Domestic cat territory – home ranges vary widely

How large is domestic cat territory? As large as the front living room. No, I am being sarcastic but for some this is almost true. I am talking about what is referred to as the ‘home range’ of the domestic cat when free to roam as a high percentage are in the UK, but less so in the USA.

GPS tracked outdoor domestic cat shows how far they wander from home

GPS tracked outdoor domestic cat shows how far they wander from home

RELATED: Cat Marking Territory | Home Ranges | Cat Spraying.

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).

Domestic cat home range mapped

Domestic cat home range mapped under a study. Photo: Study.

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 a domestic cat’s movement were 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.

World map showing attitudes on indoor/outdoor cats

World map showing attitudes on indoor/outdoor cats

Food abundance being the major determining factor and availability of shelter is another factor (for feral cats):

Domestic or Feral CatSize of Domestic Cat Territory
Male farm cat150 acres4
Female farm cat15 acres5
Female feral cat at Japanese fish offal dump0.25 of an acre6 (a quarter of an acre)
Male feral cat at Japanese fish dump0.75 of an acre7 (three quarters of an acre)
Female feral cat in Australian grassland270 acres8
Male feral cat in Australia900 acres9
Indoor cat (1200 ft2 apartment).027 of an acre or one 36th of an acre
Dockland feral cats95 cats occupied 210 acres10
Confined feral cats in an apartment block courtyard in Holland30 cats in 0.34 of an acre11
Feral cats in Jerusalem0.69 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 mean overlapping ranges. Tens of thousands of apartment cats would fit into the home range of one Australian feral cat.

Cat home range of 3.5 acres

Cat home range of 3.5 acres in Australia. Image: MikeB

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.

RELATED: Being sensitive to the connection that cats have to their home range.

Overlapping domestic cat territory is workable because:

  1. 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.
  2. the domestic cat is fed by us. That doesn’t stop hunting but it does demotivate where there might be barriers to travelling.
  3. of natural barriers built by humans in an urban environment
  4. 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.

Feline behaviour-territory-update from Dr. Morris in his book Cat World

Dr. Morris says that the wildcat counterpart or ancestor of the domestic cat has a relatively huge territory with males requiring up to 71 ha (175 acres). Then you have domestic cats who have become stray cats and sometimes feral cats who occupy impressively large areas. For example, male farm cats can use over 61 hectors (150 acres) while female farm cats use only about 6 ha (15 acres) on average according to Dr. Morris. Feral cats in Australia where there is an abundance of food can range over vast areas of 1000 acres.

The position is entirely different in urban areas where the cat population can become overcrowded. Accordingly, the territories of urban cats are a fraction of the home range enjoyed by their cousins in the country.

Estimates state that domestic cats in London allowed to roam enjoy only 810 m² or about 1/5 of an acre. And then you’ve got cats confined to the home and the backyard. If the backyard is enclosed and of a reasonable size, the home range will be that plus the house. This is certainly considerably smaller than what would naturally be desired or used.

RELATED: Domestic cats don’t usually wander far from home.

My research indicates that the average domestic cat, given the required freedom, can use about 4 acres or more. But it certainly very tremendously depending upon the circumstances. Domestic cats need to be very flexible to accommodate the availability of space. They can adapt to a shrinkage of the home range.

At one extreme, you could fit 8,750 pet cat into the territory of one wildcat living in a remote place. As mentioned, the most important reason why cats adapt to a shrinkage of their desired space is because of the provision of food by their owners and others such as TNR volunteers when caring for semi-domestic colony cats.

Research indicates that the more food cats are given by their owners the smaller the urban territories become. In the urban environment human territories are divided up with fences and bricks and mortar which provide natural boundary lines. Female cats can often have special areas where several of their home ranges overlap and where they can meet on neutral ground.

Male cats whose home territories are always about 10 times the size of those of females irrespective of how crowded the area is so much more overlap. Males will roam over an area that takes in several female territories which enables them to keep a permanent check on which particular breeding female (queen) is on heat at any one time.

One study looked at dockland cats at a large port. It found that there were 95 cats in an area of 85 hectors (210 acres). Each year the cats produced about 400 kittens between them. This was about 10 kittens per female. Despite the expectation that this would produce a surge in population numbers it stayed remarkably stable from one year to the next.

The cats had established an appropriate territory size under the circumstances in which they lived. Only one in eight of the kittens survived to adulthood. And 50 additional kittens were cancelled out by 50 deaths among the older cats. The main cause of death was a fatal road accident.

notes

1 The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour By Dennis C. Turner, Paul Patrick Gordon Bateson

2 Desmond Morris – Cat Watching: The Essential Guide to Cat Behavior.

3 The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour By Dennis C. Turner, Paul Patrick Gordon Bateson

4 Desmond Morris – Cat Watching: The Essential Guide to Cat Behavior.

5 Desmond Morris – Cat Watching: The Essential Guide to Cat Behavior.

6 Wild Cats Of The World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist

7 Wild Cats Of The World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist

8 Wild Cats Of The World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist

9 Wild Cats Of The World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist

10 Desmond Morris – Cat Watching: The Essential Guide to Cat Behavior.

11 The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour By Dennis C. Turner, Paul Patrick Gordon Bateson

12 The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour By Dennis C. Turner, Paul Patrick Gordon Bateson

13 Feline Conservation Federation Magazine vol 53 Issue 6 page 6

14 The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour By Dennis C. Turner, Paul Patrick Gordon Bateson

15 The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour By Dennis C. Turner, Paul Patrick Gordon Bateson

16 The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour By Dennis C. Turner, Paul Patrick Gordon Bateson

17 Desmond Morris – Cat Watching: The Essential Guide to Cat Behavior.

18 The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour By Dennis C. Turner, Paul Patrick Gordon Bateson

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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3 Responses

  1. Albert Schepis says:

    It’s one thing to measure what present day domestic cats, in any particular place, end up utilizing, but that’s imposed on them based on what’s available, how he’s restricted or comfortable with. I think they’re born with wiring (brain cells/paths) that easily expect a certain range (perhaps a couple acres) and expands or contracts as needed or wanted or what’s available, but that’s just my guess. I have no reason to say that except to piss people off. (just kidding)

  2. brian says:

    My cat stays outside, he has a warm house to stay in at night, I feed and put out water every day. He is free to wander , mostly stays near our cul-de sac.He is friendly with all the neighbors and seems happy. But I have to move, how can I take the cat with me and get him to stay by the new house on the other side of town?
    Thank you

    • Albert Schepis says:

      This is a good and serious question, which I’ll answer as if it was just asked (March 10, 2019)

      You should get more info, but quickly I’ll say that you have to think scientifically about it. Cats learn fast but act fast too, so you have to consider that in a new place he’ll feel compelled to find home, and “new place” isn’t that, yet. You’ll have to keep him in until he’s firmly conditioned himself that that’s home now. If you let him out he might disappear looking for what home was, possibly getting lost. Cats are sensual, relying on sounds, smells and landmarks. He’ll need your help for awhile. For how long I can’t say, but they start from ground zero and build outward. They learn fast but knowing where home is is so highly important, they need security, that it’s pretty burned in, so it might take weeks or even months before you’re both sure the old home is forgotten and replaced with the new one. Inside comes first, then you start allowing him out, do it for short periods and stay with him (not at dusk or dawn and not before he’s eaten. That’s when they feel compelled to look for food.) It would be good if you have a great buddy rapport and he comes to you when called / doesn’t run off or leash him if he’s already used to one. Good luck and keep us posted.

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