Can Cats Find Their Way Home?

maine coon kitten on scratching post
Cats may make their way home thanks to some type of impressive internal compass.
credit: Nils Jacobi/iStock/GettyImages

You've probably read or heard a heartwarming story or two about a cat who's been lost for some unthinkable period of time, only to find her way back to her loving home, despite the odds. Whether you've been worried about your own cat getting lost in the world, or if you have an indoor/outdoor cat you haven't seen in a day or two, you may have questioned whether your feline friend could navigate her way back to your house if she somehow got turned around amid her adventures.

While there isn't much hard science able to prove the exact reason why some cats find their way back, there are a few theories that may explain how it happens. Be it because of their sense of smell or the earth's magnets, cats may make their way home thanks to some type of impressive internal compass.

How cats roam

Understanding how cats find their way back home starts with a glimpse of what it's like for a cat to roam outside, be that in an urban, suburban, or rural environment. Cats are well known for being territorial animals.

You may have already witnessed examples of territorial behavior from your cat without even realizing it — rubbing his chin or sides on your legs, for example, or the things around your home are ways of marking his territories with scent through pheromones. Cats also do this outside to mark their homes, streets, and general areas that they consider to be "theirs" as a way of sending a message that other cats should beware before entering.

Thanks to these invisible-to-the-human-eye boundaries established among felines, cats tend to stay within their own territories or familiar territories most of the time. Pet GPS company Cat Tracker reported that cats equipped with a tracking device revealed a wide range of territorial "home areas" by size, with some cats claiming up to three acres as home.

Most domesticated cats, however, roamed far shorter areas when left outside to explore freely and many of them ventured no further than a mile away from where they live. A cat who lives in a densely populated neighborhood shared with a number of other cats may explore only the end of his street, and some cats may even prefer to stay within the familiar confines of their own yard.

How cats come back

Most likely, cats who are offered the flexibility to explore indoors and outdoors will gain an understanding of the surrounding territories fairly quickly and usually won't roam too far away from home. But what happens if a cat gets out who has never set foot outdoors? Or what if you're on the road with your feline friend and she gets lost… will she be able to find her way back home? And if so, how?

Due to a lack of scientific research on the topic at this time, it's impossible to say for sure how some cats come back. Time has reported a couple of theories on the topic that may shine some light on possible explanations, one of which involves a cat's recognition of territorial boundaries.

Cats mark their territories in a number of ways, from rubbing their scent on surfaces like porches or planters to urinating. While felines are able to use their sense of smell to pick up clues that other cats may be nearby or that a certain area is off limits, they can also follow their noses to find their own familiar scent, which signifies that they're back within their own home territories.

While dogs will always get top billing when it comes to having a heightened sense of smell, cats also have impressive olfactory powers — the human nose has five million scent receptors whereas cats can have up to 80 million, according to VCA Hospitals. These sensory powers can certainly help a cat navigate the world around him, but Time goes on to suggest a more plausible reason why cats sometimes make it back home.

Like most mammals, a cat's ears contain iron, which could help them determine direction thanks to magnetic fields naturally found in the ground. Some animals, like deer, have demonstrated the ability to differentiate between north and south, which leads some to believe that it's not out of the realm of possibility that cats can as well.

What do they do?

If you have a cat that's been lost from home, whether it be for one night, one month, or even longer, you've probably found yourself worrying about their safety and wellbeing. It's not unusual to wonder what your cat is doing out there in the big, wide world, and Preventative Vet is here to ease your mind about what your cat may be up to while she's away. The site cited a University of Georgia study that monitored the behavior of cats who spent the night outside by tracking their movement and reviewing footage.

So, what did they find? Nearly half of the cats monitored hunted prey which ranged from small reptiles and rodents to spiders and bugs, with younger cats reported to be more successful hunters than their older counterparts. Additionally, about 25% were seen eating something, be it food from the trash or a free meal from a well-meaning neighbor.

So if you're worried that your cat is hungry, chances are, she's doing what she needs to do to survive. On to more alarming statistics, however. Nearly half of the cats monitored were seen crossing streets and nearly a quarter were witnessed exploring unfamiliar structures like storm drains or crawlspaces.

Helping your cat return

While there are certainly impressive tales about dogs who walked several miles to return to their owners and cats that showed up on their doorstep years after they were last seen, the unfortunate truth is that many animals just don't make their way back home. It's fairly safe to assume that most pet owners would wish for nothing more than the safe return of their beloved cat companion, which can be facilitated with proactive measures.

The Animal Humane Society recommends microchipping your cat and always dressing him in a collar with identification tags bearing updated contact information. Furthermore, and for the safety of your cat and any he may encounter, be sure to spay and neuter your feline friend, which will not only prevent unwanted pregnancies but may also curb his tendency to roam far.