Since there is so little information on cat homing behavior, I am currently conducting a survey and these are the preliminary results. If your cat has ever displayed homing behavior, please consider taking this very short survey. To take the survey, click here.
Some lost cats are able to find their way home using homing behavior. Homing is the inherent ability of an animal to navigate towards an original location through unfamiliar areas. Cat homing ability is poorly understood, 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).
Possible homing scenarios include:
- You move to a new home and your cat travels back to your previous home.
- You are traveling with your cat or visiting a strange location (e.g. the vet’s office or a friend’s home) and your cat escapes and travels back to your home.
- Your cat accidentally travels in a vehicle (e.g. gets into a contractor’s truck or a moving van) and gets out at a different location and then travels back home.
- Someone intentionally takes your cat and dumps it somewhere and it finds its way back home.
- You adopt a new cat and it travels back to its previous home.
Characteristics of cats that displayed homing behavior
Nearly all of the cats that displayed homing behavior were allowed outdoors (84% outdoor-access) or lived strictly outdoors (11% outdoor-only). Although I have heard of a few instances of indoor-only cats displaying homing behavior, this seems very rare. (Note: Escaped indoor-only cats will frequently return to their point of escape, which could possibly be a homing behavior, but the current survey only focused on cats that traveled from an unknown location to a known location.)
Age and Sex
Most (67%) cats were adults followed by 21% young adults. Without more data for comparison, this could indicate any of the following. There could be fewer kittens and/or senior cats in the cat-owned population or they are less likely to go missing away from home. It could also mean that kittens and/or senior cats have poorer homing ability or they have equal homing ability, but they may be less likely to successfully travel home.
Slightly more (62%) male cats displayed homing versus females (39%), and most cats (74%) were spayed or neutered.
Circumstances of Homing
Most (40%) of homing incidents took place when the owner moved to a new home and their cat traveled back to a previous home. This was followed closely by 37% of cats that were lost away from home and traveled back to their home. Only a small number of cats were lost due to accidental transport (12%) and intentional disposal (7% – i.e. when someone intentionally takes a cat and dumps it somewhere else). Most of these cats traveled back to their current homes though one accidental transport traveled back to a previous home. Recently adopted cats only accounted for 7% of homing incidents, and these cats traveled back to their previous owner’s homes.
Eighty-six percent (86%) of cats were reported either very familiar or familiar with the location that they homed back to. Thirty-three percent (33%) lived there more than 5 years and 40% lived there for 2-4 years. Only 14% of lost cats homed back to a location where they had lived for less than 1 year.
Time, Distance and Speed Traveled
The survey results found that most cats were missing one day to 90 days and traveled 0.2 miles up to 14 miles (0.3-22 km). Only three people reported long distance travel (40 miles over 6 months, 17 miles over 12 months and 52 miles over 30 months). These results were removed from most of the analyses because they skewed the results. Hopefully more people will submit survey results for long distance homing and these can be analyzed in more detail in the future.
The average distance traveled was 3.5 miles (5.6 km), and the average time missing was 12 days. Distance was either self-reported by the owner or it was measured as straight-line distance between start and end locations (if reported). Therefore, actual distance traveled by the missing cat is an unknown distance longer than the reported distance, and occasionally owner’s may over-estimate distance traveled possibly by using distance traveled by car. I found that owner’s reported distance tended to be 0.7 miles (1.2 km) farther than the straight-line distance that I measured.
The average speed of travel was 0.5 miles per day (0.8 km/day) with a range of 0.06 – 1.4 miles/day (0.1-2.3 km/day). This average may be a useful to estimate possible distance traveled by a missing cat that may be displaying homing behavior. However, this is not likely an accurate estimate of actual travel speeds of missing cats because we don’t know the actual distance traveled by the cat and the cat may not have been immediately found once it returned to the home area.
These speeds are considerably slower than those reported by Herrik (1922) in a study where they intentionally transported a cat between one to three miles from home to test her homing behavior (see article Homing Ability of Lost Cats). This cat traveled an average speed of 0.095 to 0.26 mph (0.15 to 0.4 km/hr) which converts to 2.28 to 6.24 miles/day (3.7 to 10 km/day). Two factors may account for these faster speeds. This cat had kittens near weaning age and may have been highly motivated to travel home quickly. Also, in all but one case, the cat was able to travel home in less than 12 hours and possibly in as few as four hours. Therefore, she may have been able to sustain a higher average rate of speed.
Possible risks encountered while traveling
As part of the survey, I asked people if their cat likely traveled through the following types of areas – Urban (city), Suburban, Rural (country), over a 2-lane highway, over a 4-lane highway, or across a stream or river. Thirty-four percent (34%) reportedly crossed a 2-lane highway while 12% crossed a 4-lane highway.
Forty-six percent (46%) reportedly crossed a stream or river. In 18 cases, I could view a map of potential travel routes, and most water crossings appeared to be streams or creeks. However, there were several potential crossings of rivers from 30 feet wide to over 300 feet wide (as measured on Google Maps). Most appeared to have bridges at some point.
How to use this information when searching for a lost cat
Unfortunately, there isn’t any research on how frequently cats display homing behavior. Precht and Lindenlaub (1954) found that at distances of 3.1 miles (5 km) or less, only 60% of cats appeared able to determine the direction of their home, but most cats were unable to do so at greater distances. The results of this survey found that the majority (66%) of homing excursions were 3.5 miles (5.6 km) or less. However, 25% of cases were between 3.8 – 14 miles (6-22 km) and 7% were 17 – 52 miles (27-83 km), so don’t rule out longer distances.
Based on the results of this survey, homing is more likely if your cat was allowed outdoors, if he went missing 3.5 miles or less from his current or previous home and had lived at that location for at least 2 years. Some cats do travel across 2-lane and 4-lane highways and streams/rivers so don’t rule out the possibility of homing due to these potential obstacles.
A few important notes – please read if your cat is missing
Please keep in mind that there are many reasons why an outdoor-access cat might go missing from a new home and many cats that get lost away from home do not attempt to travel back home. In fact, many of them do not travel far from their point of escape. Although cats are capable of traveling 0.5 miles/day or more from where they go missing, in most situations lost cats do not travel far (less than one mile is common), and they may circle around back towards the point of escape rather than traveling in a linear direction. If your cat goes missing and fits one of the possible homing scenarios above, then consider homing as a possibility, but make sure that you understand typical lost cat behavior and follow all the suggested search actions including large florescent lost cat posters in the neighborhood where s/he went missing and a physical search of all property for at least 3-5 houses in all directions from the point last seen.
If you are moving to a new home or traveling with your cat, consider purchasing a radio-tracking device or GPS collar for your cat. Learn more in this article. Be sure to check out the new Nuzzle GPS tracker, which is small enough for cats and does not have a monthly fee.
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 Cat. The 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).