02 July 2016

INTERVIEW - Cat Tracker Researcher, Brandon McDonald

There is no shortage of animal tracking devices that can help you keep track of your cat or dog when you’re not looking. But scientists in both the U.S. and South Australia are taking this interest in roving felines further with the Cat Tracker project – which seeks to observe the habits of outdoor cats and determine how these cats impact their natural environments.

The U.S. project is a partnership between the Your Wildlife team and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and has expanded to South Australia.

The U.S. division has broadened their research to include the ‘Cat Personality Test’ and the ‘Cat Diet Test’. Like Cat Tracker, all these projects are reliant on the participation of cat owners.

InfoStream caught up with Brandon McDonald, an undergraduate student in Zoology at North Carolina State University, who has become heavily involved with the project this year and is also working on the personality survey and the diet study.

InfoStream (IS): What is Cat Tracker?

Brandon McDonald (BM): Cat Tracker is a citizen science project designed to allow us to see where outdoor cats are going, and then using that information to ask and answer questions about how they are affecting natural environments.

It was initially developed due to a friendly bet actually, Dr. Kays had leftover GPS units from a separate project where ocelots had been tracked, and he asked a colleague, Dr. Rob Dunn, how far his cat, Chicha, went. Dr. Dunn didn’t think she went far at all, sticking around his own and his immediate neighbor’s yards, while Dr. Kays thought it would be much farther than that.

So they hooked her up in a harness with the GPS unit and ran it for about a week. During that period Dr. Dunn and his wife left for the weekend while a neighbor watched over their cat, which still had access to the outdoors through a cat door.

When looking at the data afterwards, they noticed that Chicha had traveled a pretty far distance, which they initially thought was a GPS error. When they looked a little more closely though, they realized that she had visited their old house while they were gone. It was about a mile from where they were currently living.

Seeing this sparked more interest about how other cats might be traveling and they created the project. The intention of the project was to determine what factors affected cat movement, as there were only a few similar studies at the time, most of which had tracked only a few cats.

IS: Who is the audience for Cat Tracker?

BM: We want to be accessible to a wide range of people. Our primary audiences are cat owners and other scientists, though we hope that many people will take an interest in what we are doing.

IS: What is the end goal for Cat Tracker and what purpose could it serve?

BM: Our end goal is to understand the factors affecting cat movements, and use the information we obtain from looking at the ranges, diets, and personalities of individual cats to determine ecological consequences.

For example, a cat who has both been tracked, and participated in the diet study can give us information on what native species may be at risk from predation. We can use the tracking map to get an idea of what types of habitat the cat is venturing into, and then compare isotope information on the species we expect to find in those habitats to the results from the cat we obtain in the diet study.

Using the personality data as well, we can try to find patterns between what types of cats are more likely to go farther or hunt more, which could be an excellent predictor of impact.

Altogether, the information we obtain can be used to inform both pet owners and potentially policy makers on how best to manage cats.

IS: Are there any significant findings you could share with us?

BM: What we’ve discovered so far is that about 90% of cats tend to stick within a less than five hectare (12.35 acre) home range. Most cats also stick to suburban areas, rather than venturing far into neighboring forested tracts.

The remaining 10% of cats we call “rogue cats.” They have home ranges greater than, sometimes much greater than five hectares.

So far we haven’t seen much of a difference in sex, age or location. However, we haven’t tracked many rural cats, nor have we tracked a large number of cats outside of the eastern US.

The diet and personality studies are relatively new right now, so I’m afraid we haven’t started analyzing our findings yet. We’re trying to push both studies right now.

© Cat Tracker
© Cat Tracker

© Cat Tracker

By Lindsay Seewalt
Lindsay is an experienced journalist and mother of three whose heart and home is always open to a four-legged friend. With her Corgi, Angie, as household editor-in-chief, Lindsay gives back to the animal planet through the written word on anything and all ado about pets. She is passionate about topics regarding animal welfare and responsible pet ownership, which she aims to instill in both her readers and children to be compassionate animal lovers who are conscious and considerate that furry friends around the globe deserve a voice.

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