Cat Homing Instinct: Is It For Real? Can Cats Find Their Way Home?

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Can Cats Find Their Way Home

Indeed, losing a cat is never easy, and it’s good to hold on to the idea that someday they’ll find their way back home.

All animals (like birds, fishes, and bees) have this keen sense of direction that lets them locate their house over long distances. But does the same apply to cats? Can cats find their way home?

If you’re among the many cat owners who have tons of questions about cats and their ability to get back home safely over long distances, you’re on the right page.

After all, Feline Living (with our team of cat-doting nerds) just loves to unravel the truth behind any cat-related behavior, their homing instinct included.

Animals & Their Unique Homing Instinct

Before we dive deep into the world of cats and their ability to find their way back home, let’s first understand animal homing behavior as a whole. 

According to Brittanica, homing refers to the ability of an animal to return to a specific location using navigational clues.

This includes star patterns, the angle of the sun, and the Earth’s magnetic field. Migratory birds (think seabirds and swallows) are well-known for this. 

Apart from birds, land- and water-dwelling animals like sea turtles, salmon, and reptiles also possess this incredible ability. 

Can Cats Find Their Way Home?

If you’ve watched Homeward Bound, then you’d remember the cute furry trio (which includes a wise yet old Golden retriever, a fun-loving bulldog, and a sassy Himalayan cat) that were left behind but manages to return home.

Surprisingly, this does not only happen in the movies. It also happens in real life. 

So, if you’re wondering if your cat can find its way home despite the distance (think a hundred miles away), the answer is Yes. If you’re still doubtful, here are a few studies that could back this up:

  • Homing Powers of the Cat is a study published in 1922 by Professor Frances Herrick. In this study, Herrick observed the mama cats’ ability to find their way home to her kitties even when they’re 1-4 miles away from them.
  • PetMD also mentioned a study conducted by German researchers in 1954. Cats were placed in a large maze with many entryways. The research proved that cats often use the opening nearest their home’s location to escape the maze.

True, there isn’t much research available to prove this phenomenon. But the reported accounts of missing pets suddenly appearing in front of the pet owners’ porch weeks, months, or even years after getting lost are enough proof for us to believe that such a thing as homing instinct exists in cats. 

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Common Reasons Behind Your Cat’s Disappearance

Now that you know about your cat’s extraordinary ability, one of the things that you might find bothersome is your cat’s habit of wandering off and disappearing for days and even more. This is especially true for cats who get the pleasure to roam around freely outdoor. 

If this mystifies you, the list below will give you a few good reasons behind your indoor-outdoor cat’s disappearing act:

Their Love For Hunting

While your pets may look innocent and sweet on the outside, they’re highly skilled predators that consider hunting as their favorite pastime. Their day is not complete without preying on little critters like rodents, reptiles, and even birds. 

So, if your cat is out of sight, your feline friend might just be chasing their prey.

It’s Mating Season

Whether you have a tomcat or a queen, both tend to stray off when they’re in search of their mate.

They’re Scared Or Stressed

Like humans, cats also tend to run away whenever they feel scared, stressed, or anxious. 

If a lot is going on in your home (like house renovations), your pet cat may feel stressed because of all the racket and the strangers going in and out of your home. Your cat may have also been chased away by a dog or another animal. All of these reasons would often force your pet cat to look for a hiding spot. 

They’ve Found A Great Food Provider

There are good-hearted people out there who can’t help but feed a wandering cat. When this happens, cats tend to go back to that source of food every now and then.

Cats’ Homing Instinct: How Does It Work?

Yes, we’ve heard more than a handful of amazing stories about missing cats traveling long distances to get back home.

Some posts also report their pet cat is lost only to discover that their missing cat somehow found its way back to their old house (even if the new home is hundreds of miles away from their old one). 

All of these seem impossible and hard to believe, but it happens. Impressive as it is,  researchers are still dumbfounded. At the moment, all we have are half-baked theories.

Nonetheless, they’re still a good starting point. So, if you want to have at least an idea of how your lost cat is able to find its way home, read on.

Using Smell Markers

We all know that dogs have this remarkable sense of smell that helps them find their way back home when lost. It’s the same with cats. 

With over 19 million scent receptors, we can say that cats also possess a well-developed sense of smell. In fact, cats are a step ahead of dogs when it comes to scent identification.

Cats also have this organ called Jacobson’s that allows them to smell undetectable odors.

And since cats have the habit of marking their territory, a lost cat may be able to find its way home by getting a whiff of these scent markers.

Sensitivity To Earth’s Geo-Magnetic Fields

Research also suggests that mammals’ inner ears contain iron. And just like a compass, this helps mammals (cats included) distinguish north-sound direction using the Earth’s magnetic fields. 

Cat’s Longing To Go Back To Its Territory

Some say that the animals’ overall temperament can help them find their way home. For dogs, this often relates to the special bond they have with their owners. 

Cats, on the other hand, given their territorial nature, could easily find the right direction towards home because of their strong ties to their territory.

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Why Cats Don’t Always Find Their Way Home

Although there are numerous posts about lost cats successfully finding their way home, there are also a good number of lost cats that never do. Unfortunately, this type of post doesn’t often get any attention. 

Here are some reasons why cats fail to make their way home despite their keen sense of direction and unexplainable homing instinct:

Absence of homing abilities. You heard it right. Some cats fail to find their way home simply because they don’t have the ability to do so. This is often observed in young cats, indoor cats who have never set their foot outside, and lab-raised cats.

Emotions overpower their sense of direction. Negative emotions (like fear, stress, and anxiety) may also impair your cats’ ability to sense right from wrong when it comes to direction.

Unfamiliar environment. Yes, stories about cats getting home after traveling for miles through unknown territory are shocking, yet it happens. However, this isn’t for all cats. Average outdoor cats roam within 500 feet of their homes. And they can head home using a familiar route.

Obstacles along the way. It’s normal for your cat to encounter obstacles that can hinder them from finding their way home. This includes rodents that can distract them and make them lose their way, bad weather, cars, dogs, and even people. 

What To Do With A Cat That Loves To Wander Off

Cats just love to wander. It’s in their nature, after all. But since cats are prone to disappearing and, at times, get lost while doing it, some opt to keep them indoors.

Now, this is actually good if you want your feline friend to live a longer life (think 20 years). But then again, there are also a couple of benefits if you let them out.

So, if you choose to let your cat wander in and around your home, you might as well try these tips to reduce the chances of them getting lost. When they do get lost, it will also increase your chances of finding them again.

Get your cat neutered or spayed. Since mating is one of the reasons why cats often get out, spaying or neutering will help. Here are 5 more reasons why spaying or neutering is good for cats.

If you just moved, keep your cat indoors for at least a month. Since your cat will most likely search for its old territory after moving, it’s a good idea to keep your cat indoors for at least a month. This way, your cat can also get accustomed to its new surroundings.

Dress your cat with a collar with ID tags.  Getting your pet a collar with a tag that shows your address and phone number will help a lot if your cat can’t seem to find their way home.

Have your cat microchipped. The likelihood of you finding your cat is increased if you get them microchipped. You can call your cat out loud or even write a post with their picture to see if anyone has seen them.

But if these fail, the microchip on them is going to be your final hope. If you want to know more, call your vet.

Food for Thought

True, your cat has this impeccable sense of direction. Despite the lack of sign or theories to prove it, we know that it exists. 

But, no matter how incredible this is, we can’t always rely on it. The truth remains that your cat’s chances of getting lost and not getting back home is significantly higher.

So, if you want to be with your cat for a long time, always prioritize their safety and health above all else.

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