Your Cat’s Great Navigational Skills Explained

how do cats find their way home

The worst nightmare of probably any cat-parent is your cat getting lost. Once our cat is gone for a couple of hours, many of us start to wonder if everything’s okay and our cat will still be able to navigate its way back home.

Over the years, many amazing stories made their way on TV shows and the internet about lost cats finding their way back home from halfway across the country after many months or even years.

How do cats do this? How do they find their way home?

Cats are good at navigators and can, in most cases, find their way back home when they got lost with the help of their exceptional navigation skills. They do this by using their keen sense of smell, strong spatial awareness, unparalleled vision, and recognition of landmarks.

Want to know how to track your cat when they’re away? See our article about cat GPS trackers.

Do all cats find their way home?

We’ve all seen the incredible stories of lost cats rejoined with their owners after many months or even years after they walked back home over unimaginable distances.

These anecdotal stories really speak to our imagination and help to fuel the illusion that our furry friends can always find their way home, no matter how far away.

Of course, this is not true, and although cats are great navigators and can often find their way home after getting lost, assuming that this is always the case could create a dangerous situation for cats.

Because these amazing stories are so prevalent, they lead to something called confirmation bias. We all hear about fluffy walking home across four states through rain and shine and finds the way home back into her owner’s arms.

However, that doesn’t account for the many, many cats that get lost every year and never find their way back home.

A 2017 study shows that about two-thirds of missing cats are never found by their owners. Based on this, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of lost cats do not find their way back home, despite their superior homing abilities.

Unproven theories about cat navigational abilities

Because of their strong sense of direction, cats can find their way home over seemingly vast distances; there are many theories about how this can be possible.

Let us stress that although there could be some truth in those assumptions, very little actual scientific research has been done to prove those theories. There are some studies, but there is no conclusive evidence to date that explains the supposedly supernatural feline homing abilities.

Some of those theories are as follows.

A cat has an internal compass

This theory does actually have some merit because it has been scientifically proven that many animals can sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it to navigate.

In doing so, they can find their bearings, just like a compass points to the north because of the geo-magnetic field. This greatly improves their sense of direction.

We know that animals like salmon, deer, tortoises, pigeons, penguins and even whales navigate like this. Without going into the details about how this works, these animals can sense the earth’s magnetic field with the help of iron in their system, which reacts to the magnetic field.

Cats also have relatively high iron concentrations in their ears, which leads scientists to believe that cats can also use an internal compass. However, to date, this has not been conclusively proven.

Cats navigate by the stars and the sun

Another extraordinary theory is that cats could find their bearings by just gazing up into the night sky. Supposedly, they would be able to tell which way by looking at the milky way’s orientation.

While this really sounds like some sorcery, this is actually how the Scarab Beetle finds its way by using the stars as a sort of ‘cosmic compass’.

While this sounds amazing, we think it’s unlikely that our feline friends navigate like this. It has never been scientifically proven. If anything, animals, in general, could conceivably find their way by looking at the sun’s position, but no study has shown that the sun plays a big part in how cats find their way back home.

Cats use quantum navigation

The quantum navigation theory has been posed and may be the most outlandish theory out there. It sounds like this could be a feature of the Starship Enterprise rather than a cat’s navigational abilities.

This is not the place nor the time to give you a lesson on quantum theory, and we won’t. This theory is based on Bell’s Theorem. In its most basic form, this is about how two particles on a molecular level are connected, know each other’s ‘state’, and influence each other’s behavior.

It has been argued that cats can somehow sense this, and they would then be able to find particles connected to the ones in their home territory. As such, they could basically follow these particles as if they were bread crumbs, showing them the way home.

How cats -actually- find their way back home?

As incredible as the abovementioned theories may be, there are several ways that we know cats can navigate. Actually, they are pretty good at it, and these more down-to-earth skills are more likely to improve a cat’s sense of direction and help them find their way home.

Cats smell their way home

While dogs often get the crown when it comes to having the most excellent sense of smell in the animal kingdom, it’s a well-known fact that cats also have an acute sense of smell.

Cats have more than 200 million scent receptors in their noses; humans have just 5 million. As a result, a cat can smell about 14 times better than a human. They use this ability (among other things) to recognize each other’s territory and to find food sources.

Cats mark their territories in several ways. They do this by rubbing their pheromone glands against objects or by urinating in strategic locations. With their keen sense of smell, they can pick up cues that other cats may be nearby or that they are close to familiar territory.

Using their sense of smell, cats can recognize even the faintest smells, and it will follow its nose until it leads them home.

A cat’s great sense of smell certainly plays a vital role in ‘sniffing’ its way home.

Intelligence helps cats to find their way

Although it might not seem that way sometimes, cats are actually very intelligent. Their intelligence will not only help them find a way home when they’re lost by narrowing down their options and choosing the most logical route, but it will also help them survive if they need to fend for themselves for a while.

Cats who are lost and don’t have their owner take care of them usually know how to care for themselves. They know how to feed themselves and catch small prey like lizards, birds, and insects.

Cats have an excellent spatial awareness that helps them to navigate

Have you ever observed how cats find their way through an obstacle course? They identify the most optimal and fastest route by swirling back and forth. Even more impressive is that they will memorize this and take the exact same path the next time.

Another proof of a cat’s spatial awareness comes from watching them prepare for a jump. They can calculate exactly how powerful a jump should be in precisely what direction to land on the narrowest ledges.

There is no doubt that this ability is indispensable in recognizing possible routes and ways to get to where they need to be.

Ask anyone on the street how to get somewhere, and they will undoubtedly tell you something like: “turn left at city hall, go straight along that road with those large trees and turn right by the church.” Cats navigate in the same way.

Although they don’t know the difference between a school and city hall, they do recognize specific landmarks like large buildings, towers, and natural landmarks like trees, rivers, and hills.

These help them find their way, and this, combined with their excellent sense of smell, will help put the pieces of the puzzle together and create a sort of scent trail map in their mind.

There must be a ‘secret sauce’

While it is certain that the things mentioned above help cats navigate their way home, there seems to be more to it than that.

Maybe we simply cannot believe that a tiny animal like a house cat can cover vast distances of unknown terrain, conquering many perils and find its way home safely.

It’s just such a far cry from the seemingly defenseless and cute hairball that takes a nap in our laps.

The truth is that cats, like any animal, are much closer to nature than we humans. As such, cats are much better at reading signs in nature, picking up trails and familiar scents.

Many centuries ago, when humans were much closer to nature, we would probably be much better at finding our way. Our modern technology has made us utterly helpless without our phones, google maps, and clear signage.

If you’d like to read more about how cat homing sense works, have a look at Lost Pet Research. They have several interesting articles about how cats find their way. They also researched and tried to find patterns across cat populations and the circumstances in which cats are more likely to find their way home.

What to do when your cat is lost

Haven’t seen your cat for a while and worried she might be lost? Here are some things that should help you reunite with your fluffy as soon as possible.

Don’t panic (too soon)

Remember that not all missing cats want to be found. If your cat has been gone for a few hours, and even while that might be longer than usual, they might just be out having a good time.

Even at home, how many times were you looking for your cat everywhere, only to find them hidden somewhere, just looking at you searching for them without making a sound to let you know where she was.

Often when you can’t find your cat, chances are that they are very close to home, hiding under a bush or on top of a shed. House cats usually don’t stray far from home since, usually, their territory is relatively small. Nine out of ten times, we see cats suddenly appear, seemingly out of nowhere when they get hungry or want to sleep in front of the fireplace.

If your cat is really lost, the best advice we can give is to Do Not Panic! Panic will not help anyone find your beloved kitty. Cool heads will prevail. Just follow the other steps below.

Don’t waste time

Get into action as soon as possible. Like with missing persons, the first day is the most valuable. It could be that your cat cannot get home because it got injured somehow. Finding it quickly avoids its situation getting worse.

Look in the usual places

A regular house cat’s territory is not that large, and cats usually do not stray far from their territory. There is a good chance that she will stay close to the places she knows.

Look in bushes, under bridges, in alleys, gardens, and anywhere your cat can conceivably hide. While looking, be sure to call your cat’s name repeatedly. Cats respond well to their own names, especially when recognizing their owner’s voice. Bring some treats to lure it out of its hiding place.

Cats respond well to their own names, especially when recognizing their owner’s voice. Bring some treats to lure it out of its hiding place.

Contact the microchip database

If your cat is microchipped, check with a vet to see if she’s been found. Vets have access to the microchip database and can check for updates on your cat’s registration.

If someone found your cat and brought it to a vet or shelter, chances are they have checked for the microchip.

If no one found her, you can update the registration to indicate that your cat is lost. Whenever she’s found and the chip is read, you’ll have your kitty back in no time at all.

Put up posters in your area and ask people to keep an eye out

We’ve all seen the lost cat or lost dog posters in our neighborhoods at some point. Apparently, this still works, and there are plenty of cat-lovers out there who care and want your baby back home with you.

Make sure to spread the word by putting up those posters and ask people to keep an eye out for your kitty.

Contact local vets, shelters, cat charities, and rescue centers.

Get in touch with vets, shelters, and cat rescue centers. They can help you keep an eye out for your cat, but they are also the ones that are usually the first at the scene if your cat has been in an accident.

They might also be able to give you moral support and advice.

How to prevent your cat from getting lost

It is better to prevent than to cure, and there is a lot you can do to prevent your cat from getting lost and not finding its way back home.

Keep your cat indoors

catio can keep your cat safe outside

This is sometimes easier said than done. I have owned several cats that just had to go outside. Their instincts are often stronger than your will to keep them inside. If your cat really wants to go out, it will wait patiently for that one chance to escape.

A good solution might be to build a ‘catio’ if you have an outside space. This is an enclosure that’s specially constructed to allow your cat to go outside without venturing too far.

We have found that Amazon has quite a few good options for a catio, whether it’s a permanent or temporary setup.

Use a cat GPS tracker

GPS Trackers for pets are handy in locating your cat at any time. They usually come with a phone app to monitor their location whenever you need to know where they’re at.

This is a great tool, and even if your cat does get lost, you can help them find their way home. Your neighborhood pet store may have this, but they are conveniently available on Amazon, which has by far the most extensive selection.

We published a great article about everything you should know before getting a cat tracker.

Neuter your cat

Neutering your cat is a very effective way to keep them closer to home. By neutering, you reduce your cat’s sex drive and, therefore, the drive to venture out and find a partner.

Especially in male cats, who usually have a larger territory than females, neutering always has the side-effect of keeping them closer to home.

Microchip your cat

This is not really a preventive measure, but I would say a necessary precaution for any pet.

When microchipped, anyone with a specialized reader like a vet, animal shelters, or other cat charity can read the identification code embedded in the microchip. This code is linked to your address to bring your lost cat back to you when found.

Provide a loving home

Maybe one of the most important prevention measures on this list is providing a loving home where your cat feels wanted and well-cared for.

A common reason cats decide to leave is not that they are lost but because they don’t have a good home.

Cats are low maintenance, but they do need some basic necessities such as good and healthy food at regular times, the ability to exercise, a safe and warm place to sleep, healthcare, and -most important of all-, lots of love and attention from their owners.

From what distance can a cat find its way home?

There is no specific distance over which cats can find their way back home. As long as there is a trail for a cat to follow, they are likely to get back home. Scent markers, landmarks, or even sounds can help your cat find its way home.

What can prevent my cat from finding its way home?

Even if your cat can find a trail to follow back home, there might be several threats on their way that could prevent them from getting home. For example, your cat might be injured, someone might have taken her home assuming it was lost, or cold weather or rain can slow her down.

How far can a cat travel in a day?

A cat’s regular walking speed is 2-3 mph, but they can reach up to 30 mph for short periods when running. A cat can cover between 5 and 10 miles per day. However, this does not mean they usually travel that far from home. Instead, they meander within their territory.

Will my cat come back home?

Cats are animals that like to settle and stay in their territory. Especially house cats don’t usually stray far from home. Provided your cat has a good and safe home, she will usually come home unless something prevents her from getting there.

Can a cat smell their owners?

Cats have an excellent sense of smell which is 14 times stronger than a human. They can recognize your specific scent easily. Cats also mark their owners with their pheromone glands located on their heads and paws. By doing this, they mark you as their “possession” and tells other cats to stay away.


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At Cat & Friends we are passionate about everything feline. We are a team of cat parents and writers who love to write about everything related to cats. Our goal is to provide the most helpful and accurate information about our little furry friends through extensive research and experience.

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