How Do Cats Find Their Way Home If Lost?

Here is a question I have asked at times. Cats can’t read a map, nor can they ask for directions. Yet I have read many stories about cats traveling long distances to get home again when lost. So, how do cats find their way home?

There’s even an old song about this subject. Do you recall these words?

Tiger cat walking deserted road
Headed home

The cat came back, the very next day

The cat came back, thought he was a goner

But the cat came back, ’cause he couldn’t stay away!

If you’d like to listen to the whole song, look on the right sidebar of this website. You will find it there, and can listen to it.

I researched this question with interest, as I really wanted to know the answer. I had my own ideas, but could the facts back up my theory?

What I have found points out that scientists themselves have not come up with a definitive answer. They, too, have theories, but no one know for sure.

Black & white cat by rr tracks and sea

Cats apparently have a homing instinct. In other words, they select their travel direction using something other than the five senses of taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing. So, how do they find their way home?

One thing to remember: Cats don’t just bond with their human, but they also bond with a territory. They have marked an area they consider their own. These two bonds give good reasons for the cat to find home, but they do not tell us how they do it.

It’s a hard subject to research because the cat’s homing ability does not come from any kind of established ability. We cannot see any mechanism that shows us how this ability works. In fact, because it’s so hard to research, you will find only two published studies in existence.

The first: In 1922, Professor Frances Herrick published a study called “Homing Powers of the Cat.” Here we read about the homing ability of a mother cat who returned to her kittens successfully seven times, from distances varying from one to four miles.

The second: In 1954, German researchers tested cats in a large maze with many openings. The cat most often chose an exit closest to their home.

Grey & white cat outside

Homing Instincts In Their DNA

Because of their being territorial creatures, they definitely have homing instincts in their DNA. It’s just hard to figure out how they work.

Perhaps you might find it useful to learn some ways to help your cat find home. One very important suggestion: Get the cat microchipped. Then, if the cat strays and someone finds him, they can take him to a shelter or to someplace equipped to read the chip and learn kitty’s address.

Read on, for other suggestions:

1) Leave out strong-smelling food for your cat

Heat his favorite meal and leave it outside for him. Then, in case he comes close to home, he might smell the treat and come to gobble it up.

2) Hang up his favorite blanket or a piece of your worn clothing carrying your scent

Hang these articles outside, and if kitty comes anywhere nearby, he may smell these. The scent will travel through the air and hopefully reach your cat’s sensitive nose.

3) Call him in your natural voice

It wouldn’t hurt to travel through nearby neighborhoods, calling kitty. Use a calm voice. If kitty hides out of fear, the sound of your voice could comfort him. Just don’t sound sad or panicked.

4) Pay close attention and listen carefully

Lost cat poster for orange cat

People have found that cats most often return between dusk and dawn. They feel safer moving around in the dark, in case of predators. Listen closely during this time, and with luck you’ll hear a meow or a scratch at the door. If you have a cat door, leave it open for him.

5) Leave your garage door open

Perhaps you don’t have a cat door. In this case, leave your garage door open slightly, and he may come in.

Another pointer: When you move to a new place, keep your cat inside for at least a month. The cat needs time to establish a new territory and to realize that this place is now home. Otherwise, if you leave kitty out too soon, he may decide to return to his old home and territory. Thus, go back to the old house, if that is possible, to see if you can locate the cat.

What About Their Sense Of Smell?

Your cat has a very sharp sense of smell. In fact, the cat’s sense of smell is 14 times sharper than yours. Smells will aid him, if he gets close enough to home to catch the scent. Kitty’s attachment to home creates an emotional intensity that can fuel that desire to find home.

My Favorite Theory

Here is a theory that I think makes sense. Just as people do, cats have some traces of iron in their bodies. In cats, you will find it in his ears and skin. The iron connects the cat to the magnetic field of the earth, and can thus distinguish between opposite directions.

Black cat with collar atop post

Usually, a cat will go missing for around four or five days. After that time, you’d best search the area for a clue. I have known cats who got out and found a building with an open door. Of course, kitty had to go in and explore. Perhaps there was a nice place to nap in there.

The owner, not knowing the cat had entered, closed the door and it remained closed for two weeks. Finally, the cat escaped the building and returned home.

What Percentage Of Lost Cats Are Found?

Research done by the ASPCA has found that 75% of cats reported lost then returned safely to their homes. This research used a survey of 1,015 pet households. After five years of study, they published their findings in the January 2012 issue of a journal called “Animals.”

Set Guidelines For Cats Who Go Outdoors

If you have an outdoor cat, set up some guidelines for kitty to follow. For example, I fed my cat, Carlos, in the morning. After his meal he could go out. I always fed him his supper at 4:00 pm. If he wasn’t in, I’d go out and call him. His inner clock plus the sound of my voice alerted him that supper could now be served, and only once did he not come home.

Black cat with collar & tag alone on beach

On that occasion, it’s my theory that he jumped a critter that he couldn’t handle, and when it fought back, he left quickly. When he finally came home, he had blood on his claws and a small missing patch of fur from his side. He must have felt that hiding for the night would constitute a safer course of action than coming home just then.

Hopefully, someone will figure out a way to study this homing behavior so we can know how the cat performs this marvelous feat. Meanwhile, we can find comfort in knowing that cats do have an amazing ability to find home.

References I used for this post:

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