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Can cats find their way home if they’re lost?

tabby cat walking in street

Cats have a unique sense of direction, but that doesn't mean they always find their way home!

© Gansstock - Shutterstock

Both indoor and outdoor cats can venture too far from home and lose their way. If they do, don’t only count on their sense of direction. Here’s what you’ll need to do!

By Justine Seraphin

Updated on the

Cats are inquisitive and adventurous creatures, so it’s no surprise that they like to spend time outdoors. However, the outdoors can be a dangerous place for them - especially if they’re in a busy area, or in an area they don’t know well.

While it’s true that some cats have incredibly found their way home after traveling for miles and miles, not every lost cat succeeds. If you think your cat might be lost, here’s what you’ll need to know.

Why do cats run away?

Your cat may have run away for a variety of reasons. Here are a few factors to consider:

  • They’re going after a mate (if they’re not spayed or neutered)
  • They’re hunting
  • They’re defending their territory from other cats
  • They’re sick or injured
  • They’re stressed about something going on in the household (e.g. major house repairs, new pet, move, etc).

Can a cat come back home?

A study in 1922 showed that cat mums can find their way back to their kittens within a 1-4 mile radius. Another study performed in 1954 showed that cats easily found their way out of large mazes, and that 60% of the time, they used the exit that faced their way home. 

In addition, there have been multiple stories of cats traveling for miles before finding their way back home - one cat traveled a whopping 80 miles over 2.5 years!

So yes, cats can, and do, in many cases, come back home!

Can indoor cats find their way home?

Yes, indoor cats can find their way home too, even if they’ve never been out before. But much like humans, some cats have a better sense of direction than others. And indoor cats won’t fare as well outside as cats who are used to the outdoors. They might be less wary of dangers such as cars or strange dogs, for example.

How do lost cats find their way home?

We have proof that cats can find their way home more easily than other animals - but how do they do this?

In the 1954 study, when a magnet was attached to their collars, the cats exiting the maze were less likely to do so in the direction of their home. This supports the theory that cats have a unique sensitivity to the geomagnetic field of the earth. Known as a homing instinct, this sensitivity acts like an inner compass, and is similar to the one found in carrier pigeons!

Additionally, with 19 million scent receptors, cats have a very strong sense of smell. So they’re able to detect and follow the scent of you, your home, and their food from quite a distance.

Finally, cats are extremely territorial animals. If they can, they will always try to return to the place they consider to be their territory. This is the place where they eat, sleep, and deposit their pheromones!

How to find my lost cat

Unfortunately, you can’t only count on your cat’s inner compass for them to find their way back home. In fact, a 2017 study showed that when lost, 2/3rds of cats didn’t come back home. So if your indoor cat has accidentally slipped out, or your outdoor cat has been out for too long, here’s what you need to do:

1. Alert your neighbours

In the majority of cases, cats don’t wander further than a 150-metre radius from their home. So chances are your cat isn’t very far. Alert the people in the neighbourhood so they know to keep an eye open.

2. Go out at night

Cats are more active at night. Plus, if they’re scared, they’ll prefer the quietest time of day, so this is when you’ll be more successful at getting them to come to you when called. Use a flashlight to try and spot them in the dark, but remember to be very calm - your cat is frightened enough already and you don't want to scare them further away!

3. Check hiding spots

Cats who are scared, sick, or injured are probably hiding. Cats can stay hidden for several days before they step out to eat or drink, so it’s up to you to go looking for them. Check sheds, garages, and nooks and crannies cats are likely to want to sneak into for safety or protection from the cold and/or rain.

4. Check your previous house

As mentioned above, cats are extremely territorial. In many cases, they’ll try to go back to their old home, or territory. This is one of the best places to check, especially if you moved recently.

5. Use sounds and smells to attract them home

Step outside and shake or tap your cat’s bowl of food as you would before a meal - no sound will get a cat coming quicker than that!

You can also use smells to your advantage. Place some of your clothing, the litter box, and a food bowl (or better yet, some scraps of YOUR food) outside the house. Hopefully, your kitty will pick up on these smells and won’t be able to resist.

6. Advertise 

Make “missing pet” flyers and place them in as many places as you can: The vet clinic, the pet store, your local grocery store, even a school! In addition, take to social media. Post regularly about your missing pet and encourage your loved ones to share as much as possible.

7. Call rescue centres

Your cat may have already been picked up by a rescue. Call all your local rescues to alert them of your missing pet, and call the police too, while you’re at it. If this was a theft, they’ll need to know about it.

I lost my cat: How can I avoid it happening again?

There are many ways to prevent cats from running away. Spaying or neutering them will curb their desires to follow mates. Keeping them strictly indoors a minimum of three weeks after moving (or when you travel), may prevent them from wanting to go back to their old home. Making sure they live in a safe and comfortable environment, away from any stress, will ensure that they don’t go looking for a better place to live.

But of course, the best thing you can do is to microchip your cat! Cats will be cats so preventive methods are the best ones! Not only is microchipping now a legal requirement, but it’s also the best way for you to be reunited with your pet if someone finds them and brings them to a vet or rescue. 

Frequently asked questions

Do cats need to go outside?

How far can a cat find way home?

What percentage of cats find their way home?

Did your pet ever go missing? How did you find them?
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