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Can Cats Find Their Way Home? Feline Orientation Explained

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

Mekong Bobtails

Our cat getting lost when they’re out adventuring is one of the biggest concerns for us cat owners. In many cases, though, cats can find their way home from miles away. This ability to navigate home is why many people advise you to check for missing cats at your old house if you move.

That said, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about how cats find their way home. All the stories about long-lost kitties showing up one day have led to many studies and speculation.

While it’s not infallible, their homing instinct is one of the many things that makes cats underrated superstars of the pet world. To prove it, here’s everything that you need to know about their ability to find their way home.

How Do Cats Find Their Way Home?

There’s no way to ask our cats how they find their way home after getting lost. This is where the speculation comes in. Nobody really knows how they do it, only that they can and some cats are better at it than others.

Some scientists believe that they use magnetic geolocation. This is a process that uses the earth’s natural magnetic fields to enable cats to find their way back to a certain point. A study in the 1950s with a maze found that cats chose the exit closest to their home. They had more difficulty navigating when they were carrying magnets, which lends some support to the theory.

Sometimes, our cats aren’t lost in the first place. They might just have gotten distracted somewhere chasing mice. Remember, they don’t have the same idea of time that we do.

There are a few ways that you can make it easier for your cat to find their way home again, though:

  • Microchip your cat (you’ll have to do this before they leave the house).
  • Tell local shelters to keep an eye out for new arrivals.
  • Check around your former home (if you’ve recently moved).
  • Shake a box of dry food.
  • Leave their favorite toy, brush, or blanket on the porch.
vet scanning for cat microchip
Image Credit: Evgeniy Kalinovskiy, Shutterstock

What Distance Can a Cat Find Their Way Home From?

With all the dangers facing our cats in the outside world, it’s almost impossible to test how far their homing instinct stretches. Not only would leaving a cat alone in the middle of nowhere be a little cruel, but they also face many threats. Cars, dogs, and even people are only a few things that our cats can face that might make them even more lost and afraid.

One of the few studies that have been attempted was run by Professor Frances Herrick in 1922. He found that a mother cat would return to her kittens even if she was up to 4 miles away.

More recently, though, there was a story about a cat in Florida in 2013. She was lost during a family outing 200 miles away from home. Two months later, she found her way back to her family.

Ultimately, it depends on the cat. Some felines have more street-sense and stronger instincts when it comes to finding their way home.

How Far Do Cats Wander?

Most cats don’t wander far enough from their home to risk getting lost. They’ll stay in areas that they’re familiar with, and even if they’re out all night, they’re probably not too far away.

There are a few reasons that your cat might wander off:

  • A Quiet Space: While they can be social, cats also enjoy having time to themselves. If you’ve introduced a new pet or are in the middle of renovations, your cat might need a place to destress. The same goes for if they’re sick, injured, or scared when they’re out and about. If something makes them feel insecure or threatened, your cat will go to ground until the danger passes. It’s their way of keeping themselves safe until they get home.
  • Distraction: Despite the uninterested demeanor that they exude, cats can be easily distracted. If they’ve gotten caught up chasing down a rodent or found an interesting scent, they might have wandered farther than they intended.
  • Food: There are many cat-lovers out there who feed stray and feral cats in their neighborhood. If your well-meaning neighbors have left food out, your cat might be taking advantage of the free meal.
  • Hunting: Cats are superb hunters and will happily spend hours lurking by a mouse nest to catch one of them. While their patience is admirable, their tendency to stay out so late never fails to worry us.
  • Searching for a Mate: Much of the wandering that intact cats do is either territory-related or in search of a mate. Female cats mark areas with their pheromones when they’re in heat, alerting nearby males of their presence. Your intact male cat will wander off in search of her.
  • Territory Disputes: Cats fight, which is one of the reasons that many people keep their felines indoors. Territory is a big deal among the feline community. Your friendly kitty might love ear scratches from you, but they’ll show their claws if another cat encroaches on their turf. If they’re chasing off a threat to their home, they might get lost in the process.
tabby cat sleeping outside
Image Credit: Ben Kerckx, Pixabay

Do Cats Always Find Their Way Home?

A cat finding their way home again is an impressive feat considering that they can’t read maps. Cats also have an innate ability to end up back at their previous home if you move. This tendency to gravitate to the place that they know is why you should keep them inside for a few days or weeks until they adjust to their new location.

Sadly, their homing ability isn’t infallible. Many things can interrupt their quest to return home. Interference from humans who dislike cats, loose dogs, and busy streets are all threats to your cat’s safety. There’s animal control to consider too.

Another issue is the possibility of injury or sickness. While your cat might come home after wandering a few miles, the farther away they are, the more challenges they face.

There’s no way of telling how long it will take for your cat to find their way home. Some only take a few months to travel hundreds of miles. Others can take years.

Can Indoor Cats Find Their Way Home?

Although they don’t use them as often, indoor cats have the same instincts as their outdoor-dwelling counterparts. When it comes to them getting lost, they have the same homing ability as any other feline. The issue with many indoor cats is they’re not as familiar with surviving outside as feral or outdoor cats are.

Some cats are simply better at navigating than others. While one determined kitty might find their way home over miles and several years, another might not.

When it comes to whether your indoor cat can find their way home again, it’s difficult to answer. They might surprise you, but there’s an equal chance that they don’t have the experience required to do so.

cat walking in the field exposed in sunlight
Image Credit: Jarand K. Løkeland, Unsplash

Final Thoughts

Cats aren’t just adorable pets to keep around the house; they’re also talented hunters with a few awesome quirks. One of their many interesting skills is their ability to find their way home over several miles. There are many stories of cats coming home even after getting lost 200 miles away.

While these stories can warm our hearts, this uncanny homing ability isn’t infallible. The farther your cat is away from home, the more likely it is that they won’t find their way back.

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Featured Image Credit: fotoliza, Shutterstock

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