Homing Ability of Lost Cats

Note: This article focuses on a few very old research papers on cat homing behavior.  For more recent research, check out my Cat Homing Behavior Survey Results.  This new research includes information on how to determine whether your lost cat is likely to display homing behavior.  

Test
Photo by Greg Saulmon/Courtesy of Masslive.com

One of the most fascinating, but perhaps least understood behaviors of the domestic cat is their ability to find their way home from an unknown location.  This behavior is known as “homing” and is well documented in pigeons and some other animals.  Anecdotally, I have heard numerous stories of homing in lost cats.  However, I was only able to locate two research papers on cat homing ability, and they were both quite old (Herrick 1922 and Precht and Lindenlaub 1954).

Herrick (1922) tested the homing powers of a single cat by transporting her to seven different locations between one and three miles from her home.  He ensured that she was highly motivated to return home because she had a litter of kittens close to weaning age.  At each location, the cat was transported by car in a gunny sack and then placed under a wooden box.  The researchers opened the box remotely and then observed the cat’s behavior until she was out of sight.  Then they waited for her to return home to her kittens.  In a final (8th) trial they took her 16.5 miles away, and she did not return home.

While the ethics of such a study are highly suspect, the results were quite interesting.  In all seven trials, the cat returned home within 4 to 78 hours of being released.  This calculates as an average traveling speed of 0.09 mph to 0.26 mph (0.14-0.42 km/h).  There is a minimum and maximum time because in most cases the researchers only checked for the cat’s return every few hours.  Herrick (1992) assumed that the cat was likely to only travel at night and estimated a traveling speed of 0.11 mph (0.18 km/h).  Prior to the start of this study, Herrick (1992) measured the homing of another cat, which traveled 4.6 miles in 38 hours.  This gives an average traveling speed of 0.12 mph or 0.25 mph if only traveling at night (0.19-0.40 km/h).

Cat Homing Table

Not only was the cat able to find her way home in each instance, but she appeared to know the correct direction to travel as soon as she was released from the box.  In four of the trials, the cat started heading directly towards home as soon as she was released from the box, but she was then disturbed by people and hid in a fence-row or woods and was lost from sight.  In one trial, she escaped prematurely and disappeared, and in another she started in the wrong direction but corrected and disappeared from sight traveling directly towards home.  Only in trial #7 where she was anesthetized for the trip out, did the cat head off in the wrong direction.

Precht and Lindenlaub (1954)* tested the ability of cats to correctly orient towards home at various distances.  The cats were carried in sacks and placed in the center of a maze which led to six equally spaced exits.  The majority of cats did not wander around the maze, but instead quickly chose an exit (though they were not actually allowed to leave the safety of the maze).  They found that the cats’ homing sense was only fair and directly related to their distance from home.  At distances of 3.1 miles (5 km) from home, 60% of the cats chose the exit that faced the direction of their home, and at greater distances, they did not appear to know the direction of their home.

Homing ability is poorly understood (even in pigeons), but it may be due to an “unusual sensitivity to the geo-magnetic field of the earth which enables [the cat] to keep a compass fix on their home region regardless of distance and direction traveled” (Beadle 1977).  Perhaps not all cats have the same level of sensitivity, and other factors may affect a cat’s homing ability.  Precht and Lindenlaub (1954) found that cats that were returned home between maze tests were more successful at orienting home then those kept in the lab between tests, and young cats there were raised in the lab had no homing sense at all.  Herrick (1922) suggests that all cats probably possess a homing ability to some degree, but that many lost cats do not return home due to diversions or accidents that inhibit or prevent their homing behavior.  He concludes that the use of homing ability is determined by the experience and the physiological state of the cat at that time.

Based on stories in the news, some cats clearly have a powerful homing instinct and the determination to travel home over long distances.  However, this is likely only a minority of lost cats.  For examples of some of these amazing homing feats, see Lost Cats Found.

Since there is so little information available on the homing behavior of cats, I created a survey to collect data on cases of homing in lost cats.  If you have ever had a cat travel home from an unknown location (even a few miles), please consider taking this very short survey.  For more information, see the Cat Homing Behavior Survey or click here to take the survey.   This survey is ongoing, but I wrote an article on the preliminary results.

Check out the results of the Cat Homing Survey here!

Literature Cited

Beadle, M.  1977.  Chapter 14: The Little Differences in The Cat: History, Biology, and Behavior.  New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.  Reviews the available scientific research on cat homing behavior as well as psi-trailing.

Herrick, F.H.  1922.  Homing Powers of the CatThe Scientific Monthly 14(6): 525-539.

Precht, H., and E. Lindenlaub.  1954.  Uber das Heimfindevermogen von Saugetieren. I. Versuche an Katzen.  Z. Tierpsychologie 11: 485.

*I was unable to find an English translation of Precht and Lindenlaub (1954), so I had to rely on the summary of the study written in Beadle (1977).

There is even a macabre campfire song written about a cat that kept returning home despite his owner’s attempts to get rid of her.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw2PgypoAaE

24 thoughts on “Homing Ability of Lost Cats”

  1. Pingback: The Homing Ability of Lost Cats | Lost Cats Found

  2. I am still pursuing additional research articles on cat homing ability. If anyone knows anything about the original sources of the research mentioned in the following articles, I would be very interested.

    http://www.impactlab.net/2005/12/24/scientists-find-tiny-magnetic-particles-on-cats-wrists/

    From: http://sonic.net/~pauline/psych.html
    “In the US test they sedated a bunch of cats (so that the cats could not consciously remember the route by sight, sound, smell, touch or taste), drove them on a very circuitous route to a big maze and then released the awakened cats, one by one. The maze had openings in 15 degree increments. The cats were left to wander at their leisure and exit if they wanted. More often than not, the cat exited the maze at the closest point towards their home. Older cats performed better than younger. Homing ability dropped off with distances greater than 7.5 miles from home.

    One theory to explain this ability is that cats have sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field (perhaps because as they age more metal is deposited in their brain). When cats had magnets attached, the homing ability was disrupted.”

    1. I live in A city with a backyard and a big field behind it and my 2 cats got outside once and I just left the window open waiting for them and when I woke up they were both inside. So I let them roam at night now and they seem a lot happier.

  3. I have a friend who is seperated from his partner and 2 children, by 1/2 mile in a rural area, but visits them each evening. He has a cat which he takes with him in a rucksack, and allows it to roam around his family house. He has taken to allowing the cat outside his familys house, and on 2 occasions, the cat has gone missing for 36 hours. He does not allow the cat to roam outside his own flat. I have tried to explain to him that he could be confusing the cats navigational skills. Does anyone have any experience of these unusual circumstances.

  4. Can you help?

    We moved last year about 60 miles away. Out 8 yr old female cat womble was kept in for 6 weeks and gradually introduced her to the new outside world. She was fine for a couple of weeks and then disappeared. A few weeks later we received a call to say she was in a village 3 miles away from us. This behaviour has continued ever since. However she now only runs away if she gets out at night. She will happily come in and go out all day but is desperate to go out at night and then turns up the next day in this little village. Can anyone help us?

  5. Hi, we have just had our cat put to sleep yesterday, we have had many cats over the years but this cat was so special to us.Our story goes like this, Eddy as he was called became unwell very quickly so my wife took him to the vet and a diagnosis of luckeamia was given and the vet said there was not much she could do for him, he was 11 yrs old, so we looked after him best we could,and then he went off his food and stopped drinking, he would just sit on the chair quietly, then out of the blue he vanished, this was my wife’s worst fear of losing him and going off to die as some cats do, that night we were both frantic,the next morning I searched everywhere and nothing, Eddy was very weak by this stage,we were supprised he got off the chair.
    This is where the story gets interesting, we moved house 7 months previous about 2 miles away and kept Eddy in the new house for about ten days and then let him out, he seemed very happy, catching mice in the hedgerows and bringing them home, he was a real outside cat, he would come in and make a loud deep cry and we knew he had another mouse for us, so as I said Eddy vanished and we were really upset working he was going to die in pain and alone, the next day my daughter phoned and said Eddy was on her car bonnet, no can’t be he was far too ill and how could he find his way home, so we rushed over and sure enough it was Eddy sat in the green house, we could not believe it possible, he went home to die, we were both in tears, he was so weak, it was a Saturday afternoon so we phoned the vet on call and met her at the centre, she gave him an examination and confirmed he had deteriorated further from the previous week and was best if we put him to sleep.We day with him as he slipped away, both in tears.He was switch a special cat to us, you can’t believe how you can get so attached to a cat, so we came home and buried him in the garden, at Pease, we so miss him.

    1. Your story about Eddy brought tears to my eyes as we have had msny cats over the years and ad to watch them get old and die. It is so difficult. We need to remember all the happiness we have put in their lives.

  6. i am a cat person , but cats look at the wheels of a car moving , but dogs look at the windows to see the persons inside ..is this a sign of more intelligence , …also when i was a kid my mom dumped our cat miles away from our home , but after 2 months it returned to our home , sort of shy and head down …i don’t think dogs do that

  7. Lost kitty july 17 2018. Returned july 31 2018.. he is a four yr old neutered male. Out theorey is he was hiding under our pickup truck because of thunder and lightening and my husband had to go to town about 5 or 6 miles away.. After much worry and many prayers he was on our porch one night ( which i always checked before going to bed. ).

  8. We moved to our new home in May, it’s about 3 miles from our old home, and we didn’t want to leave our only stubborn Tom cat behind, but it took us 2 weeks of returning everyday to feed him and lure him in the car to bring him to our new home. He was very scared and wouldn’t let us let him for about a week. He is very attached to our 4 year old granddaughter so he would only come to her. After being here at the new place for about 2 weeks he just disappeared.He has been gone now for about 3 weeks. Yesterday we went to our old place to to clean up around the yard, and guess who came running up to us!! Our cat had gone back home! I could not believe it. He was so thin, and it broke my heart, but he just loves it there. He had to travel at least 3 Miles and cross a major highway, then travel down another road to get back home. How in the world did he do that??? And, if we bring him back , will he just do it again??

    1. I’m so glad you found your cat. Please consider completing the survey (it only takes about 2-3 minutes to complete). It certainly is possible that he might do it again, BUT I had very few people report cats making repeated trips back to an old home. It appears that if they really want to be at the old home, that they leave within a few days from the new home. Since he stayed for two weeks before leaving, this might mean that he strayed too far one day and became lost and then had a better orientation back to his old home since he had lived there longer. I would try moving him again unless you can get someone else to take care of him where he is now. If you do try again, you might consider getting him some sort of tracking device so you can find him sooner if he disappears. You can learn more here: https://lostpetresearch.com/2011/01/gps-versus-radio-tracking-pros-and-cons-for-finding-cats/

  9. My cat story is a bit different. We had a much loved white, deaf cat who we tried to keep indoors. On two occasions, when we went away on holiday, our upstairs landlady looked after her. On both occasions, the cat left home within a day, travelled four or five miles across the city, crossing a busy highway, to a house in a subdivision. Because of her cat tag, the subdivision woman called the phone number and our landlady rushed over to bring her back as she was sick with worry. The cat did this twice before we left that particular city. We checked with the subdivision lady and she said she had never ever had cats and had lived there for over ten years. So it wasn’t possible for our cat to be going back to her original home. We never could understand this weird compulsion to return to this particular place. The cat never did this when we were home. Only when we left on holiday.

    1. Thanks for sharing. That is strange! One survey participant noted a similar behavior in their cat. He kept leaving and traveling to another neighborhood several miles away and they couldn’t figure out why.

  10. hi sir/ma’am,
    since my childhood i saw that mostly cats return back to home, we had 8 to 10 kitties at home and my mother was fed up with their naughtiness, she dropped them in the meat market but after a few hours or sometimes a month or two they were at home until my father took them to 200 miles. today i had to go to watch my kitty about 1.5 or 1 mile to look for my kitty but we were unable to find her. now after reading your blog + my own strong past experience i think she will be back to home insha Allah.

  11. My cat is lost but it is because we just moved. So I now have a little bit of hope that maybe he’ll go back to the old house where he remembers. Thank you as I’m SO SAD and was wondering if he had anything going for him

    1. I’m sorry to hear that your cat is missing. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for a cat to go missing after a recent move. Some of them will head back toward their old home. You can learn more about how likely this is with your cat by looking at this article: https://lostpetresearch.com/2016/12/cat-homing-behavior-survey-results/. I would also recommend downloading a FREE lost cat search checklist (https://lostpetresearch.com/store/) to make sure that you are doing all the right things to find your cat since most cats are found by other methods.

  12. this gives me hope that our cat who escaped from the vet 2 weeks ago can still find her way back home. Praying she does not get killed or hurt.

  13. Idk what happened but I guess someone in jealousy had taken away my cat and left him somewhere maybe in radius of 3-4 miles… is there any chance of him coming back?

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  15. Pingback: How Do Cats Remember Where They Live? - Cattitude Daily

  16. Pingback: Can Cats Find Their Way Home if They’re Lost? | Huan

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