Can Cats Find Their Way Home?

When I was a kid, I loved the movie Homeward Bound. The film told the story of three family pets: Chance, the young, energetic pup; Shadow, the wise old Golden Retriever; and Sassy, the aptly-named cat — who are all lost when their family moves. The pets all take a crazy journey through the city and the country to find their way back to their family.

Not only was the film adorable and heartwarming, but it also convinced pint-sized me that I didn't have to worry, because my pets could always find their way home. But is that the case? While we know that dogs have incredible noses and are known to track things over distances, could a cat like Sassy also find her way home?

The news is often filled with incredible stories of cats making their way home.

Holly, a cat in Florida was lost in Daytona Beach in 2013, 200 miles from its home in Palm Beach. The cat was separated from its humans at an R.V. rally, and they assumed she was lost or taken. However, two months later, Holly was discovered just a mile from her home, weak and emaciated. She had found her way almost all the way back.

Cat on a snag at the beach
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Another cat named Jessie made the opposite of a Homeward Bound journey in Australia. Her humans moved her across the continent, and she didn't like it. So Jessie traveled nearly 2,000 miles back to her old home. The new owners of the home found Jessie and contacted her family, who confirmed it was her. Jessie just didn't want to move, so she didn't.

Homing Ability

Scientists suspect that cats may have a homing ability, similar to that of pigeons, that helps them to find their way back home. Evidence suggests that cats might be able to sense the magnetic fields of the Earth, to help orient themselves properly as they set off to find their way home. Only a few scientific studies have been done on the subject, but studies from 1992 and 1954 both suggest that cats have an incredible ability to orient themselves in the right direction almost immediately after being lost. That suggests a more innate sense of direction beyond other senses.

Bonnie Beaver, the executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a professor at Texas A&M University explained, "There are some studies that show that the ears of most mammals contain iron. That may cue them into the magnetic direction in the ground. There's work showing that cattle, deer and voles tend to orient in a north-south direction."

Cat on mountain pasture on sunset
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Once cats orient themselves in the right direction, they still have to be able to find their way back, which could be miles away. Cats are keen observers, and they take in a lot of information about their surroundings. Later, that can be incredibly useful if they need to find their way home. Their strong memories, containing masses of information that they've observed, can help guide cats back when they get lost.

Evidence also suggests that cats may have the ability to visualize and create a mental map. Studies have been done on rats in mazes showing that they build a mental map of the maze in their heads, and the findings suggest that other mammals can do this as well. Animals can also use landmarks to orient themselves, much the way we humans do when we're walking or driving around.

Sensory Ability

A cat's sense of smell is nothing to sneeze at. Cats have 19 million scent-receptive nerve endings in their noses, which is almost four times that of humans. So they can follow their noses as a part of their journey. They also hear sounds that are a full two octaves higher in pitch than we are able to hear, so they may be able to orient themselves based on unique, ambient sounds that we can't even perceive. Cat's eyes are also extremely important. They have a 200-degree peripheral view, compared to our human 180-degrees. They also have eyes made for seeing at night, so they take in more information at night or in low light than we realize.

These senses, along with their other impressive instincts, mean that cats have strong abilities to find their way back home when they're lost. Maybe Homeward Bound had it right!

Cat in the street
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However, even with extraordinary abilities and incredible stories, most cats who get lost never make it home at all.

We don't hear about all the stories about a beloved cat that went missing and never came home, because that would be too sad. But we know just from the number of kitties in our local shelters that lots of cats get lost and can't find their way back. So even though your cat could find its way home, make sure to take proper precaution that it never has to. Because that's the best way to keep your whole family safe and happy.