How Cats Find Their Way Home

by Jazmin Murphy   May 9, 2021

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Pets’ homing abilities have long been a topic of intrigue for casual animal-lovers and scientists alike. Their powerful senses of smell, sight, and hearing are known to assist them in these abilities; however, there seems to be more to it. 


Can cats find their way home? A lost cat can certainly find its way back home. However, the efficiency and speed with which it returns may vary. Few studies have demonstrated cats’ homing abilities, yet scientists know that they can find their way home from miles away. Their success depends on their age, sex, circumstances of getting lost, and more.


It’s understandable to get worried if your cat went missing. Although it’s still best to coordinate search efforts, your companion will likely return within a few days on its own. To give you some peace of mind, here’s what scientists know so far about how cats manage to get back home after periods of separation. 

Can Cats Find Their Way Home from Far Away?

If your cat happens to run away from home, there’s a good chance it will be able to find its way home fairly quickly and with ease. In fact, some cats even find themselves navigating to homes they haven’t lived in for several years. 


Scientists aren’t entirely sure how exactly our feline companions achieve this. Yet, they do know that cats have a sort of “homing instinct” that helps them get back home after time away. This instinct isn’t driven only by the five primary senses. Instead, researchers say that cats’ sense of direction lies beyond taste, smell, sight, touching, and sound. 


Now, this isn’t to say that those senses aren’t involved at all. For example, cat owners know all too well that their pets have a habit of marking up their home territory with behaviors like urine spraying. Catsdon’t have as many scent receptors as dogs; however, they are better at differentiating odors. Since dogs can reportedlypick up scents approximately 12 miles away, a cat may be able to sniff its way home from a comparable distance. 


Still, some cats wander even further than this from home, leading scientists to wonder precisely how they make their way back. Unfortunately, only two bona fide studies exist on the matter. These are discussed in detail below.

Domestic Cats’ Homing Ability

One of the only studies focused on cats’ homing ability that’s ever been published is Professor Frances Herrick’s “Homing Powers of the Cat” from 1922. Herrick wasn’t necessarily studying a lost cat, per se, but observed how a cat’s navigational abilities work by watching a mother cat find her way back to her litter. Despite this, Herris stated of cats in general:

“Probably all cats possess this homing power in varying degrees, and all with fixed abodes might possibly be induced to exercise it under certain conditions; yet in every case the possession of a power, and the tendency to use it should be clearly distinguished; though possession, in this case, be under the firm grasp of heredity, the use is determined by experience and the physiological state of the animal at the moment.”

In other words, all cats possess the ability to find their way back home if they were to get lost. This “power” is worked into the very fibers of their being due to generations of evolutionary adaptations. However, the extent to which the cat uses that navigational prowess, and the efficiency with which it applies this skill, varies widely, situationally, and individually. 


Herrick built his justification for studying these homing powers on this ideological foundation by watching a mother cat. He stated that a cat with maternal responsibilities would be doubly motivated to exercise its sense of direction: one incentive being its distance from a preferred location (i.e., home), the other, its needy and vulnerable kittens. 


Note: Before you proceed into the following summary of Herrick’s research, understand that this study was conducted in the 1920s. Unfortunately, scientists weren’t held to the same animal cruelty standards as today. Herrick’s methods are questionable, if not outright cruel. Yet, his work yielded results that fill a void in scientific knowledge on this matter. 

How Herrick Tested Cats’ Homing Ability

To get a sense of how powerful cats’ navigational senses are, Herrick transported a cat in a sack to a location that was 1-3 miles away from home (the distance was 4.6 miles on the first try). The cat was taken further away from its residence with each trial, and each time, its visual, auditory, and olfactory senses were “eliminated” by blindfold or other means. 


With each trial, Herrick aimed to discover whether the cat would…:

  • Return home to its kittens, no matter how far away the scientists had transported it

  • Orient itself correctly right away after release

  • Begin the trek back home in a direct line to the correct location or if it would be concerned with finding shelter and safety first

Every time, the cat exceeded the scientist’s expectations by finding her way back home more quickly than originally estimated. The homing times ranged from 8-60 hours and varied with distance, time of day released, and the type of environment the cat was taken to for the experiment. All the trials were as follows:


Trial Number

Where the Cat Was Released

Distance from Home (in Miles)

Time to Return (in Hours)

1

University Campus

4.6

~38

2

Open Field

1

<8

3

Open Field

2

<10

4

Open Field

3

78

5

Unoccupied Allotment

1

<10

6

Open Field

1

<10

7

Open Field

1

<11

8

Ploughed Field

1.5

<69

9

Willoughby, Ohio

16.5

No Return*

*This was done intentionally, hoping that the cat would find a new home, as the owner no longer wanted it due to its habit of eating the farm’s chickens.


In one instance (Trial 8), the cat was anesthetized and was somehow still able to find its way back home. Herrick made sure to give the cat food and water before leaving it in some cases, but it’s unclear if he did this each time. Each time, the cat oriented perfectly toward home and started off immediately in the correct direction. The only times she veered off were when she spotted dogs or people nearby.


From this study alone, it’s easy to see that cats’ homing abilities are astounding. This cat was taken to multiple locations that it was completely unfamiliar with and made it home each time with remarkable ease. Herrick concluded confidently that none of these returns were due to chance, and further, cats’ sense of direction is somehow independent of its sight, hearing, or sense of smell. 

Lost Cats’ Sense of Direction

The second of theonly two widely known studies on lost cats’ ability to find their way home took place in Germany. Instead of repeatedly displacing the felines and leaving their returns home to chance, the scientists placed them in a maze instead and observed how well they were able to solve the navigational challenge. 


Now, the cats were still moved around in sacks, again, to reduce the extent to which they could depend on their sense of smell, sight, or hearing to guide them back to the correct location. However, this time, they were released at the center of a maze and noted how well the animals were able to find their way to the exits. This maze featured exits that faced the directions of the cats’ homes; however, the cats were not allowed to leave the maze’s boundaries for safety reasons. 


Miraculously, none of the cats wandered around the maze at all. Instead, they knew how to get out almost immediately. They rapidly chose their route to the preferred exits; yet, conclusions showed that their sense of direction was only “fair.” Plus, the efficiency with which they were able to navigate to the maze’s exit was directly related to their distance from home. 


Specifically, when taken about 3.1 miles away from home, cats showed a 60% success rate for choosing the exit that was closest to the direction of their residence. When taken further, they seemed to lose their sense of navigational accuracy and appeared not to know which direction to go. 

What Determines a Cat’s Homing Instinct? 

As Herrick noted, although all cats retain the ability to find their way back home when lost, not all cats will use it to the same extent or with the same efficiency level. Their success is largely situational, despite this being deeply rooted in their genetic and behavioral makeup. 


For instance, Herrick’s research noted that a cat would be far less likely to return home if something negative drove it away. If a natural disaster separated the family from the pet or animals spooked it in the neighborhood, the chances of a lost cat coming back home could be lower. However, other factors can contribute to thelikelihood of a cat returning home after being lost. These include:

  • Outdoor experience: Almost all cats that display some type of homing behavior have some level of experience in the outdoors. Sixty-seven percent of cats reported to be able to find their way back home have regular access to the outside environment. Twenty-five percent of these cats are exclusively outdoor cats, and a mere 7% live indoors only. 

  • Age: The younger a cat is, the less likely it is to exercise its homing ability very well. Most cats (58%) are between 3-10 years old when they make their way back home after getting lost. Young adults are nearly as efficient, making up 34% of returning cats. Seniors and kittens have the hardest time coming back home at only 6% and 2%, respectively. 


  • Intact or spayed: Interestingly, whether your cat has been fixed or not plays an influential role in whether it’ll display homing behavior or not. First, males seem to be better at returning home than females. Secondly, intact males lead in homing instinct, making up 37% of returning cats. 

  • Homing circumstances: The context of the cat’s journey home also plays a critical role in whether it’ll reunite with its family. Most (55%) incidents occur due to the cat simply becoming lost. However, it can get back to a new home about one-third (29%) of the time. Results are quite split on instances of the cat returning to an old residence, which occurred 45% of the time. 

  • Environment: The area where the cat was lost will determine its success in returning home. Most (54%) homing cats trek across rural settings on their way back home. However, your cat can still be successful in nearly all kinds of habitats, including urban (37% of lost cats display homing behavior in these areas), suburban (53%), highways (22-45%), and rivers (38%). 

It’s not quite clear how cats can use their homing instincts to get home after getting lost or running away. Fortunately, they often have a good chance of returning based on instincts alone. 

It can be worrisome when your cat gets separated from the family. Fortunately, it’s quite easy for them to find their way back home, although scientists don’t yet understand how it’s done. 


You can reduce the chances of your cat becoming lost by supervising their time outside and getting a leash to take them on exciting walks. Check out the Catzio store for cute, comfy leashes that’ll enhance your pet’s safety outdoors. 


About the Author

Jazmin “Sunny” Murphy began writing informal scientific content on nature and animals in 2015. Four years later, she launched her freelance career as a digital content and copywriter. This work merges her academic perspective, rooted in her B.S. Zoology, and professional experience as a veterinary tech, university research assistant, and more with relevant marketing, SEO, and engagement techniques across various industries. Jazmin now covers pet care, pest control, cannabis, outdoor recreation, STEM research and news, and product reviews across several niches.

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