fencing the yard and keeping it clear of toxins help a lot, but nothing more than abandoning the old English tradition of ‘putting the cat out with the milk bottles’ in the evening.

One interesting and unexpected observation emerged from study. It turns out that some cats are two-timing their humans. Four cats from the monitored group had two separate homes and two sets of humans who thought the cat was theirs. These ‘outside’ cats were not outdoors in the usual sense, but simply commuting from one set of ‘owners’ to the other.

For more information about this study see: The Kitty Cams Project


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