BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

How Do Cats Find Their Way Home: Don’t Lose Hope

cat walking home
Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Do you fear that your beloved whiskered pet would get lost if you let him play outside? Do you worry when you bring him with you when you’re out of town? Let us tell you something: cats have an unbelievable homing instinct. Yes, your pet can find his way home! But you may ask: “how do cats find their way home?”

What do cats have that make them capable of finding their owners even if they’ve been away for many miles? Make no mistake about it—this article is not intended to encourage you to be less cautious with your cat.

Yes, cats have the ability to find their way home, but it doesn’t mean that you should put your guard down when you’re traveling with him. But this article will give you hope if you’ve lost it. If you haven’t lost your cat, this article will help you understand him better and be in awe of his natural capabilities.

We’ll learn more about cats and their amazing homing instincts in this article. We’ll also share some tips on how to lure your cat back home, just in case he gets lost.

Tales of Lost Cats Who Found Their Way Home

lost kitten

Believe us when we say that cats can find a way to get back home. In fact, there have been numerous documented stories of felines who were able to get home after being separated miles away from their owners.

In 2013, there was a tortoiseshell cat who was lost on a trip but somehow found her way to her owner’s home in Florida after traveling more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) for two months!

In 2008, there was a ginger cat who returned home to her owners nine years after she went missing in 1999. The cat named Dixie was found less than half a mile away from her parents’ house.

These are some jaw-dropping and heartwarming stories of cats who somehow found their way home without the use of GPS, compass, and human assistance. Indeed, our favorite pets have this astonishing superpower to navigate their way back home no matter how far they may be.

How Do Cats Find Their Way Home?

You would likely wonder: ‘what do cats have that make them great at finding and making their way home?’

Let’s remember that our favorite pets are territorial in nature. This means that it is instinctive for them to return to their home territories because they’re familiar with it. Their territories offer food, shelter, and security. Of course, they don’t want to be away from their owners!

#1: Homing Instinct of Cats

cat coming back home

There’s a theory that cats are gifted with a homing ability just like pigeons. Other animals like sea turtles and deer have also been found to have this ability to navigate through magnetism. These creatures are capable of sensing the magnetic fields of the earth.

Proponents of this theory cite that iron is present in various parts of animal bodies like ears, ankles, and wrists. The iron in their bodies cues them into the magnetic direction in the ground, so animals can tell which way is north. It’s like they have a compass in their heads!

There are only two documented studies regarding the homing instincts of cats, and these are pretty old. The first one was conducted in 1922 by Francis Herrick and put the homing ability of a female cat to a test.

There was extra motivation for the feline to come home because she had babies to wean. In the first seven trials, the cat was able to return home.

The distances from her home to the place where she was left varied; in the first trial, it was just a mile, and in the seventh trial, she was 1.5 miles away from her territory.

Despite being transported away from home, the cat was able to go back to her place. However, when she was brought to an area about 16 miles away from her home, the cat was not able to return.

While the ethics of the study is highly questionable, it did leave some important points about the homing ability of cats. During the trials, the cat was able to head in the right direction as soon as she was released from the box.

There was also a time when she was headed in the right direction only to be disturbed by people, forcing her to hide in the woods and be lost from the sight of the researcher.

In his study, Herrick wrote that all cats have a natural homing ability although this can be affected by other factors like diversions that inhibit their homing instincts. He added that the feline homing ability depends on the experience as well as the psychological state of the lost feline.

The other study was conducted in Germany by researchers Lindenlaub and Prech. In their tests, cats were placed in sacks which were then put in the middle of a maze with six exits.

Most of the cats went to the exit closest to the direction of their homes. In their conclusion, the researchers wrote that the homing ability of cats works at a distance of 3 miles or 5 kilometers from home. They added that cats’ homing instincts suffer at greater distances.

These two studies show that cats do have a homing ability just like other animals. However, many scientists are not convinced that our feline friends have this gift. They point to the keen senses of cats, particularly smell and sound, as the probable reasons why felines are able to navigate their way home.

#2: Sense of Smell

cat smelling

Many scientists believe that cats get a lot of information from their sense of smell. It’s arguably their number one sense, so cats rely a lot on it when trying to get back home.

Did you know that cats have more than 19 million scent-receptive nerve endings in their nose? It’s a lot more than what humans like us have—around 5 million. In fact, cats have a more sensitive sense of smell than canines. Using their sense of smell, cats can probably find their way back home.

This impeccable sense of smell is not only used for detecting other cats in heat or in stimulating their appetite; it can also be useful in identifying scents that can help him in going back to his territory.

Cats can distinguish odors that are associated with their homes, including their parents or owners and even other pets who live with them. And they can also recognize scents that are not part of their territories. All these scents can help them to move in the right direction and getting back home.

Cats are also known to leave pheromone markers or chemical signals as they rub their feet against items. They can do this when walking or scratching a tree or any other surface. This helps them in backtracking to an area that’s familiar to them.

See Also: How Do Cats Show Affection

This is perhaps the best explanation for why cats tend to go back to their old houses especially if their new abode is within a mile or two away from their old territories.

Their territorial tendencies coupled with their amazing sense of smell push them to return to their old haunts and attempt to take up residence there, even if there are new people living in their old houses.

#3: Sense of Hearing

cat hearing something

Like their sense of smell, the sense of hearing of cats is very advanced compared to humans. Thanks to their large and perky ears, cats are able to hear low and high-pitched sounds.

With their ears that are shaped like a satellite dish, cats are even better at hearing than dogs. Our feline friends are also way better than canines and even humans when it comes to hearing sounds from long distances. In fact, cats can hear sounds up to five times farther away than us humans.

Animal behaviorist Peter Borchelt believes that the sense of hearing enabled an indoor house cat named Holly to return to her home in Florida. The story which made headlines in 2013 was both jaw-dropping and heartwarming.

Holly was lost during a family vacation but somehow made her way back to her owners’ home two months later. Even more impressive is the fact that Holly was able to return after being 200 miles away from her place.

Scientists have ruled out the possibility of Holly being picked up by a stranger who drove her home. Even her owners cited her bleeding feet as proof that the cat indeed walked more than 200 miles to return home.

Going back to Borchelt, the animal behaviorist theorized that Holly was able to return home by following the Florida coast by sound.

Now you may wonder if cats use their vision in trying to find their way back home. Cat vision is good especially at night, but it’s not that great during the day. Hence, they don’t really rely on it in navigating their way back home.

See Also: How Do Cat See

#4: Memory

orange cat walking

It is also possible for a cat to rely on his memory to find his way back home. This is particularly true if he was just a few miles or kilometers away from his territory.

Our whiskered friends have powerful long-term memory. While it is true that he can only remember a few people or places, he can retain those memories for years. Thus, he can use those memories in finding his way back home.

Their long-term memory can also push lost cats to find a route back to their homes and reunite with their human companions. This is very much true in cats who have developed close ties with their human parents.

In Holly’s case, it is possible that her strong affection for her owners pushed her to go out and try to find her way back even if she was 200 miles away from home.

Cats are also keen observers. They take in every bit of information about their surroundings. This enables them to create a mental map which comes in handy every time they find themselves away from their territories.

See Also: How Long is a Cat’s Memory

How to Lure a Cat Back Home

cat near the door

While cats are capable of navigating their way home, we can’t blame you if you’d feel upset and worried if your cat left your place.

Let’s say that your cat escaped and ran away from home. Would you wait for him to use his homing instincts and return home? Or would you try ways to lure him back?

We’re sure that you’d rather try to lure him back, right? If that’s your answer, then read these tips on how to lure him back home:

  • Leave your garage door open. Cats are very sneaky. They like to return home at their own leisure. If you leave your garage cracked open, there’s a good chance you would see your lost feline sitting on the interior step scratching or even meowing the following morning.

  • Use food to lure him. Heat up sardines or tuna and put this outside. Reheat it every now and then to keep it aromatic and more tempting for your cat.

  • Call your cat in your normal, calm voice. Felines are more likely to respond to your normal speaking voice than one that’s sad or frantic.

Of course, don’t forget to place a microchip on your cat so that you will have peace of mind whenever he goes out of the house. Most veterinarians have micro-chipping services. This is a safe and cheap way to protect your cat.

See Also: How to Find a Missing Cat

Wrap Up

cat running home

It is true that cats can navigate their way back home. It can be due to their natural homing instinct, which, according to studies, can be at its best at distances of 3 miles or about 5 kilometers.

It may also be caused by the superior senses of smell and hearing that cats are known for. Some scientists also say that the memory of cats enables them to create a map in their brains which helps them in finding their way back home.

Whatever the real reason is, we’re sure that you will be terribly worried if your cat were to fail to return home one day. Is your cat missing? Did our article help you find them? Share any tips or concerns with us below. You might also want to consider keeping your cat indoors-only since indoors cats have a longer lifespan.

About the author
Stella Noble
Stella Noble

Stella Noble lives in Warren, Michigan with her family and three cats. She is a Certified Cat Trainer and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

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