As usual the answer comes down to the availability of food, at least in part. As an aside the cat with probably the biggest home range is the snow leopard with a single male sometimes occupying an astonishing 1,590 km2 and travelling up to 28 kilometres per day. When your cat wanders out at night it is nice to get a feel for how far he or she is travelling or would naturally like to travel (female territories are on average one third of the size of male domestic cat territory1).
Of course there are a multitude of influences that restrict range (e.g. high fences). But this page deals with what would normally happen if the cat’s movement was unencumbered. The fact that the male domestic cat territory is three times that of the female indicates that food abundance is not the only determining factor for size of range.
A distinguished biologist2 says that the wildcat (see e.g. Scottish Wildcat) counterpart of the male domestic cat has a territory of up to 175 acres (a half acre garden is a good sized garden). What of the domestic cat itself? It depends. Domestic territory is extremely variable in size. In one study3 domestic cat territory was found to vary between 1 to 2000 cats per km2.
Food abundance being the major determining factor and availability of shelter is another factor (for feral cats):
|Domestic or Feral Cat||Size of Domestic Cat Territory|
|Male farm cat||150 acres4|
|Female farm cat||15 acres5|
|Female feral cat at Japanese fish offal dump||0.25 of an acre6 (a quarter of an acre)|
|Male feral cat at Japanese fish dump||0.75 of an acre7 (three quarters of an acre)|
|Female feral cat in Australian grassland||270 acres8|
|Male feral cat in Australia||900 acres9|
|Indoor cat (1200 ft2 apartment)||.027 of an acre or one 36th of an acre|
|Dockland feral cats||95 cats occupied 210 acres10|
|Confined feral cats in an apartment block courtyard in Holland||30 cats in 0.34 of an acre11|
|Feral cats in Jerusalem||0.69 of an acre12|
As domestic cats live in a very wide range of habitats they have to be adaptable. Their social systems deal with this and there is often a huge shrinkage in the natural size of unfettered domestic cat territory. Small home ranges means overlapping ranges. Tens of thousands of apartment cats would fit into the home range of one Australian feral cat.
This means the so called “solitary cat” has to become pretty sociable and it does. Just as a quick thought, I have just read that the Geoffroy’s cat (a small wildcat) studbook (a book recording captive cat breeding) states that 36% of the deaths of captive Geoffroy’s cats were from the attacks of a “cage mate”13 . Is this because of pure unsociability and/or the extremely confined space allowed?
Although domestic cat territory is likely to overlap more than for wild cats due to population density, it is natural for cat territories to overlap. The classic overlap is when a male’s territory encompasses the territories of three females as is the case for the tiger. The territory of breeding feral domestic cats incorporates 5 female groups14.
Overlapping domestic cat territory is workable because:
- of the effective use of scent marking, which means that cats can avoid each other. Neutered cats scent mark less than unneutered cats. Urine spraying is an efficient method of communication. The strength of the scent varies over time (increasing in density soon after being deposited due to oxidation of the amino acids in the urine15) providing indications of the whereabouts of the cat that deposited the urine. Scent communication could have been modified because of the density of population of the domestic cat16.
- the domestic cat is fed by us. That doesn’t stop hunting but it does demotivate where there might be barriers to travelling.
- of natural barriers built by humans in an urban environment
- when encounters occur it is usual for the domestic cat to threaten each other but wait for the opportunity to visit the desired area without conflict17.
In one study feral cat densities were found to be maintained at a stable level despite each queen having 10 offspring per year. This was due to only one in eight kittens surviving (the car killing many) and natural death of adult cats.
It would seem that dominant, unneutered males have the biggest territories18.
Domestic cat territory – Photos of feral cats by MAR and reproduced with his permission.