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Cat walking on driveway

The essentials

  • Cats are curious — It is in a cat’s DNA to want to explore and hunt, which can sometimes lead them astray.
  • There are plenty of resources — Numerous organizations assist with relocating displaced cats. Pet owners can also take certain precautions.
  • Some cats can go the distance — There have been stories where cats traveled hundreds of miles home after being lost.

Can cats find their way home? This is a question that has been debated for centuries, with some believing in the homing instinct of cats and others claiming it’s nothing more than a myth. To determine the truth, let’s look at how cats use their good sense of direction to make journeys back home and explore stories about cats successfully making it back to their pet parents.

The homing instinct of cats: fact or myth? 

The homing instinct refers to an animal’s ability to find its way back to a particular location, such as its home or territory, after being displaced or taken away.

Scientists generally agree that cats possess a homing instinct, although the specific mechanisms and factors involved are still not fully understood. Cats are known for their navigational skills and ability to find their way back home from considerable distances. However, it is important to note that individual cats may exhibit varying levels of homing ability.

In comparison to dogs, cats are often considered to have a more pronounced homing instinct. Dogs are known for their loyalty to their owners and their ability to navigate familiar routes. However, cats have been reported to show exceptional navigational skills and are capable of finding their way back home from unfamiliar locations, sometimes over long distances.

Some studies suggest that cats rely on a combination of sensory cues, such as olfactory (smell) and visual information, to navigate and find their way home.

While the homing instinct can be relied upon to some extent, pet owners should not solely rely on it when their cats are in an unfamiliar environment. This is especially true for indoor cats, who may find the great outdoors especially challenging.

It is important to take proactive measures to prevent cats from getting lost and to ensure their safety. If a cat does go missing, pet owners should employ additional strategies such as searching the immediate vicinity, posting flyers, contacting local shelters and veterinarians, and using online resources to increase the chances of a safe return.

How cats find their way home

There are several ways that cats are able to find their way home. It’s important to note that while these factors contribute to a cat’s ability to find its way home, individual cats may vary in their navigational skills and the strength of their homing instinct.

  • Sensory cues. Cats rely on their acute sense of smell to detect familiar scents and landmarks, which helps them navigate and find their way back home.
  • Visual memory. Cats have a remarkable visual memory and can recognize familiar surroundings. They may use visual cues, such as distinctive landmarks or structures, to guide them back home.
  • Route retracing. Cats and other animals are known to retrace their steps when trying to find their way back. They may follow the same path they took when they initially left home.
  • Familiarity with territory. Cats develop a strong familiarity with their territory; this is true for both indoor and outdoor cats. They become familiar with the layout, landmarks, and boundaries of their home environment, which helps them navigate effectively.
  • Exploratory behavior. Cats are naturally curious critters and explore their surroundings extensively. This exploration contributes to their mental map of the area and aids in finding their way back if they become displaced.
  • Survival instincts. Cats possess survival instincts that drive them to find resources and shelter. If they become lost or displaced, these instincts may help guide them back home as they search for familiar food, water, and safe hiding places.

Regardless of breed or color, most cats have great sensory cues, visual memory, retain familiarity of territory, and exhibit exploratory behavior. These are all part of their natural instinct of being a cat. Even cats that don't go outside will exhibit some of this behavior if placed in a new environment.

Dr. Dwight Alleyne

Stories of lost cats returning home

As scary as it can be when we see missing poster signs or messages about missing pets, anywhere from 53% to 84% of lost cats are found, according to Lost Pet Research. We have all seen positive and heartwarming social media content showcasing these returns.

These stories of cats highlight the remarkable navigational abilities and homing instincts that cats can possess. Here are a couple of interesting anecdotes of lost domestic cats that managed to find their way back home, even when faced with significant challenges and long distances:

1. “Holly the Cat” – In 2012, a cat named Holly became separated from her owners while they were on vacation in Daytona Beach, Florida. Holly managed to escape from their RV and was missing for two months.

The owners searched for her but eventually had to return home to West Palm Beach, about 200 miles away. To their astonishment, Holly showed up at their doorstep after a two-month journey.

It is believed that Holly used her homing instinct to navigate her way back home, crossing unfamiliar territory and crossing busy highways to reunite with her family.

2. “Willow the Cat” – In 2011, a cat named Willow went missing from her home in Boulder, Colorado. Her owners diligently searched for her but couldn’t find any trace of her.

After five years, Willow was discovered in New York City, around 1,800 miles away from her original home. She was found in Manhattan and taken to a shelter where her microchip helped identify her owners.

It remains a mystery how Willow managed to travel such a long distance and end up in a bustling city like New York.

10 ways to prevent your cat from becoming lost

Keeping your beloved feline companion safe and secure is a top priority for any cat owner. By implementing even one or two (or more!) of these preventative strategies, you can provide a secure environment for your cat and enjoy peace of mind. Let’s explore ten effective ways to prevent your cat from becoming lost.

  1. Keep your cat indoors. Keeping your cat indoors significantly reduces the risk of them getting lost or facing dangers outside. Create an enriched indoor environment with toys, scratching posts, and interactive play to provide mental and physical stimulation.
  2. Provide supervised outdoor time. If you want to give your cat outdoor time, consider using a secure enclosure or a cat-proofed yard. Supervising your cat while they explore the outdoors ensures their safety and prevents them from wandering off.
  3. Tabby Alert. Tabby Alert is an ID tag that is connected to a large pet alert network, connecting you to thousands of pet finders nationwide. All you have to do is register your pet and receive a free pet tag. If your cat gets lost, you initiate a TabbyAlert, which will be texted to your local network.
  4. Microchipping. Microchipping is also highly recommended, as it provides a permanent form of identification that can be scanned by shelters or veterinarians if your cat is found.
  5. Use a leash and harness. Train your cat to walk on a leash and harness, especially if you plan to take them outside. This provides control and prevents them from darting away and getting lost. By keeping them leashed, you can also prevent overheating and exhaustion from your cat wanting to explore for too long.
  6. Secure windows and doors, especially garages. Ensure that all windows and doors are securely screened and closed to prevent accidental escapes. One survey found that when a cat went missing while indoors, it was due to an open door or garage.
  7. Update contact information. Regularly check and update your cat’s identification tags and microchip details if there are any changes to your address or phone number. This ensures that you can be contacted promptly if your cat is found.
  8. Use GPS trackers. Consider using GPS trackers designed for cats. These devices can be attached to your cat’s collar and allow you to track their location using a smartphone app, providing an extra layer of security and peace of mind.
  9. Train a reliable recall command. Teach your cat a recall command, such as a specific word or sound, paired with positive reinforcement. This can be helpful in getting their attention and calling them back to you if they wander too far.
  10. Create a safe and stimulating environment. Provide plenty of mental and physical stimulation for your cat at home to reduce their desire to wander. Engage them in interactive play, offer scratching posts, and create comfortable resting areas to fulfill their needs.
  11. Be cautious during transitions. When moving to a new home or traveling with your cat, take extra precautions to prevent them from getting lost. Keep them confined to a secure room or carrier until they become acclimated to the new surroundings.

Remember, even with the best preventive measures, accidents can happen. If your cat does go missing, act quickly by searching your immediate area, contacting local shelters, posting flyers, and using online platforms and social media to spread the word. The sooner you initiate a search, the higher the chances of a safe return.

Frequently asked questions

How far can a lost cat travel to find its way home?

The distance a missing cat can travel to find its way home can vary. Some cats have been known to return from considerable distances, even crossing unfamiliar territory and busy roads. However, the range may depend on factors such as the cat’s familiarity with the area, environmental conditions, and individual navigational skills.

How can I increase the chances of my cat finding its way home if it goes missing?

If your cat goes missing, begin by searching the immediate vicinity thoroughly, including hiding places and nearby structures.  Notify local animal shelters and neighbors; the TabbyAlert network can also help with this. Posting flyers outside and on social media with a clear photo and contact information can also be helpful.

Should I rely solely on my cat’s homing instinct if we move to a new home?

The risk of your cat getting lost or disoriented is higher during this transition period, so it’s important not to rely solely on your cat’s homing instinct. Gradually acclimate your cat to the new home by confining them to a secure area initially and gradually expanding their access. Consider using pheromone sprays or diffusers to provide a sense of familiarity and reduce stress.

How do I discourage outdoor roaming, but still give my cat some outdoor time?

For pet parents who want to discourage outdoor roaming but still provide their cats with a taste of the outdoors, there are outdoor alternatives such as catios (cat patios) or enclosed outdoor spaces. You can also try enclosed outdoor playpens, cat fencing, window perches, or leash walking. These are best-of-both-worlds options for indoor cats who also love the outdoors.