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Can cats find their way home?

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 for finding a lost cat — Cat owners can also take certain precautions so their pet doesn’t become lost or have greater chances of being recovered quickly if they do.
  • Some cats can go the distance — There have been stories where cats traveled hundreds of miles back 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 discuss things you can do to increase your chances of reuniting with your pet if they ever get lost.

Can cats find their way home?

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. 

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 retrace 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. 

There are several ways that cats can find their way home, through methods like: 

  • 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, these instincts may help guide them back home as they search for familiar food, water, and safe hiding places.

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’s also 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. 

Even so, there is always hope if your cat goes missing for a long time. “I have personally seen patients that had ‘disappeared for weeks to a few months and then show back up at the owner’s home,” Dr. Armstrong says, “[they’re] a little worse for wear, but still going like the energizer bunny. They are amazing!”

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. Let’s explore ten effective ways to prevent your cat from becoming lost.

1. Keep your cat indoors or supervise outdoor playtime 

While indoor cats may still run away, they’re less likely to travel long distances as opposed to outdoor or indoor-outdoor cats who like to roam. If you decide to keep your cat indoors, create an enriched indoor environment with toys, scratching posts, and interactive play to provide mental and physical stimulation. 

If you want to give your cat outdoor time, consider using a secure enclosure or training them to walk with you on a harness. Supervising your cat while they explore the outdoors ensures their safety and prevents them from wandering off. 

2. Register your pet through 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. 

3. Microchip your pet 

While it isn’t a tracking device, a microchip is an electronic implant of your pet’s name and your contact information. If they become lost and someone takes them to a vet or a shelter, their microchip will show this information when scanned, increasing your chances of being reunited.  

“Microchips don’t prevent getting lost but I have seen several times that recovery was made more easily, even from long distances,” Dr. Armstrong says, “There are now chips or tags that have GPS capabilities for location access and trackers reasonably priced and a step up from the microchips in my opinion.”

👉 While microchipping your pet is an excellent idea, it’s always best to have at least two forms of identification on your pet. Microchips don’t always scan and collars can break, so it’s best to secure your pet with both forms of ID.  

4. Use a leash and harness for outdoor play

Train your cat to walk on a leash and harness, especially if you plan to take them outside. Not only does keeping them leashed prevent them from running away, but it also reduces the risk of overheating and exhaustion from your cat wanting to explore for too long.  

5. Secure windows and doors 

Ensure that all windows and doors are securely screened and closed to prevent accidental escapes. If your cat likes to sit in the open window, make sure to regularly inspect the screens for damage and keep the windows closed when you’re not home. 

6. Keep contact information up-to-date 

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. 

7. 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. 

8. Train your cat to respond to a reliable recall command 

Teach your cat a recall command, such as a specific word or sound, paired with positive reinforcement. This can help get their attention and call them back to you if they wander too far. 

9. Create a safe and stimulating environment 

Provide plenty of mental and physical stimulation for your cat at home to reduce their desire to wander out of boredom. Engage them in interactive play, offer scratching posts, and create comfortable resting areas to fulfill their needs. 

10. 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.

Studies suggest that physically looking for a lost cat increases their chances of being found, as opposed to simply waiting for them to come back or filing a lost pet report. This is probably because cats are usually found at or close to home. As the ASPCA observes, “Dogs are sought, cats come home.”

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—especially since your cat is likely already trying to find their way home.

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.

Can I rely on my cat’s homing instinct if I’ve recently moved to a new home?

The risk of your cat getting lost or disoriented is higher following a move. Gradually acclimate your cat to the new home by initially confining them to a secure area and expanding their access as they’re comfortable. Consider using pheromone sprays or diffusers to provide a sense of familiarity in your new home and reduce stress as they settle in.

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

For pet parents who want to discourage free-range roaming, but still want to 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.

Can an indoor cat find its way home when it gets lost?

Indoor cats might not have the street smarts that outdoor cats acquire, but they’re more likely to stick close to home and may be easier to recover. However, on the flip side, lost indoor cats are also in greater immediate danger than outdoor cats because of their lack of learned skills. As soon as you know your cat is missing, it’s important to start searching your yard and surrounding area for them. They may need help finding their way home because of fear or they could be stuck somewhere nearby.