When my cat, Winston, went missing, one of the first things I did was call some local animal shelters to let them know in case anyone brought him in.
“Have you moved recently?” one shelter employee asked me. I had — just two weeks earlier. She told me Winston had likely tried to go back to our old home, the territory he was familiar with. I drove over there and sure enough, within just a few minutes of standing in our old house’s front yard and calling his name, a smug-looking Winston came trotting around the side of the house.
But how? Our new apartment was almost three miles from our old house, separated by several major roads and a river. How on Earth did Winston find his way back there?
Clearly he wasn’t the only cat in the world with a super sense of direction — after all, the shelter employee knew to ask if we had recently moved, which told me that this was something that happens with more than a few cats.
So do cat owners need to worry about their cats getting lost? It turns out, there are more questions than answers about cats’ seemingly innate sense of direction. Here’s what all cat owners need to know.
Can Cats Find Their Way Home When They’re Lost?
This question is one that researchers, animal behaviorists, and veterinarians have been trying to answer for a long time.
Science has shown us that cats are definitely better than many other animals at finding their way home. In 1922, Professor Frances Herrick published a study called “Homing Powers of the Cat.” In that study, Herrick separated a mother cat from her kittens, and found that she was able to find her way back to them seven times from distances that varied from one to four miles.
In 1954, a team of researchers in Germany conducted a similar experiment. They tested a number of cats by placing them, one at a time, in a large maze that had six evenly spaced exits. They found that the cats didn’t spend time wandering around the maze, but very quickly located an exit. What’s more is that 60 percent of the time, the cats chose an exit that faced in the direction of their home, even if it was miles away.
These experiments confirm what we’ve already seen through anecdotal evidence: In a lot of cases, cats seem to have an innate ability to find their way home. But what these studies don’t tell us is why cats seem to be able to find their way home so easily if they get lost. That’s the part that scientists still aren’t sure about, but they do have a lot of theories.
We Don’t Know What Gives Cats Their Sense of Direction
At the end of the day, we don’t know exactly why cats are so good at finding their way home.
Theories vary. One of the most popular and widely supported theories is that it has to do with smell markers, because cats have an extremely well-developed sense of smell. With more than 19 million scent receptors, cats use smells to mark their territory, so it’s possible that’s also how they orient themselves toward their homes.
Another theory is based on research that includes homing pigeons. Scientists think these birds are so good at finding their way home because of an “unusual sensitivity to the geo-magnetic field of the earth which enables them to keep a compass fix on their home region regardless of distance and direction traveled,” according to a 1977 book on different animals’ ability to find their way home.
But because there’s so much we don’t understand about cats’ homing abilities, we can’t count on our cats to always be able to find their way home. If we could, cats would never get lost, or they’d always make it back to us, whenever they did go missing. We know that’s not the case — one 2017 study showed that around two-thirds of missing cats are never found by their owners.
Don’t Count on Cats to Find Their Own Way Home
Because of that, it’s very important for cat owners to realize their beloved pets aren’t safe just because the species on the whole seems to have a good sense of direction.
In fact, the research that proves cats have homing abilities also shows that we can’t always depend on them. In the 1954 study, for example, researchers found that young cats who had been raised in a lab had no homing abilities at all. If your cat is young or used to living indoors, it may not be able to find its way home if it gets lost. And if being outside makes your cat scared, confused, or overwhelmed, that could also negatively impact its sense of direction.
Research also shows that the average outdoor housecat only travels within around 500 feet of its home on any given day. Though cats in scientific experiments have found their way home from far greater distances than that, any cat more than about a third of a mile from its home will likely be in unfamiliar territory, which may affect its ability to determine which way to go to get home.
But in addition to all the things that can throw off your cat’s sense of direction, there are also just a lot of dangers it can encounter if it’s outside — whether your cat is used to being outdoors, or it’s lost.
Things like cold or rainy weather, dogs and other predators, cars, and even humans who aren’t kind to cats can pose serious risks to your kitty’s health and safety — this is why indoor cats have an average life expectancy more than 12 years longer than outdoor cats. Even if your cat does have a good sense of direction and does head toward home when it’s lost, there are a lot of obstacles that a lost cat just may not be able to overcome.