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

In Britain, most pet cats are free to roam, but where do they go and what do they get up to? We fitted six cats with GPS trackers and found out.

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.

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