Can cats find their way home? When to worry if your cat has gone missing

Tabby cat raises its paw to camera
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Can cats find their way home? It’s a question you may have found yourself pondering if you have a feline friend who is prone to venturing far and wide. 

While the best pet trackers are ideal for giving you peace of mind that you can locate your kitty quickly and easily 24/7, you’ll be pleased to learn that cats also have their own built-in GPS which can help them find their way home again. 

Unless you have an indoor cat breed who you never let outside, it’s likely that your adventure-loving kitty companion will wander off from time to time. There are several reasons your cat may disappear, from embarking on a hunting expedition and raiding the neighbors cat bowl to disruptions at home and illness or injury.

The good news is that while studies have shown that cats (much like people) differ when it comes to their sense of direction and their ability to effectively retrace their steps and follow their trail back home, all cats do have homing instincts that will help them to make their way back to where they belong.

In this article, we’ll talk you through everything you need to know should your cat decide to leave your property and head off to explore nature’s backyard, including whether a cat can find their way back after adverse weather conditions or to a new home, how to attract your cat back and what to do if your feline friend has gone missing.

Can cats find their way home from miles away? 

The short answer is yes, they absolutely can. One of the first ever studies conducted on the homing powers of cats, published in The Scientific Monthly (opens in new tab) in 1922, found that a mother cat separated from her kittens was able to locate them seven times at varying distances between one and four miles.

How far can a cat find its way home? 

A recent survey by Lost Pet Research and Recovery (opens in new tab) that was conducted between 2013 and 2018 revealed impressive results, with cats traveling anywhere from as little as 0.2 miles to as much as 80 miles to return to their homes. 

The cats in the study took anywhere from eight hours to 2.5 years to find their way back with an average speed of one mile per day, but all of them eventually made it home.

Can cats find their way home after adverse weather conditions? 

Most domestic cats will automatically start to head for home when they sense that the weather is on the turn, but if they do get caught in a downpour or a winter storm, this will likely impact on their ability to navigate their way back quickly.

The reason for this is that weather such as rain and snow change the way the terrain looks, often turning soil into mud and washing away the scent markers that your cat would have left behind when they began their trip.

Because of this, some cats will choose to abort their homeward mission and instead choose to temporarily hunker down in whatever shelter they can find, whether that be a barn, shed, bushes and hedges, or underneath someone’s porch. 

Cat sitting in long grass

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Can cats find their way back to a new home? 

Cats have incredibly powerful senses, with their fur and paws gathering information from their environment and sending it to their brain for processing. This, along with their well developed sense of smell and acute hearing can make finding their way home easier than it might be for other animals.

That being said, a move to a new home can make it harder for your cat’s natural navigation system to kick in and help them to track their way back. That’s because your feline friend often relies on the scent markers they leave behind on their adventures and if they haven’t been in one spot for long, they’ll be a lot less of those for them to follow.

While it’s absolutely possible that your kitty will settle into their new home immediately and be able to find their way back from the get go, for other cats, it could take them longer to get the lay of the land. Some kitties will try and return to their former home if they lived there a long time, so it’s worth asking your old neighbors to keep an eye out for your fur baby. 

Should I be worried if my cat hasn't come home? 

There’s nothing worse than having your feline friend go missing in action and it’s completely normal to worry as the hours tick by and they still haven’t returned home. But before you start imagining the worst, it’s worth giving some thought to your cat’s personality and how long they’ve been gone for.

If your cat spends the bulk of their time outdoors, they may well disappear for an entire day, returning home at the end of the day just in time to tuck into their evening meal. Some adventurous cats will also happily head off for several days at a time if they have a particularly adventurous streak.

When to start worrying will depend on what’s normal for your feline friend. Cats can go several weeks without eating but they can only survive three days without water, so even if your cat has a serious independent streak, if 48 hours has gone by and you’ve not seen them, you’ll want to start looking for them. 

For cats that spend the bulk of their time inside or if your feline has just made the transition from indoor to outdoor cat and isn’t used to being in nature’s backyard for prolonged periods of time, we recommend you lessen the 48 hour time period considerably. In cases like these, you’ll want to start looking after you’ve not seen your cat for 12 hours.

How to attract a cat back home

If you’ve been scouring the neighborhood and you haven’t had any luck locating your precious feline friend, don’t panic - there are plenty of other things you can try to encourage them to return home under their own steam:

  • If your kitty is a fan of the best cat treats (opens in new tab), put a bowl of these by the door
  • Put your cat’s bed, favorite blanket, scratching post and toys outside - if they are within a particular radius, the scent will attract them
  • Try other special foods, like tuna or sardines - these are super smelly and if you heat them up, the aroma will waft for miles
  • Science has shown that cats are very attracted to their human’s voice and it’s recognizable to them from some distance away. The caveat here is that it has to be your normal voice, not a fearful or panicked voice calling their name as this will have the opposite effect. Go outside and talk on the phone or chat in person to a family member or friend - this tone is what your kitty will be most drawn to.

Most importantly, don’t give up - time and time again pet owners are reunited with their feline friends days, weeks and even months after they go missing. Although it’s incredibly difficult to be apart from your much-loved moggy, stay consistent and follow the tips below if your cat hasn’t responded to your attempts to attract them back. 

Cat on fence

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What to do if your cat has gone missing

We know it’s hard, but first up, if your cat has gone missing, try not to go straight to the worst case scenario. As we mentioned earlier, many cats with independent or adventurous personalities will think nothing of disappearing for a day and some will hunt for longer in the spring and summer months when the weather is better and there are more daylight hours.

Once your cat has been missing for an overnight and they haven’t been home in the morning, do a thorough check of the house from top to bottom. Some kitties are notorious for climbing into every open closet or cupboard door and they may well have got stuck somewhere they’re not able to get out of. The same is true for garages, outside storage boxes, sheds, dustbins etc. 

If you haven’t located them by this point, it’s worth asking your neighbors to also check their garden sheds and other places that your cat may have got locked in. If your neighbors do a good sweep and aren’t able to locate your feline friend, then it’s time to escalate things.

For cats that are microchipped, you’ll want to jump onto the microchip database and register them as missing. In the US, the pet microchip registration database can be found here (opens in new tab)  and in the UK, you can head to petlog (opens in new tab)

After you’ve done this, grab some clear photographs of your cat that show them off from every angle. You can use these to make flyers that also contain all the relevant information about your feline friend, including their name, age, color, any distinguishing features they might have as well as your contact information. 

Distribute these in the following places:

  • Local vets in the area
  • All animal shelters and rehoming charities
  • Your local police station
  • Boarding catteries 
  • Lost and found pet websites
  • Around your neighborhood
  • Social media

It’s worth conducting several searches of your neighborhood, both in the day and at night. Make sure you take a flashlight if you’re going to be out in the evening, plus you’ll want to have a cat carrier that you can pop your feline friend into if you locate them, as well as some treats and a warm blanket. 

Do missing cats usually come back? 

Missing cats can absolutely come back. A 2018 study published in Animals (opens in new tab) found that 61% of lost cats were found alive within 12 months while 34% of lost cats were found alive within seven days. 

Researchers found that doing regular physical searches increased the chances of finding a missing cat and they also noted that 75% of cats were found within 500 meters of where they went missing from.

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past two years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with one very mischievous Cocker Spaniel, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and attempting to set numerous world records for the longest ever FaceTime calls with her family back home in NZ.