Cats often form an incredibly close attachment to their territory – so much so that if their owner moves to a new home, many of them display astonishing skill in returning to their old home. This is particularly likely when the two homes are a short distance apart, but there are countless stories about cats that have travelled many miles in order to return to their former home. This impressive feline homing ability has been put down to instinct.
For a cat with an efficient homing instinct, finding its way home couldn’t be simpler if it had the address and a map written down (and it could read them!). Fences and walls present no problems!
Q. We are moving house soon and I’m worried about my cat trying to find his way home. Is there anything I can do to discourage this?
Your best plan is to confine your cat to its new home for two weeks, during which time it should form an attachment to it. Then, when the time comes to let it out for the first time, do this just before feeding time, which should ensure a rapid return. Gradually extend the time between being let out and being fed.
As early as one week old, a kitten will be able to find its way back to its home area if it wanders away from it, or if it is moved. Its principal guide is its strong sense of smell, which immediately seeks out familiar family odours.
Everyone knows Sheila Bumford’s marvellous tale of The Incredible Journey, in which a Siamese cat, a Labrador retriever and a bull terrier make a hazardous 402-kilometre (250-mile) journey through the Canadian wilderness to find their way home. This is fiction, but there are many real-life stories of cats doing just that. A series of experiments was conducted in the 1920s to investigate cats’ homing abilities. In one of these experiments, a cat was put in a sack and carried by car to distances varying from 2 to 5km (1 to 3 miles) away.
The cat had kittens at home, which was her incentive to find her way home. On release, she showed an instant orientation towards home. With no hesitation or pausing, she simply turned in the direction of home and started off. It took her eight hours to get home from 1 .5km (1 mile) away, ten hours from 3km (2 miles), and 78 hours from 5km (3 miles).
But why are cats so good at finding their way home? The usual explanation for cats’ homing abilities is simply instinct. In addition to this is the theory that they have an unusual sensitivity to the geomagnetic field of the Earth, which enables them to keep a compass fix on their home region.
- Legend has it that swinging a cat in a bag will disorient it and it will not be able to find its way home. Experiments earlier this century to check this belief have found it to be quite inaccurate: the cat always came back.
- As well as homing in on territories, some cats can track down absent owners or mates.
- In the 1950s, two German neurophysiologists tested homing instincts by putting cats in sacks, and letting them loose in the centre of a maze. Success was directly related to distance from home. About 60 per cent found their way from less than 5km (3 miles) away; further away, it was a matter of chance.