Whether it’s a quick turn around the garden or a leisurely, late-night prowl, many of our feline friends seem inclined to go for a wander now and then. But what’s behind this urge to explore, and how can we help keep adventurous cats safe when they’re out and about? Kim Sullivan explains the facts about roaming.
The first thing to understand about roaming is that it doesn’t happen because cats dislike our company. Don’t assume that these periods of absence are a reflection on your cat’s affection for you, or the loving care you give. ‘We don’t really know why some cats roam while others are happy to watch the world from the window, but hunting for food is a basic instinct, and although today’s well-fed cats no longer need to find their next meal, some still have a strong hunting urge,’ says Dr John Bradshaw of the School of Veterinary Sciences at Bristol University, author of Cat Sense and presenter of the BBC’s Horizon programme, Secret Life of the Cat.
‘Cats also roam because they like to keep themselves up to date with the environment in which they live. That way, they can make predictions about possible threats to their safety and territory, and know where to hide if they are threatened by another cat,’ John adds. Looking for a mate is a strong driving factor too, especially in male cats that are unneutered and therefore keen to meet a mate.
Going the distance
The distance your cat roams from home can vary enormously. It depends on a variety of factors, such as how many cats there are in the neighbourhood, your cat’s relationships with them, and their own nature, of course. In fact, experts were rather surprised by the small roaming range of most cats tracked for Secret Life of the Cat. ‘A cautious cat may only ever venture 10 metres from their cat flap, but we found the average roaming distance is just 40-200 metres from home. Cats may well share parts of the same territory in urban areas, sometimes “time-sharing&rdguo; their patch to avoid conflict,’ says Dr Bradshaw. ‘Farm cats were the real adventurers, travelling up to a kilometre away to hunt, with males sometimes roaming three times further.’
If your cat leaves the home, you can’t stop him roaming – it’s a natural behaviour. ‘But making sure your cat is neutered will reduce the chances of him roaming so far, while microchipping will make it easier for him to be returned should he stray or get lost,’ says Lindsey Quinlan, Head of Cattery at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. If your cat wears a collar, make sure it’s a quick-release version that snaps open in the event it gets caught on something – and a name tag will make for a quicker reunion, too. Also, check he’s up to date with his annual vaccination booster, to help protect him from health problems he could contract from other cats he meets (or even fights with).
Come back call
If knowing your cat is out and about during the day or after dark is too worrying, you could try encouraging him to stay home by providing more stimulation and entertainment. Refresh the toys and activities on offer, and try a feeding ball to make mealtimes appeal to his hunting nature. Some owners choose to keep their cats inside, but this is a complex matter of space, personal preference and the cat’s breed and temperament, so it’s best to consult an expert for advice.
Training your cat to come back when called can be a highly effective way of letting him out to explore with confidence. Use any audible sound he can learn to recognise – his name or the rattle of a dried food packet, for example. ‘I taught my cat recall over a period of weeks,’ says owner Jackie Fearnley. ‘And I am so much happier now he will come running to my call after he’s been out exploring.’