Can Cats Find Their Way Home?

Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP
By Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP on Nov. 29, 2021

If your cat has ever gone missing, you know that feeling of dread and worry as you wonder where your pet has gone. It’s only natural to wonder how they got out and whether it’s true that cats can find their own way home. Here are some answers about whether cats have these instincts.

Can Cats Really Find Their Way Home?

As amazing as it sounds, cats do have a special ability called a homing instinct that helps them find their way back home.

Although we don’t know for certain how it works, evidence supports the idea that cats are able to use the earth’s geomagnetic fields—potentially combined with scent cues—to locate their homes.

An experiment that was done in 1954 placed cats in a very large maze to see if they could exit the maze and head home. It turned out that most of the cats exited the maze in the area closest to their home location. When the researchers attached magnets to the cats, however, the cats weren’t able to do this as well, supporting the idea that magnetic geolocation was involved.

All cats have a homing instinct, whether they are indoor, outdoor, or stray cats. However, much like people having a sense of direction, some cats may have stronger instincts than others and be able to follow the trail home more effectively.

Can Cats Find Their Way Back to a New Home?

If your cat is lost during a move, or shortly after a move, it is certainly possible that they have not yet settled in enough to consider the new place “home.” Some cats will realize after only a few days that it’s their new home, but others take much longer.

If your cat considers the new place to be home, they may have “memorized” the magnetic map, so they can use this to try to return to your new home. However, chances are also very good that your cat may travel back to your old home, particularly if they lived there for a long time. Some reports say that up to 30% of cats will try and return to their former homes.

Even if your old home is quite a long distance away, you should ask the new residents and your old neighbors to be on the lookout and check the area frequently.

Can Cats Find Their Way Home Years Later?

Yes, cats can return home many days, weeks, months, and even years after they wandered off or were lost.

According to the Lost Pet Research project, there were reports of cats traveling 50-80 miles in 2.5 years, 38 miles in 6 months, 30 miles in 10 days, and 20 miles in 21 days.

So if your cat is lost, keep up hope. Keep checking animal shelters and checking in with your old neighbors regularly. You may be very lucky and reunite with your cat, long after it seemed likely.

Why Do Cats Run Away?

Cats leave home for many reasons, but they rarely “run away.” In many instances, cats simply get distracted and wander off or manage to find some trouble.

Some of the reasons cats wander include:

  • Looking for mates if they haven’t been spayed or neutered

  • Defending their territory from a neighborhood cat

  • Hunting – Your cat might have been distracted while chasing a rodent, or they may have found a stash of rodents at a neighbor’s chicken coop.

  • Disease or injury – If your cat was not feeling well or was injured, they may have sought safety under someone’s porch or barn.

  • Seeking out food – Is a neighbor feeding outdoor cats? Your cat may travel to the spot where the feeding takes place. In more urban areas, cats may be traveling to dumpsters or other sources of “free” food.

  • Disruption in the household – If there are new animals or people in the house, major house repairs, big changes (from a cat’s point of view), or an unstable environment, some cats will decide to look for calmer territory.

It's also very possible that an Animal Control officer or Humane Society group picked up your cat. This is definitely worth a few phone calls, and these people are also in an excellent position to help you find your cat.

Do Cats Run Away to Die?

Some people wonder whether cats run away to die, or even if they know they are dying. The reality is that they do not leave because they “know they will die.”

When a cat is not feeling well, they usually look for a quiet, safe place. The sicker they are, the more they feel the need for security. When you think of it from a wild cat’s perspective, if you aren’t feeling well, you are more vulnerable to predators. But according to cat logic, if no one knows you’re sick and no one knows where you are, you should be safe.

Usually, sick cats don’t go far from home. Instead, they seek out the quietest, safest nearby spot they can find. If they are too weak to get food or walk home again, they may be in danger of passing away in this spot.

If your cat is missing, do a thorough check of the crawl space under your home or apartment building, as well as underneath the porch, in a barn or shed, or around a neighbor’s home.

Cats are capable of some pretty amazing return-home feats, but it’s best to not rely on this alone if your cat is missing. Keep checking the neighborhood and local shelters, as well as around your house or your neighbors’ houses. Check with the new tenants if you moved.

Be sure to take precautions as well. Keep your cat safely contained while traveling and have them spayed/neutered and microchipped. If you’ve moved, introduce your cat to their new home slowly. If you tend to let your cat go outdoors, try keeping them indoors at your new location for a month or more before allowing them to venture out. You can also allow them to go outside on a leash for at least 30-60 days.

Featured Image: ignjatovic

Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra Mitchell is a 1995 graduate of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. Since graduation, she has worked in many fields...

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