Can Cats Find Their Way Home if Lost?

Can Cats Find Their Way Home if Lost?

Over the years, the news has featured some incredible stories about cats getting lost, often miles and miles from home, and still somehow finding their way back. This ability is also an established fictional trope, and I have lost count of the number of films I have seen where this ability is portrayed in some way. Yet, understandably, many people question whether the stories in the news are true and whether cats really do possess this ability.

Can Cats Find Their Way Home if Lost? Yes, cats possess what is referred to as a ‘homing’ ability. They are keen observers, possess excellent memory and have a strong sense of direction, and these talents allow them to orientate themselves quickly, travel in the right direction and find their way back.

With that being said, there are some interesting caveats that apply to this and you should not take a cat’s ability to find its way home as a cast iron guarantee that your cat will manage to do so. Not every attempt to return home will be successful, for a whole variety of different reasons. There are also instances where a cat’s concept of what ‘home’ is may differ from yours, as I will expand upon a little later on.

The Homing Ability of Cats

Domestic cats are well-known for their ability to find their way back home when lost – a behaviour which is known as ‘homing’ and which is also associated with various other animal species, with pigeons being the most obvious and notable example. However, despite this ability being well-known and scientifically established, it is not especially well understood, due to the relative lack of studies carried out on the subject.

Nevertheless, some studies have demonstrated the extent of the ability quite effectively. The first and most well-known study was carried out by Francis H. Herrick in 1922, and established that cats could quickly orientate themselves and travel in the right direction, even when taken to unfamiliar locations, three miles away from home.

A second study, carried out by H. Precht and E. Lindenlaub in 1954, involved placing cats in sacks and taking them to the centre of a maze. At a distance of 3.1 miles from home, the majority of the cats made their way through the maze and chose the exit that was closest to the direction their home was in. Crucially, this study also found that a cat’s homing ability increases at lower distances, and decreases as they are taken further from home.

While the nature of the homing ability itself is not currently very well understood, science does provide us with a number of theories. Some scientists have suggested that cats’ ears allow them to take magnetic directional cues from the earth itself. This ability has also been associated with other animals, including deer.

In addition, it has been well established that cats have excellent vision and are perceptive by nature. They have a wider peripheral range than humans and many other animals, and they visually take in their surroundings all the time. Cats also have excellent night vision, allowing them to take in information even in darkness.

Other things that may contribute to cats’ homing abilities are excellent memory and recall skills and other heightened senses. For example, they have a strong sense of hearing and they have a sense of smell that is approximately four times as powerful as our sense of smell. These senses can all contribute in their own way to helping cats to return home. They might, for example, remember a certain smell and use that to guide them part of the way.

Limitations In Finding The Way

You may be reading this having lost a cat in the past, or even recently. Anecdotally, I also know of various occasions when cats have become lost and have not returned home, and a trip to any cat shelter will also confirm that this is extremely common. So why does this happen so often, if cats possess such excellent homing abilities? The answer is complicated, but it boils down to homing abilities having certain limitations as well.

Perhaps the most obvious limitation of a cat’s homing abilities is that it cannot compensate for various external factors. If a cat becomes lost, it may initially set off to go in the right direction, but run into obstacles. For instance, somebody could see the cat and let it into their home, the cat could become distracted or enticed in another direction, or the cat could be hit by a car, or attacked by another animal.

As previously stated, the most famous studies on the subject established that cats were good at returning home from distances of up to a few miles from home. However, this ability declines the further the cat roams. Therefore, if a cat is having to contend with longer distances, its ability will usually be significantly impaired. Of course, long distances increase the chances of the cat running into other obstacles along the way too.

It is also worth pointing out that although it is fair to generalise and say that domestic cats have strong homing abilities, there is some variance within the broad field of ‘domestic cats’. The ability of each individual cat may depend on a number of things, including the breed, how old the cat it at the time it becomes lost, and whether it has damage to any of its senses. There is also conflicting information about whether gender is a factor.

The Desire To Return Home

Another important concept to address when discussing whether cats can find their way home if they get lost is whether they actually have a desire to do so. Put simply, a lost cat might possess the ability to return home, but that does not necessarily mean they want to return, and there are a number of points to cover in relation to this.

Essentially, motivation is a huge driving factor in cats returning home. A cat with offspring at home is going to be more likely to want to return than one that is the sole cat of the household. Similarly, its desire to want to return can depend on how it is fed, how regularly it is fed, and how well it is treated by its owners.

A cat is much more likely to want to return to a caring owner, providing reliable food and shelter, than a cat who would be returning to an abusive owner, who does not offer those things. That is not to say that a cat that fails to return home is necessarily unhappy – it is simply one of the many possible factors that could influence this.

In my experience, some cats also become enticed by other families offering food and shelter. The most common outcome of this kind of enticement is that the cat pays regular visits to the household offering treats, but returns home in between those visits. Yet, in some rare instances, it can cause real confusion, with the cat growing to see the second household as ‘home’. As a result, the cat loses its sense of precisely where ‘home’ is.

This also brings me onto another issue, which is people moving house. A cat might not necessarily understand that it has moved, and may attempt to return to its old home, even if that home is located far away.

Real-Life Stories

Over the years, some incredible stories have surfaced about cats making their way home after being lost, so it is only right to conclude by sharing some of these real-life examples of cats’ homing abilities.

One of my favourite stories comes from Australia in 2010. A cat named Jessie and her family relocated from their home in South Australia to one around 1,900 miles north. Soon after the move, Jessie went missing and over a year later, the people living in the family’s previous home found Jessie, contacted her owners, and returned her.

It is unknown how Jessie made the trip. Her owners believe she walked, but that seems unlikely, as she would have either endured desert conditions or would have taken a much longer coastal route. Most likely, she completed at least some of the journey via a vehicle, which may or may not has been aware of her presence. Regardless of the nature of the journey, however, Jessie must have possessed an excellent ability to orientate herself.

A television programme shown by PBS in the United States shared a similar story about a cat called Ninja, who relocated from Utah to Washington. Again, around a year later, Ninja showed up in Utah. It is believed the cat travelled somewhere in the region of 850 miles in its quest to return to where it considered ‘home’ to be.

Finally, in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the US, a family was forced to seek temporary shelter eight miles away. They took their cat, Porsche, with them, but the cat went missing. Eventually, the family returned home, accepting that their cat was lost. Yet, around six months later, Porsche returned, having made the eight-mile trip home.

Barbara Read

Barbara Read - Cat owner, researcher and behavioural expert. Cats are not only fantastic pets but also wonderful and complex animals with great personalities. It takes time and effort to learn their behaviour but its completely worth it.

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