Can Cats Find Their Way Home If They Get Lost? FAQ & Tips

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Last Updated on: May 8, 2023 by Crystal Uys

If your cat has ever snuck outside when it shouldn’t have or not come home after you let it out for its daily exploration, you know that feeling of dread and worry well. There’s nothing worse than not knowing where your beloved pet has gone. If your kitty is currently MIA, you’re probably wondering if it can find its way home.

Cats actually can find their way home thanks to a special skill known as the “homing instinct”.

Read on to learn more!

How Can Cats Find Their Way Home?

There are countless tales of kitties that have gone missing for weeks, months, or even years and then miraculously showing up at their door as if no time has passed at all. How can cats achieve such a feat? There are two prevailing theories.

Geomagnetic Fields

One theory is based on research regarding homing pigeons. Scientists believe these birds can find their way home as they are highly sensitive to Earth’s geomagnetic field. This enables them to have an internal compass fixed on their home regardless of how far they’ve traveled or which direction they’ve gone.

While we don’t know exactly how it works, this homing instinct was first looked at more in-depth during a 1922 study when it was found that a mother cat separated from her kittens could locate them at varying distances of up to four miles.1 Not only did the mother find her way home in each of the seven trials, but in four of them, she started heading in the right direction as soon as she was released. Of course, the ethics of such a study are highly suspect, but you can’t deny the interesting findings.

Another study in 1954 put cats inside a large maze to determine if they could find the exit and head home.2 The study showed that most cats didn’t waste time wandering around the maze but instead chose an exit right away, most of which choosing a door in the area closest to their homes. Researchers then repeated the experiment with magnets attached to the cats and found that they could not perform as well, suggesting that magnetic geolocation could be involved.

Scent Cues

Another popular supported theory is that cats can use their well-developed sense of smell to find their way home. Cats use scents to mark their territory, so that could be how they orient themselves toward their home, too.

a white cat with collar smelling grass outside
Image Credit: Phairoh chimmi, Shutterstock

What Factors Affect a Cat’s Homing Instincts?

According to research from Lost Pet Research, several factors can affect how well-tuned a cat’s homing instincts are.

  • Outdoor experience. Most cats with exceptional homing skills have some experience with being outdoors.
  • Age. Most cats were adults when they were lost and found their way home.
  • Gender & spay/neuter status. Male cats displayed better homing instincts than females; more were spayed or neutered than unaltered.

Can Cats Find Their Way Back After a Recent Move?

While cats seem able to find their way home, what happens if their ‘home’ is new? If you’ve recently moved, will your kitty be able to find its way back to your new house? It’s hard to say.

Your cat may not have yet registered your new house as “home.” Some cats will recognize a new dwelling as home within days, while others will take much longer. If your kitty has already had a chance to make the connection that your new space is now home, it may have already memorized the magnetic map. This can prove helpful in trying to find its way back to you if it gets lost.

However, if not much time has passed since you’ve moved or your kitty hasn’t yet had the chance to register your new space as “home,” it may also try traveling back to your previous residence.

When I was a teenager, my family and I moved houses just a few blocks away. My cat Sebastian was an outdoor cat at the time, and he would always return to our old house when he decided it was time to come back inside. We would have to walk to our old house to wrangle him up to bring him back home. It took him several months before it finally registered that our new address would be our permanent one.

cat walking in front of a bamboo leaves
Image Credit: AjayTvm, Shutterstock

Not All Cats Will Find Their Way Home

As fantastic as it would be if all lost cats could make their way home, this sadly isn’t always the case.

The same 1954 study that shows cats have homing abilities also suggests that we can’t always depend on this skill to lead them home. The study showed that young cats raised in a lab had no homing ability at all. So, if your kitty is young or used to living inside, it may not have the skills to find its way back to you if lost. If being outside makes your cat stressed or anxious, this could affect its sense of direction.

What Should I Do If My Cat Has Gone Missing?

You can do several things to boost the likelihood of your missing cat returning home. These include:

  • Submit a lost pet report to your local animal shelter and animal control agency
  • Alert the microchip company
  • Visit local animal shelters to see if your cat is there
  • Make posts on local community forums alerting the neighborhood of your missing cat (e.g., Facebook, Craigslist, Reddit)
  • Ask your neighbors to check their property
  • Search every nook and cranny of your home and property
  • Calmly call your cat by name and shake its favorite bag of treats
  • Look in trees and on rooftops
  • Try to lure it back home by placing items with its scent outside (e.g., its favorite bed, food, litter box)

Final Thoughts

Cats have an instinctual homing skill that sometimes allows them to find their way back home. While there are many happy ending tales of the cat’s returning home after being lost for days (or longer), this isn’t always the case. However, that doesn’t mean you should lose hope if your pet’s gone missing. Instead, enlist the help of your local animal shelter and neighborhood watch group to help bring that sweet baby home to you sooner.

Featured Image Credit: Julissa Helmuth, Pexels

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