The Nine Simultaneous Lives of Cats: Cat Tracker

By Caren Cooper | July 25, 2014 2:40 pm

Discover Magazine’s September print edition features an article on “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Cats.” Felines seem to lead elusive, mysterious lives. Fortunately, the citizen science project Cat Tracker allows you to track your cat beyond what we can directly observe.

Cats are moody.

In the blink of an eye, a cat can change from aloof to affectionate, playful to predatory, carefree to curious. The myth about nine lives is oddly suitable, but not as nine sequential lives. Instead, it is as though cats have nine personalities which results in living nine lives all at once.

Now their multifaceted personalities make us laugh with LOL Cats.


Image credit: anamalous4

But the joke is on us. Pet cats remain a mystery living right under our noses. We share our homes with them. We adopt them into our families. And if we let them outside, then there is a significant part of their lives for which we are clueless. Curled up on our laps rests Dr. Jekyll, but out the door goes a stalking Mr. Hyde.

A new collaboration between cat owners and scientists seeks to find out where cats go and what they may eat along the way. The scientists of Cat Tracker are a team of professors and students at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, in NCSU Biological Science (Your Wild Life), and at the NCSU Veterinary School. The cat owners so far are mostly in North Carolina, though recruits are now signing up from many other states, and soon in Australia and New Zealand.

Cat owners outfit their pet with a tiny satellite tracking device on a special collar. Undergraduate Troi Perkins programs the GPS units, fits them into cases that she makes on a 3-D printer, and then visits owners and helps “harness the little fuzz balls.” People outside of the Raleigh area participate in a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) style in four easy steps.

Together, a GPS unit and harness costs about $50. Each cat wears the gear for about a week. Then, while their pets feign innocence upon return from numerous excursions that week, the owners remove the collar, attach the GPS unit to their computer, and download the secrets movements of the silent footed. The cat owners submit the tracking information to a public data repository on animal movements, called Movebank. Until now, Movebank was only used by professional researchers. With members of the public engaging in animal tracking, the amount of information will quickly rise.


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Some participants opt to go one step further in their desire to understand their cat companion. They divert the contents of the litter box from the garbage to specimen cups picked up by the NCSU researchers. These fecal samples will be examined for microbes and DNA from the potential remains of wildlife.

To date, Cat Trackers has gathered data on the movement of over 40 cats.  Their goal is to track 1,000 cats.

Troi says she most commonly hears Cat Tracker participants say, “Oh my… my cat has traveled over the highway?!” She explains that people are usually surprised by their cat’s outdoor explorations and curious to know whether their cat is a loner or hanging out with their neighbor’s cats. She says, owners “just want to see if their cats are crossing busy roads, visiting other people’s houses, or going into remote wooded areas.”

Researchers wonder similar things, particularly about visits to wooded areas. Cats are not necessarily as benign as their purring might make us believe. Cats transmit diseases to humans. Cats eat birds and other wildlife. A study by Smithsonian and US Fish & Wildlife Service researchers gave estimates that cats kill at a minimum of one million birds and seven million small mammals every year.

Roland Kays, Director of the Biodiversity Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Science explained that tracking at least a thousand cats will reveal secrets “not only about the typical cat movements, but also about the extraordinary ones.  Given that cats are so common in the country, if even 5% of them are moving out into the nature preserves it could be quite harmful to native wildlife.”

Rob Dunn of NCSU’s Your Wild Life explained that “the big result so far is that there are a lot of cats that walk short distances most days and then every so often, for whatever reason, bolt for it often up to a mile before coming right back And then a few cats just seem lost.” On the Cat Tracker website, the cat movements look like starburst pattern in every direction around their home.


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As residential areas expand adjacent to natural areas, and become increasingly important for biodiversity conservation and for human wellbeing, conflicts between bird-lovers and cat-lovers escalate. Perhaps more information can help find common ground.

It was over 9,000 years ago when our ancestors started taming nature. First we learned how to turn wild plants into crops. We stored the harvest, but this brought mice. So then, in the Near East, people domesticated cats to function as mousers. We turned wild cats into pets. We’ve bred them to be fluffy and leisurely, yet fierce and playful. Siamese, Tabby, Calico. Their appearances are as different as their personalities. Lions congregate together in prides. House cats simply have pride. An over-abundance of it.

All of our pet cats retain their heritage, balancing a dual identity of being a little wild, a little tame. Cat Tracker provides an in-depth peek into the behaviors of cats, whether predatory, social, or antisocial. Dunn told me that one household with nine cats just signed up. As more owners with multiple cats participate, perhaps we’ll gain insight into the idiom about herding cats and finally come to grips with the futile attempts to control this chaotic group.

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MORE ABOUT: animals, cats
  • Nelli Guyduy

    omgod i need this!!! i have five kitties and they’re all outside cats. cannot live indoors AT ALL but they are very good. they always stay near and dont cause a lot of trouble. i always worry about where they’re at though so this would put my mind at ease…. or not! when i find out where they go!! haha

  • blair houghton

    From the tracker website: “Recent research estimates that free-ranging domestic cats (including un-owned and owned cats) in the US kill 1-4 billion birds and 6-22 billion mammals each year.”

    Billion. With a B. 7-26 billion animals, killed by under a hundred million cats. That’s 70-260 animals per year, per cat, more if you only include those that get to go outside. That sounds insanely high.

    I also don’t really trust their data. There aren’t enough points to know where the cat is really going. All you get is a sense that the cat goes just about everywhere. And don’t trust the GPS accuracy. It’s not that great, and can occasionally be horrid. Your car or phone’s GPS nav system has a lot of software to improve its guesses based on adjusting for what’s on the map. I’d like to see them calibrate it by putting the tracker on a person and having them walk a set course from day to day. They might be surprised at the random variations. Or they might surprise me by showing better accuracy with their equipment.

    • Troi Perkins

      I personally agree with you that the numbers do sound
      insanely high! However they are not from the Cat Tracker project but from a study published recently seen here which is a completely separate and unaffiliated study from us. The Cat Tracker project was designed to do more of a follow up and try to get a more
      accurate projection of how far cats travel which determines the range that each cat has an impact on. So hopefully the results for this study will be much more precise and accurate by taking into account a larger sample of cats versus the other study.

      I totally agree with you on the not completely trusting the accuracy of GPS units because of phones (my galaxy s3’s Google Maps is horrible!!). However the GPS units here are programmed so that they won’t take a point unless 4 satellites (I believe) link up with the unit at the same time meaning the location points should be more accurate. However that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be any variability because there is!The starburst pattern is actually from cats being inside the house and is taken out of the data when we run a series of algorithms that take into account this fact along with speed filters (how fast a cat can actually travel, etc). The result is much more accurate data with less outliers which you can see on the cat tracker website and on movebank (like this one! ).

      Also we do calibrate the GPS units like you suggested (which gives me a nice excuse to leave lab and get some fresh air!) each time before they get sent out to participates that we loan to. That way we can check for such variations and relink the units as we need to, set filters, or check the unit for malfunctions.

      I hope that helped clear up some of the questions!

      Troi Perkins

      Cat Tracker Team

    • Nyrala Sirom

      The numbers of dead animals don’t sound out of line to me. I had one cat who used to bring home all the kills she could not eat. She usually brought home seven or eight moles per day, and there were days when she brought home a dozen or more. Knowing that she could eat four baby moles or two adults, that made for an impressive count. We’re badly overrun with moles here, so please excuse me for not being too concerned with their population. It would take at least a hundred little furry huntresses like her to make any sort of an impact in the mole population here.

      • eirikr1

        Another article in Discover also pointed out that cats kill without being hungry, and eat very little of what they kill even when they are hungry….


        Just as a point of fact, I’m sure what your cat brings home are shrews, not moles, most likely the Short-tailed Shrew, Blarina brevicauda, if not some other species. Moles rarely come above ground where they can be caught; shrews typically inhabit the leaf litter where they’re readily caught. There are a lot of them here, and all of the local folks, like you, call them moles, but if you look at pictures comparing moles (with robust, heavily clawed forelimbs and a body the size of my fist) and shrews (with tiny and delicate, mouse-like feet, and a body the size of my thumb), you can easily see the difference. What they only have in common (besides their close taxonomy) is the “moleskin” pelage which causes the common misidentification.
        By the way, shrews are rich with skin glands that produce a musky aroma that discourages their being eaten — a cat typically will only eat their first one or two (and then vomit) before realizing that they’re good to catch and play with (eventually dying and no longer any fun), but not to eat.
        And if your cat gets bitten on the lip by a Blarina (in particular), it will probably become swollen for a few days — Blarina has a venomous saliva (to subdue its friskier prey, mice). If you don’t like field mice and meadow voles, Blarina should be your best friend as it is your enemy’s enemy, as the saying goes.

        • Nyrala Sirom

          Yes, I do actually know the difference between shrews and moles. It happens when one sees both types of rodent with great frequency. The cat does bring home some shrews, but she brings home far, far many more moles.

      • HereHere

        A study I read last winter showed that cats protected birds by killing rodents that eat the young birds. So more birds survive because of rodent control due to cats than are being killed by cats. It certainly puts an interesting twist on the data – important to me because I respect birds and cats. Personally, I don’t ever want to own a cat, but they have a right to live. If you don’t like cats, help out by paying for the spay/neuter surgery for a poorer person or for a feral cat (there are lots of feral cat groups you can donate to). This will prevent the birth of unwanted cats. Win-win.


      I personally agree with you, and I believe that those numbers (of bird kills, in particular) are grossly exaggerated from very weak data, largely promulgated by “birder” groups (many with anti-cat bias) such as the Cornell Institute of Ornithology. I’ve had a lot of contact with birders (that being one of my hobbies) and find that most have an innate hatred of cats (something I don’t share). As I study feral cats in my neighborhood, I observe that the vast majority of ferals are very poor hunters of birds. Of small mammals, they are excellent predators as they use their senses of smell and particularly hearing to locate and then pounce accurately on their hidden prey in the litter. But of birds, very poorly adapted. Yes, there are species of felines that are well-adapted to catching birds, but apparently not our cats (or likely their ancestor F. sylvestris) — I’ve found that they are successful in catching birds only between 2 and 5% of the time! If they had only avian prey to feed upon, they would surely all starve, since it takes a lot of investment in time to slowly stalk a bird on the ground, and then result in so many failures!

  • Natalie @ Ozzi Cat Magazine

    Interesting :)

    • Ed Heyer

      A compromise is to insist (via the evening meal) that your cat stays indoors at nighttime. Since cats tend to nocturnal hunting that cuts down on the impact to the local fauna as well as protecting your cat during the time that larger predators see them as prey.

  • DaveK

    Would love to do this with our cat. But he is mainly indoors and is very scared. If someone walks by, he will high-tail it back inside quickly! We’re getting a new kitty soon though, so maybe this new one would be more “outgoing” in its travels – who knows. Seems like they go a lot further than I would have expected!

    • Michael M. T. Henderson

      Keep them safe and sound indoors, if you want them to have long. happy lives–contrary to legend, they have only one each.

      • Nyrala Sirom

        It sort of depends on how you train your cat. The cat I have right now is over 19 years old. Her aunt, who recently died, was 22 years and two months old. Both are/were outdoor cats, and there is a busy highway close to the house. However, I trained my cats to hate the highway, and it works. If you take the time, and if your cat is bright enough, you can train them not to get themselves hit on the road.

    • Fedup

      Please listen to Mr. Henderson. I suspect your vet would agree as well that your cat would live a longer, healthier, safer and happier life as an indoor kitty. And an added benefit is your not having to worry. Ms. Sirom took the time to train her cats, but you cannot train drivers, nasty humans, aggressive dogs, and where I live, wildlife such as fishers (weasels) that even kill porcupines.

  • Michael M. T. Henderson

    A much better idea: keep your cat indoors. Cats who go out get fleas, are run over, are savaged by other predators–and eat grass that may well have poison on it. They also kill birds, sometimes decimating endangered species. It’s just a terrible idea. If you love your cat, keep it indoors. If you absolutely have to let it go out, put a cat harness on it and walk it the way you would a dog (yes, they can be trained; I’ve been a cat owner for over 50 years).

  • jackle61

    Every year I allow a local conservation club to release pheasant on my property. (80 acres) Between the coyotes and the cats they are lucky if a quarter of the birds survive. After eliminating most of the cat problem the population has been thriving. Still working on the coyotes. So, all of you “city” people who drop off your unwanted cats/kittens in the country,, we’ll be waiting for them.

    • Robyn Price

      That’s really sad

    • silverbarsa

      How sad to see someone brag about destroying one group of animals in favor of another. Every group of animals is a balance for another group and the only reason we do have “endangered” spices is because WE Humans decide what group is to live and what group to die… Why don’t we start eliminating most of the human problem that lead to extinction of more than three-quarters of all large predators worldwide and by default loss of population control for medium and small size predators and…now they going extinct because now after killing off their natural population control we decided to take matter in our not so capable hands.

  • Robyn Price

    It’s upsetting to see the Nature study brought up again. Not only was it flawed, it was biased. I happen to share my home with only cats at the moment (strictly indoors) but I love ALL animals and I’m tired of the cats vs birds argument! It’s a fact that cats are healthier and live longer when kept indoors. And it helps to spay and neuter your pets. It’s ridiculous that we have to keep telling people to spay their cats and dogs. But I’m glad that the Cat Tracker program seeks to obtain better info than the Nature study. I hope they succeed.

  • Ashley Ko

    cool! so interesting


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About Caren Cooper

Dr. Caren Cooper is also a blogger for the Public Library of Science, guest contributor to Scientific American, and Director of Research Partnerships at She is founder and moderator of #CitSciChat, Twitter Q&A session about citizen science. She is assistant director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. As Senior Fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program, she has a forthcoming book about citizen science. She is co-editor-in-chief of Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, a new journal of Citizen Science Association. She has authored over 50 scientific papers, co-developed software to automate metrics of incubation rhythms, and is co-creator of NestWatch, CamClickr, Celebrate Urban Birds, YardMap, and the Sparrow Swap. She likes to propel herself on one wheel, two wheel, and eight wheel devices. Follow her on Twitter @CoopSciScoop


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