How Can Cats Find Their Way Home If Lost?

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Published: October 24, 2018

Can cats find their way home if they are lost?

I have heard many stories of cats that wound up back at an old address after a family moved, and I regularly counsel clients to keep their cat indoors for at least a month after moving to ensure that the cat does not try to go back to the old home. A cat’s ability to find their way home mystifies their families, veterinarians and scientists alike. How do they do that?

As far as we can tell, cats have a homing instinct, which means that they can perceive direction using something beyond the five ordinary senses of taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing. Dolphins, geese and other migratory birds use visual cues; homing pigeons find their way by using low frequency sound waves; salmon imprint upon magnetic fields and also use scent cues; and wildebeest follow the smell of rain. But what about cat senses?

Animal behaviorists know that while both cats and dogs bond to humans, cats also bond strongly to home locations, marking their territory by urine spraying or bunting scent glands that are located under their chin. But how a cat’s homing instinct works over many miles is still a mystery to science. While anecdotal stories abound, when it comes to research on the homing instinct of cats, there just isn’t much out there—in fact, only two published studies exist.

The first study was published by Professor Frances Herrick in 1922, titled “Homing Powers of the Cat.” In this study, Herrick observed the homing ability of a mother cat to return to her kittens after being separated. Herrick found that the mother cat successfully returned to her kittens seven times after being separated by distances that varied from 1 to 4 miles.

A second experiment was conducted In 1954, when German researchers tested cats by placing them in a large maze that had many openings. More often than not, they found that cats used the exit that was closest to their home location.

So we know that cats can find their way home, but the question remains: Why? All we have at this point are theories, which range from magnetic geolocation (Beadle, 1977) to olfactory cues (cat smells). But while we know that cats can often find their way home, until more studies are done, the answer of how remains a mystery.

Even though cats possess a seemingly miraculous homing instinct, that doesn’t mean that all lost cats will find their way home. Even though exclusively indoor cats live longer and are safer from trauma and infectious disease, they may have a reduced homing ability and may become disorientated and frightened if lost outdoors.

Consider having your cat microchipped to increase the likelihood of being reunited in case he is ever separated from you, and only take your cat out on if he is on a cat leash. If you move, make sure to set aside a safe, confined indoor space for your feline, and keep your cat indoors for at least a month after moving to allow your cat sufficient time to imprint upon a new location. Otherwise, your cat may utilize his or her homing ability and make an incredible journey to the old home!

By: Dr. Sarah Wooten

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