Cats possess a special homing instinct that enables them to locate their house even if they are far away in unfamiliar territory. Most cat owners will be familiar with stories of missing cats finding themselves far from home and being able to travel back by themselves. We don’t fully understand how cats do this.
Lost cats do seem to be able to find their way home even if they are in unfamiliar territory. We are not entirely sure how it works but it is thought to be a combination of a few things. Most cats are capable of navigating their way home if they wander too far away or if they have been taken away from their neighborhood. There are individual differences between cats. Some cats are inherently better at finding their way about compared to others. Outdoor cats seem to be better at this than indoor cats. If you are worried your cat is not very good at navigating their way about, the best thing to do is to keep them indoors.
Lost cats do seem to be able to find their way home even if they are in unfamiliar territory. We are not entirely sure how it works but it is thought to be a combination of a few things.
Most cats are capable of navigating their way home if they wander too far away or if they have been taken away from their neighborhood.
There are individual differences between cats. Some cats are inherently better at finding their way about compared to others. Outdoor cats seem to be better at this than indoor cats. If you are worried your cat is not very good at navigating their way about, the best thing to do is to keep them indoors.
Evidence points toward cats harnessing Earth’s geomagnetic fields, alongside using their sense of smell to help them get back to their home. Wherever cats find themselves, they always seem to know which way their home is.
Cats have an innate ability to find their way back even if it is dark or they have an injury. Feral cats and stray cats seem to be better at finding their way around outside compared to domestic cats.
Can Cats Find Their Way Back to a New Home?
One example is after a cat’s family has moved house, a time when cats often go missing. They go outside for the first time, get confused about their location, and try to find their old house. It is likely that they haven’t yet spent enough time in their new home to call it theirs so they seek their old home for comfort and security.
Some cats can take a lot longer than others to recognize the new place as their own so they can keep getting lost until they accept their new abode. Some other cats surprise their owners by being able to find their way back to a new place straight away.
If you have recently moved and your cat has gone missing, it is worth speaking to your old neighbors, local animal shelters, animal control authorities, and the people who have moved into your old house. They may have seen your lost pet hanging about. This is usually the first place they go to, especially if they are stressed or anxious about the move and feeling unsettled.
Also Read: Do Cats Have a Good Sense of Direction?
Why Are Cats So Good at Finding Their Way
Research indicates that generally cats have a very good sense of direction. A study called “Homing Power Of Cats” by Professor Frances Herrick concluded that a mother cat was able to locate her kittens when separated from them from various differences ranging from one to four miles.
A 1954 study called “On the Homing Ability of Mammals” placed cats in a maze. There were six different exits and the cats were allowed to choose which one to use. The cats appeared to move around with purpose, and 60% of the time, cats managed to leave the maze via the exit facing toward their actual home. This is despite the fact their homes were miles away.
Both of these studies would indicate that cats have a strong homing ability and are capable of finding their way home or toward something important to them. There is also lots of anecdotal evidence to support this from owners.
We don’t know for sure why cats are so good at finding their way around unfamiliar places, but there are a few different theories behind their homing instinct.
- Cats can sense Earth’s magnetic fields. This hasn’t been proven but it is believed that cats can potentially use the fields to guide themselves. Some other species have been seen aligning themselves in a north-south direction, suggesting they are in some ways influenced by Earth’s magnetic pull. Another theory is that some animals have iron in their inner ears that acts as a natural compass. There is no concrete evidence to support this currently.
- It is believed that cats recognize landmarks in their environment and use them to navigate their way. Cats will often follow the same route in and out of their neighborhood, and they will learn this route due to specific landmarks that are present on their travels.
- Pheromones are believed to play a part in guiding cats. Cats deposit important pheromones on objects they pass on their travels. This helps guide them and gives messages to other cats about things such as their reproductive status and marking of their territory.
How Do Cats End Up So Far Away From Home?
Cats can stray away from their home for a number of different reasons. It is a common misconception that cats run away from their home. It is very rare for a cat to want to try and escape their owners unless they have recently been adopted or rescued and they are trying to get back to their old home.
Cats will often get distracted when out and about either stalking their prey or sometimes being chased, for example by another cat or a fox.
Reasons cats might find themselves far from home include:
- Searching for food: If your cat knows there is a certain area they can get food easily, they will be prepared to travel. For example, if someone always puts food out in the winter or if they can steal another cat’s food or root around in the trash for discarded scraps.
- Searching for a mate: Cats get wanderlust when they are looking for a suitable mate. They can smell pheromones from other cats from long distances and will travel to find them.
- Hunting: They may get caught up in the thrill of the chase and end up far from home if they are stalking some prey and get carried away.
- Protecting their territory: They go out of their way to fend off other cats that try to claim their territory as their own.
- Illness or injury: If your cat is sick or gets injured when they are out, they may wander to look for somewhere to hide and take refuge.
- Problems at home: Cats may seek a quieter place if they feel threatened or uncomfortable in their own home. This could happen if there is a new family member (human or animal) or if there is construction work being carried out.
What To Do To Help Your Cat Find Their Way Home
There are a few ways you can help your cat find their way home or prevent them from getting lost in the first place.
- Call out to them: Use a calm voice. This will give them an idea of your location and guide them back to you.
- Shake their favorite box of cat food or bang their food bowl: If they hear their favorite treats, they are likely to come running.
- Leave their favorite blanket or toy outside: The smell will remind them of home and comfort them.
- Be aware of the places they usually go: This way, you will know likely places to look for them.
- Fix a tracker on their collar: You will be able to see their geolocation and find them easily to guide them home.
- Leave the porch or garage door open a crack: Cats like to sneak back in unnoticed.
- Get help: If they have been lost for a while, print posters and alert local people on social media on lost and found pages.
- Implant a microchip: This might not stop them from wandering off, but if they are lost and end up in the local shelter, it means they will find their way back to you when they are scanned as it contains your contact information.
- Keep them indoors: The safest option is to keep them indoors at all times so they cannot get lost.