Why do domestic cats still wish to maintain a home range?

The reason why the domestic cat’s wildcat ancestor maintains a home range i.e. a section of landscape that they call home, is because they want to protect a food resource. This makes sense. It’s about survival. The domestic cat, in a typical home where they are well looked after, has a ready-made food source. Technically there is no need for them to maintain a home range. I am of course referring to indoor/outdoor cats; still the default arrangement.

Home range of a domestic cat (male). Image: MikeB.
Cat home range of 3.5 acres in Australia (male). Image: MikeB
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But the truth of the matter is that the home ranges of well-fed owned cats are so small it suggests that many are not deliberately hunting. They are not going out of their way to find prey animals on which to feed.

If you combine this with the fact that female cats have smaller home ranges than male cats, you can see that many female cats will be more or less staying in their homes without a desire to go outside to create a home range if they are allowed to go out unsupervised. Or they may stop and snooze not far from the cat flap.

There is of course the complication that in terms of the domestic cat’s evolution they do not link hunting with hunger. They will hunt instinctively as a precaution against the possibility of not finding food.

Although this instinct is present in domestic cats to varying extents it is probably fair to say that most pet cats do not hunt seriously. If they don’t hunt seriously and there’s no need to protect their home range, why are they outside patrolling? Perhaps a lot of the time they aren’t patrolling. Often a domestic cat allowed outside will simply find a favourite spot and spend many hours at it snoozing and watching. They’ll occasionally mark the boundary of the home range and this will be instinctive too.

It’s clear, however, that a domestic cat’s instinct to hunt is suppressed but not entirely eliminated by the fact that they never go hungry. Arguably, in homes where they are neglected, they are far more likely to hunt to supplement their provided diet.

And in the early days of cat domestication, there’s no doubt that domestic cats hunted a lot more to supplement their diet. It wasn’t that long ago when commercial cat food was neither universally available nor nutritionally complete when almost every domestic cat would have had to hunt and therefore maintain a home range as a resource.

It’s probably also fair to say that the domestic cat hasn’t yet evolved sufficiently from those early days of domestication to have the mindset to stop maintaining a home range. For some cats it is a vestigial instinct without its intended purpose.

But if, today, a domestic cat realises that they cannot rely on a regular source of food because their owner is failing to properly discharge their duties as a caregiver, they will instinctively increase the size of their range to compensate for this loss.

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