The hidden world of cats: what our feline friends are doing when we’re not looking

As I prepared to write this piece, my three-year-old cat, Larry, had been missing for 24 hours. I had checked under the bins, posted in a community Facebook group and Googled variations of “Lost cat how long normal before come home?” all day.

Larry was a house cat when we took him in, but my boyfriend and I had recently moved to a house with a garden so had started letting him out. Just like that, our adorable, loving, docile cat turned into the neighbourhood bruiser. He stopped snuggling with us in the morning, instead impatiently pawing at the door even before we had put down his breakfast.

At night, we would search the house for him, before giving up and going to bed. “I’m sure he’ll be back … soon,” I said to my boyfriend, with all the confidence of a mother whose teenager was out after curfew. All night, I would toss and turn, wondering if I would see his little pink nose again.

Cats demand our love freely, on their own terms, which means with no expectation of long-term commitment. The average outdoor cat may visit multiple homes assessing each on the quality of their cuddles and treats. Some experts believe that cats are, at best, semi-domesticated, meaning that at any moment, they could flounce off and do just fine.

I grapple with this reality. I watch Larry sometimes and think: “I love you so much, and one day, you might leave me.” Any cat-owner knows the exquisite torture of having a free-roaming pet. Their travels remain a mystery, hinted at only by a clump of dust in their whiskers, or a streak of paint in their fur.

Eventually, of course, Larry swaggered home, weary from another adventure on the savannah (Lewisham, south London). Where had he been? What was he doing out there? What do our cats get up to, when their humans are not around?

To answer this, I contacted Tractive, manufacturers of GPS trackers for cats and dogs. It kindly volunteered to provide me with some units. Next, I recruited five cat owners, all curious to know about what their charges are up to when out and about. Meet the cats (feel free here to imagine a slow-motion montage from a Guy Ritchie film, voiced by Ray Winstone).

Pablo: a bossy, two-year-old shorthair from Brixworth, Northamptonshire. Pablo is owned by Andrea Franklin, a 52-year-old sales manager.

Bluebell: a British shorthair blue from Buckfastleigh, Devon, who purrs like an engine, loves frozen Lick-e-Lix treats, and went missing for three days last year, leaving her owner, 70-year-old retired personal assistant Diane Powell, distraught. “She’s never naughty on purpose,” Powell says.

Marina: a vocal, four-year-old tabby from Acton, west London, who is the terror of the neighbourhood. “Sometimes the neighbours say on Facebook that Marina is bullying the other cats,” says her owner, Ahmed el Bouhy, a 17-year-old student.

, The hidden world of cats: what our feline friends are doing when we’re not looking, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Ndah Tatani Mbawa, her three daughters and their cat, Zaki. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Zaki: a free-spirited, two-year-old ragdoll, who three times has got stuck up a tree in the garden of his owner, Ndah Tatani Mbawa, 43, a business analyst from Northampton. “The first time the tree surgeon charged £180 to get him down,” sighs Mbawa. “The second time was £160. The third time my husband climbed the tree himself.”

Pisi: a muscular serial killer from Hartwell, Northamptonshire. He once disappeared for three months, before turning up alive and well in a nearby forest. “Most days he catches something,” says his owner, Will Benzie, a 49-year-old IT manager. “Mice, birds. Once a pretty sizable rabbit.”

And finally, Larry: the most phenomenally handsome cat in existence, and a good boy at that.

It’s time to see what they get up to.

Monday

“He’s crossing the track,” I text my boyfriend with the green vomit-face emoji. I live behind a busy railway track – trains run pretty much constantly into central London, including high-speed freight trains – but the track is about 30ft up from ground level. I didn’t think Larry could climb that high. He can.

“The prime cause of death in cats under one is being run over,” warns John Bradshaw, the author of Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed. Larry is also crossing streets around my house, although he does not go further than a few hundred metres in each direction, endlessly looping my home like a security guard patrolling a shopping centre. This is likely to be because I live in a densely populated neighbourhood with other cats. “Many cats will self-limit how far they go,” says Bradshaw. “They don’t like challenging other cats or being challenged.”

Cats are territorial, with established patches they defend. “Territory is the most important thing to cats,” says cat behaviourist Anita Kelsey. “Some will chase off other cats, and some can live peacefully. Cats learn to share space and avoid one another to make it work, as it can be damaging to be fighting all the time.”

By limiting himself to the area directly around my house, Larry, it seems, is a lover, rather than a fighter. The same, however, cannot be said for Pablo. “He’s travelled four and a half miles,” says a flabbergasted Franklin. “I genuinely thought he’d just be sitting in some old lady’s living room all day.” Far from it. “There’s an allotment near our house,” she says. “He’s in there a lot. And then he goes into different gardens. He seems to have a few hang-out spots. I think he has a crew.”

Tuesday

Pablo is getting more brazen, crossing a busy A-road into a country park. “It’s notorious for speeding there,” Franklin says.

, The hidden world of cats: what our feline friends are doing when we’re not looking, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Brazen … Pablo.

Franklin believes it’s wrong to keep Pablo indoors. “It’s important for him to be able to go and do what comes naturally to him,” she says. “Not to judge people who don’t let their cats out. With that comes the anxiety of losing him. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s like letting your kids get more independent. You have to let them go at some point.”

In this view, in the UK, Franklin is in the majority. Unlike in the US, where domesticated cats typically stay indoors, in the UK just 26% of British cats are indoor-only, according to the animal charity PDSA.

Not everyone is enamoured of this. “There is an anti-cat lobby,” says Bradshaw. “They are very vocal people. People who enjoy their gardens and allotments get seriously fed up with cat crap everywhere,” he says.

Then there’s the hunting. “Predation and hunting are natural attributes of cats,” says Prof Robbie McDonald, an expert in companion animal ecology at the University of Exeter. “Although a lot of individual cats don’t go anywhere near wildlife; it’s a minority.” (Larry won’t even kill a spider, much to my chagrin.)

, The hidden world of cats: what our feline friends are doing when we’re not looking, The Nzuchi Times Guardian

The RSPB says there is “no clear scientific evidence” that cats are causing bird populations to decline, but there is a perception among some British bird-lovers that cats are a menace and should be kept indoors. (In countries where cats are not a native species, such as Australia and New Zealand, they can have a devastating impact on wildlife.)

“I do feel that cats are an easy target,” says Bradshaw. “Skyscrapers kill more birds than cats do. But you don’t see people standing outside the factories where glass is made, saying: ‘You’re bird-killers.’”

Wednesday

Marina has been on rambunctious form. “She’s been harassing a few neighbours for food,” says El Bouhy. “Then went to a nearby construction site, and spent the night there.” El Bouhy, seeing her location on the Tractive app, went to collect her. “There was a guy on his break, petting her,” he says. “It took a bit of time to get her back.”

, The hidden world of cats: what our feline friends are doing when we’re not looking, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Rambunctious … Marina.

Over in Brixworth, Pablo’s hunting has ramped up. “This morning he went out without breakfast,” says Franklin. “He’s obviously getting his food somewhere else.” She watched in real time as Pablo spent the morning hunting in the allotments near her house. “He nipped home at lunch and brought a dormouse with him.”

There are ways to mitigate a cat’s impact on the local bird and small-mammal population. “If the cat is under your management – I hesitate to say control, because no one really controls a cat – you can work out ways to reduce the propensity of the cat to kill,” says McDonald. Bells on collars work, as does switching cats on to a premium, high-protein food diet, and giving them mental stimulation by playing with them in the morning. “Changing the cat’s food can reduce the amount of wildlife they kill by over a third,” says McDonald. “And playing with your cat, more than a quarter. These are positive actions for the cat that also have a positive outcome on their behaviour.”

In Buckfastleigh, Powell watches as Bluebell patrols a supermarket car park a few hundred metres from her house. “Like the car park attendant,” Powell says, amused. Shift finished, Bluebell prowls the streets looking for attention. “She’s spending a lot of time mooching around the back of houses,” says Powell. “Sometimes she goes in, to have a sleep on their sofa. And there’s a wall along the back of the houses where she spends a lot of time sitting, waiting for people to stroke her.”

Thursday

One wily cat has slipped his collar. “I came out of the house and her collar was on the gate post,” says Benzie. “I feel like that’s a message from Pisi. Stop tracking me.”

All the cat-owners, or “guardians”, as Kelsey calls them, have rapidly become addicted to following their cats on the app, myself included. “It’s so time-consuming,” Franklin complains. “I’ll be trying to work and then I think: Ooh, I wonder what he’s doing.’”

Knowing where Pablo will be at any given time of the day is reassuring. “The allotments are clearly his mainstay,” Franklin says. “Now, when we drive past the allotments, I look in and see him. I never worry about him, because I know where he’ll be.”

, The hidden world of cats: what our feline friends are doing when we’re not looking, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Will Benzie and his cat Pisi. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Benzie has long suspected that Pisi frequents a working coal yard about 100 metres from his house, “because his legs were black when he came back”. But the app shows that Pisi is also rifling around the coal sheds. “I don’t know if there are mice in there,” says Benzie.

Powell has been analysing Bluebell’s tracking data and noticed something unexpected. “If we go out of the house,” she says, referring to herself and her partner, “she comes in. It’s almost like she’s looking after the house for us.”

Mbawa is using her newfound knowledge of Zaki’s whereabouts to steal a march on her wayward pet. After seeing on the tracker that Zaki often visited the grounds of a local care home, she decided to walk down. “I saw him between some bushes and he looked at me and was shocked,” she says. “We looked at each other for a while, and he was embarrassed. He was scratching on a little tree and then he walked off … he looked as if he’d been found out.”

Friday

In Hartwell, Benzie has observed Pisi spending an unlikely amount of time in his neighbour’s back garden. “I went and asked her: ‘Have you been putting food out?’” Benzie says. “She smiled and said: ‘Yes, I’ve been putting it out back, so you can’t see it.’” Benzie also suspects that Pisi is getting a third, or even fourth, daily meal from the occupants of a row of houses about a mile away – after his morning visit to the coal yard, Pisi tends to wind up there in the afternoon.

, The hidden world of cats: what our feline friends are doing when we’re not looking, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
‘Never naughty on purpose’ … Bluebell.

In the trade, pet detectives refer to the act of neighbours feeding your pet cat as “cat seduction” – because they are seducing the cat away with extra food and treats. Cats, for their part, welcome this attention. “Friendly, confident cats will explore other people’s homes and might beg for food from various houses on a set route,” says Kelsey. When Bradshaw was consulted on a pioneering 2012 Horizon documentary that tracked cats, he found it was commonplace for cats to be fed multiple times a day. “There was one cat that had four owners,” he says. “Cats are opportunists.”

But what makes perfect strangers so inclined to feed other people’s cats?

“We tend to look at ourselves in very recent contexts,” says McDonald. “But our relationship with cats goes back to the dawn of civilisation really. When humans started farming, we created surpluses of grain and stored them, and cats were used to protect the grain stores from rodents. The inclination to live closely with, accommodate and, in some cases, admire and befriend these animals is part of what makes people social. It’s a very profound relationship between people and this sort of animal.”

No one is seducing my cat today. It’s raining, so Larry doesn’t leave my side.

All of the cat owners have come to realise the adorable pets that sleep at the foot of their beds and snuggle on their laps during films are actually independent beings with habits and routines of their own. In short, they are autonomous creatures, with personalities, fears, preferences, needs and, dare I say it, souls.

“She gets up to a lot more than I thought she does,” says El Bouhy of Marina. “I knew she went to the neighbours occasionally, but I didn’t think she spent the whole day going into their gardens, harassing them for food, and even crossing the railway by my house. I thought she spent half an hour going around, and then slept the rest of the day.”

Benzie has been so intrigued by Pisi’s behaviour, he plans to fit a miniature camera to her collar. “You think it’s kind of lovely that they’re going so far and doing all this stuff,” he says. “But now it makes me want to delve a bit deeper to see why.”

As I write this, Larry is sitting next to me, watching me type. His nose rests on his paw. Although I have loved watching him perambulate around my south London home like a dowager countess, I’ve relegated Larry’s tracking device to a drawer.

Let him go. If he wants to come back to me, he will.

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