Extraordinary Cats
Homing Instinct

Birds do it, bees do it — and so do salmon, rats, and cats. “It” is homing: finding your way back home even after traveling long distances over unfamiliar territory. Indeed, cat lore includes a legion of cats who have found that they can indeed go home again. In EXTRAORDINARY CATS, for instance, it’s a cat named Sooty who finds his way back to an old home after his family in England moves more than 100 miles away.

But Sooty isn’t the only cat to have accomplished this marvelous feat. For example, there is Pilsbury, the eight-year-old English cat who has made the eight-mile journey back to his former home 40 times. According to London newspapers, he makes the trip, which takes him across busy roads and through herds of cattle, at least once a week. Luckily, his owners always retrieve him. Then there is Tigger, the three-legged cat who has made the three-mile return trip to his old home more than 75 times. But perhaps the round-trip record is held by Ninja, the tomcat who moved with his owners from Utah to Washington State in 1996. He disappeared shortly after arriving in his new home, only to turn up at the old Utah address — 850 miles away — a year later.

Just how these extraordinary cats home in on their old haunts isn’t understood. But researchers do have some clues how other animals find their way. For salmon, it appears that the smell of their home waters are key. For birds and bees, navigating by the sun, stars, or moon appears to help. Other animals can orient themselves with the help of magnetized cells in the brain, which act like tiny compasses and help them decide which way is north. Sea creatures may even use the sounds that rumble through the oceans as guideposts.

Do humans share cats’ amazing direction-finding abilities? Researchers aren’t sure. So far, studies haven’t turned up any magnetized cells in our brains, though early navigators certainly learned to use the sun and the stars to steer by. “It is not yet clear exactly what kinds of unique navigational systems humans may have,” Patricia Sharp, an expert in neuroanatomy at Yale University, told SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN recently. “I suspect that humans have similar systems — but at present, there is no evidence to support that suspicion.” In the meantime, then, perhaps we’d best just follow our cats.

To order a copy of EXTRAORDINARY CATS, please visit the NATURE Shop.
Online content for EXTRAORDINARY CATS was originally posted February 1999.

  • lori anne chlebovec

    my cat Butler did something amazing we let him out to go pee and when he didn’t return and we waited for over an hour we decided to go to camp anyways and when we returned 3 days later he was standing on the road in the same spot as we let him go . we were so happy that he made it that he never got eaten by a fox or otherwise!

  • kip

    this is crazy wow!!!!

  • CatCrazy

    Unlike humans, cat’s don’t need the help from Satellite Navigation Systems to get them home. Who ever said animals are less superior than man?

  • Moondragon007

    If humans had any kind of built-in homing instinct, we wouldn’t need GPS! :P

  • kavya

    Nice! I hope my cat comes back home. I’ve been looking for him for two days now.

  • Ann

    Reply to kavya: Go through your neighborhood as k the parents in your neighborhod if you could have their children keep an eye out for your cat i did and by the next day the children had found my cat. they told me where it was and that it would not come to them. also that it was hurt. I went to where
    bimbo was and was able to pick him up. I brought him to the veterinarian who said he had a broken leg . He fixed his leg, but Bimbo would never go outside again. He became devout house cat from that day on.

  • Julie

    Wow…. that is so amazing! Just like in Homeward Bound. When I was 8 years old, I went away on vacation and left my cat with my relative for the summer, but she ran away from her. I always had a feeling that she might have gone back to our old house, which was about 2 hours away, but my mom never took me to check, haha. But I always had the feeling that she might have.

  • Holly

    I had an eight year old Tabby. He found us in the middle of literally nowhere. That was 8 years ago. We are moving and circumstance caused us to not be able to take him with us. So I gave him to a friend who has a farm. As soon as my daughter arrived there, he was so freaked out that he bolted out of her arms and ran away. That was 4 days ago. This farm is about 15 miles from where we live. Every morning when I get up and look out the back door I expect him to be looking back at me as that was our routine every day. Then I would let him in and feed him. I am so heart broken. The saddest part is he is a really bad hunter and can barely catch bugs. Garfield comes to mind when I think of Happy, (cats name). I do not know what to do. We have talked to all the other farmers close by and are putting an ad in the paper. Luckily most of the farmers have dogs and cats and have food outdoors for their animals but no one has seen him. I don’t know if he is smart enough to find his way home. I hope he turns up. Thanks for listening.

  • Edward

    We just moved 7 miles from our old home. Louie, our cat seemed to adjust to the new home for a few days, then disappeared. After 13 days, we got a call from our old neighbor…she asked if Louie was missing because a cat that looked like him was in the neighborhood. My wife quickly went to the old neighborhood, and there was Louie sitting in our old driveway!!

  • alyson

    how often do cats come back from a distance of 25 or more miles? email 2: ahaustin101101@gmail.com

  • Sandstone~K12 cat

    Cats are amazing. Somtimes my cat Patchess will dissappear for a while,b ut she always comes back.The longest she’s been gone is 2 weeks.

  • Linda

    My daughter recently moved about thirty miles away. Their cat was fine for a few days then went missing. Someone said they had great homing instincts and we joked that maybe he went back to their old home. Well her husband found a flyer around the old home saying “is this your cat?” it had been attacked by a raccoon and was at the hospital. IT WAS THEIR CAT!! He had to travel over the river or under it (by tunnel) which is how the cars go through it and it is a dangerous place in a car never mind just walking through it! I don’t know how he did it. Fortunately he’s going to be ok, but now what? How do we get him to stop going back?

  • Shauna Burris

    My cat came back last night after almost two years… I knew it was her. When she showed up at my back door, she was crying loudly, wanting to get back into the house… Since Olivia’s disappearance, I’ve had some cat friends come over. I’d feed them and try to get close to them, but cats will keep their distance if they’re not familiar with their surroundings. Plus, I think that there were dogs who caught on to my routine of feeding the cats outside. As a result, they scared my cat friends away. But Olivia was never afraid of dogs, even as a kitten. She loved people as well. I spoiled her so she would beg for food quite a bit. It was weird feeding her last night because she would do the same exact cry that she did when she was a kitten. And when we let her in the house last night… She walked around as if she knew exactly where she was. She wasn’t afraid of me or my aunt. I even think that she remembers our dog Poppi. Poppi and Olivia were EXTREMELY close when Olivia was small. They would play together and Olivia would curl underneath Poppi and they would fall asleep together. The reason why I’m up now (5 a.m.) is because Olivia sat outside my door an cried until I woke up. It’s so weird because this is the same technique that she would use as a kitten in order to sleep in the bed with me. But because she’s been out in the world for some time now, I know that I have to get her together first before we fall back into the routine. It’s like she remembers me. My sister found Olivia on the street when she was very small. Her mother couldn’t keep track of the kittens so Olivia began to stray off. My sister picked her up and took her to my mom’s house. My sister is not a huge fan of cats and my mother already had one (She did not want two) so I took her home with me. Not to mention that the resemblance is scary. Besides the exception of fur becoming slightly dark with age, she looks exactly like my cat. It’s still weird to look at her face and watch her cry. It’s exactly the way that I remembered it. I truly believe that this is my girl… Olivia ran away from my sister’s house when I went back to school in the fall. I think she ran away because she wanted to find her way back to her territory. She’s back so I’m going to make sure that she doesn’t leave again. And I’ve graduated so I can stay home to tend to her. Actually, I’m going to see the vet in the morning.

  • derrin

    awesome baby!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! lol sup mom and dad

  • Elsie Maio

    Hey, that’s a photo of my late cat Rafaello, in my office. What a prince. He and his companion feline, Fra Lippo Lippi were in this segment of NATURE. We had a taped session with Carole Wilbourn, thecattherapist.com. She helped them adjust to each other.

  • Elsie Maio

    Hey, that’s a photo of my late cat Rafaello, in my office. What a prince. He and his companion feline, Fra Lippo Lippi were in this segment of NATURE. PBS came with Carole Wilbourn, thecattherapist.com. She helped them adjust to each other. Both Rafaello and Lippi are now gone to kitty heaven. Their surviving companion, Miss Moon, and I miss the boys.

  • Monte

    I moved to a new house on Sept 1 that my fiance and I built. On last Thursday I let my cats out to use the outside facilities and to get some air. Two of the cats came back in but one did not return.He is a Bengal breed of cat almost doglike. My old neighbor called me last night and asked me if I took my cats with me. I said of course I did they are like my kids and then I told him one went missing. He said that his wife was telling him that she believes that she had been seeing one of my cats since Sunday . He just laughed and thought she was seeing things. When he called last night he said he saw the cat and couldn’t believe his eyes. The old house is only a few miles away but we live in a rural area with a large population of predators , coyotes,hawks etc. My fiance and I ran back there with some food and I called him and within five minutes I heard him calling back to me as he was walking out of the woods. I was just amazed and ecstatic that we found him. You hear stories like this often , but when it happens to you it is truly amazing .

  • Paul

    If there are magnetized cells in the brain and the cat uses these, how would they know which way to go. If you move south of home then the cat has to travel north to get back, if you move north of home then the cat has to travel south.

  • emily

    last summer my cat, starry, gave birth to five kittens on our farm. we knew the only female kitten and our favorite would stay with us…when thekittens were old enough they were all but two adopted. we moved with our favorite kitten, called swirly,to another house. we,ve been here about 6 months, and swirly is the best cat ever..well last week i had to go to the hospital for a week, and when i got out i was told swirly ran away. that was tue and it is now sat. and no sign of her. shes gotton out before but never went far and would be back in the morning. im so sick about what happened to her. me and my 7yr old son have walked around calling her, but no luck. what could have happened to her. ive called the pound they dont have her. do u think she is lost?or an animal got her? or a neighbor kidnapped her or shot her? please give me some advice. me and my son are so sad.

  • acad

    I have a 13 year old neutered housecat who got out one night and stayed gone for 3 weeks, I live in a rural area with lots of acreage all around. I was losing hope as each day passed, I thought that he went too far and got lost, attacked by an animal, or died of starvation/dehydration…. He came home at 10:30 last night. He just showed up in the driveway. He is very skinny now but his nose is wet, tongue is red and he is purring and doesnt appear to be injured in any way. Miracles do happen! Dont ever lose hope.

  • Dave

    Two months ago we moved to a new house, 2 miles away from our old house. We kept our outdoor-access 12-year-old cat inside for two weeks to adjust, as the experts suggest. He seemed happy and well-adjusted at the new house, but the hunting here is not as good as the old place and his territory is smaller and perhaps more encroached by neighbor cats. This morning he was not in his “overnight room” that has access to the outside. He’s usually hungry and waiting for his breakfast at the crack of dawn, so it was a little worrisome for him to be gone late into the morning. But when my wife went to our old house to do some errands there, who should she see upon arrival but our cat! One more data point supporting cats’ amazing homing instincts!

  • Ton Postmes

    After moving about 100 miles we kept our cats , 6 and 7 years old , – mother and son – a month in our new home locked in. A month later mother disappeared. 5 month later she was suddenly back. Very hungry and shabby. She probably returned to her old home – where she got 4 children – and found the house empty. Then she returned to her new home. She must have crossed several rivers by bridges. (Netherlands: Haarlem… Venlo, Venlo … Haarlem)

  • dawn

    my friends cat went missing today. I had got him this cat from a friend that has a shop
    in the middle of noowhere. She had been dumped and abandon there. He has had the cat for 2 weeks
    and kept them inside to get ajusted. I got this cat abot 20 miles away. Well, the cat got out of fence while
    he let her out for fresh air since had been an outside cat. He has had cats before and said she would b fine.
    Im a huge dog lover so Im out searching. Since she has only been here for a short while and grew up
    probably outside do you think she will still come home? I have searched the neighborhood. I just
    don’t think she has been here long enough to know the area. I will not give up tho!!

  • Gina

    This is my cat, I have had him since he was a kitten, his mam was af feral that lived mehind my inlaws about 15 minutesfrom our house… http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=TL0xE8F4qpo. His name is Mr Jangles. He is not quite a year as he was born in June. A still hoping that he returns unscathed, it’s been 4 days since I have seen him. We live In Vacaville and also have two Goldens and they are all thick as theives. bring him home to me :(

  • Steve

    How many homing instincts are there

  • sean

    My Cat Cato has recently returned to my porch after being gone for 6 years. I do not know where he went or how he got here but bc of a freak accident to his tail I can clearly tell its him. I still have his brother but also several other cats and he is skittish to say the least. I do not know what to do. I cannot believe a cat coulod return after so long but here he is. We have some fisher cats outback and assumed he had a lost a fight to them.

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