Can a lost cat find its way back home?

It is essential to understand how a cat’s territory is structured to grasp how cats always manage to find their way back home. In this article, we will first explain the territory, then give you some tips and tricks to help your cat keep its bearings, even in case of a move, so that you never lose your pet.

Reading time : 9 min

Can a cat ever get lost? A common misconception is that cats will always find their way back home, which is true most of the time. Sometimes, however, a cat’s strong sense of smell is not enough to help him find his way which might result in your cat getting lost. Apart from the fact that they may be injured or even killed, cats may encounter difficulties that will prevent them from finding their way back home.

In the UK, it is highly recommended that you vaccinate your cat from an early age against any disease, some that could also be transmitted to humans. It is however not mandatory to microchip a cat (it is for dogs), but it is advised. If your cat gets lost and is found by a passer-by, a vet or animal warden can identify your pet and contact you immediately.

So why do cats leave? Do cats always come back? How do they find their way around? It is fascinating to understand a cat’s behaviour and understand what leads a cat to act one way and come back home… or not.

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Understanding a cat’s territory

One of the cat's strong instinct is a heightened sense of direction.

A cat is in control of its territory

Cats are territorial animals, which means they like settling in a place and defining its limits. They define it using scent from facial glands, urine, faeces, anal glands, and scratching. These scents define the territory as well as prevent conflict with other cats.

The different parts of a cat’s territory

Cats will divide their territory by:

  • Where they sleep. A spot where they can take naps and relax, most of the time delimited by scratches.
  • Where they hunt. It can be extended if there is not enough prey or if there are other cats in the area.
  • Where they go potty. This zone can be replaced if it becomes too dirty.
  • Where they walk, usually defined by their facial glands.

The role of pheromones in cats’ orientation

What are a cat’s pheromones?

Pheromones are chemical signals that work outside of the body that a lot of animals use to communicate or mark their territory. In cats, they are located in glands around the cheeks and chin so, when your cats rub their faces against furniture, they are marking their territory. If they rub their faces on you, they mark you as part of their social group.

A cat can smell pheromones thanks to the Jacobson’s organ located on the roof of its mouth. If your cat is making a funny disgusted-looking grimace, known as the flehmen response, it is actually trying to smell and taste (at the same time!) the pheromones around him.

The importance of cats’ pheromones

Pheromones play an essential role in cats. First and foremost, they have a reassuring and soothing virtue. This is why cats spend so much time rubbing against objects or humans in the house. Pheromones are also used to help the cat find its way through space and to mark its territory mainly with scratches and urine sprays.

A cat’s innate sense of direction

So how can a cat find its way back home? With pheromones of course! By urinating, scratching, and rubbing their faces around their territory, the cat would have spread pheromones which will then guide them home. A cat’s strong sense of smell is fundamental for its survival.

How long can a cat go wandering for?

It depends on the cat’s territory and routine. A cat that is particularly adventurous and independent could spend a couple of days outside without coming home. But the risk of a cat getting lost or injured is higher with a scaredy-cat or a kitten.

How long can a cat leave at a time?

Some cats that are free to go outside can spend the whole day outside and come back to eat in the evening, others might nap and cuddle inside during the day and go hunting at night.

Some adventurous cats can also spend a couple of days outside and come back as if nothing happened. They might have been led by prey or have smelled another cat in heat and not have followed their routine. They might come back dirty and full of fleas; it is then important to properly clean them and treat any parasites.

You do not need to worry if your cat leaves, however, if it has been more than two days, you should consider notifying your local vet and animal warden that your animal has not come back, as it might have been injured, preventing it from coming home.

Why do cats leave?

If a cat gets stressed or frightened, it can run away and lose its bearing. But can a frightened cat find its way back home? Can it leave for a couple of days then come back? A lost cat, which is far from having the resources of a stray or feral cat, may encounter difficulties that prevent it from returning home quickly.

Based on that, the stories of cats who have travelled tens or even hundreds of miles to find their family after a move remain a mystery. For never having previously made the journey, how can they find their way back home?

Can I let my cat sleep outside?

The cat is a nocturnal animal that likes to hunt at night. It is, however, not advised to let it wander outside at night. On one hand, because there is more and more danger at night and on the other, if your cat is a pedigree breed, dishonest people could try to steal it without any witnesses outside.

After how long can I let my kitten go outside?

Even if a kitten looks independent from its mother, it is still very vulnerable to outside dangers. As its owner, you must protect your kitten against the outside world and wait until it is grown enough to face it.

Why are lost kittens at higher risks of getting hurt?

When a kitten is between 3 to 12 weeks old, it is in its social phase. Their mother will teach kittens how to fend for themselves and the kittens will mimic her, making them depend on her and thus be more fragile on their own.

Precautions to take before letting a kitten outside

A kitten is more impressionable than an adult cat, so it could more easily get lost if scared or surprised. Even more, if its environment is unknown. It is then important to keep kittens inside so they can familiarise themselves with their environment. Once the kitten is vaccinated and microchipped, it can be left to explore the garden under supervision or taken out on a lead. These precautions will help to transform a shy kitten into a proud and lively cat, thus limiting the risk of disappearance.

When to let a cat outside after a move?

Moving houses can be a stressful situation for a cat. As opposed to dogs who rely on their pack and thus their owners, cats are territorial animals. Taking them away from their territory and smells and putting them in a new one can be very stressful. They will have to acclimatise to this new place which worries and stresses them more than it soothes them.

Why you should leave your cat indoor after a move

It is essential to keep a cat indoor after a move to let them acclimatise, get to know their new environment and spread their pheromones to create a new territory. If you let your cat outside, it could decide to leave because it doesn’t like its new environment. A runaway cat could then go and find a new family and never come back. Be careful with a cat flap, that should stay locked during a certain period of time.

If your cat is more of a homebody, moving won’t be much of a problem. Some breed like the Persian, Siamese, Ragdoll, Devon Rex, or the Birman love to stay inside. But if these types of cats were to find themselves outside, there are more chances of them getting lost since they would not have made time to go explore their new environment.

How to help your cat familiarise itself with its new environment?

You should let your cat wander and discover the new place without stopping it. It will need to explore every room, even ones that he will not return to later.

Also, it goes without saying that the frightened and fearful cat will need to find what used to be in its former home. Make sure that the bag of kibbles is always full, its cat food and water bowl filled regularly, and all its other specific needs met. It is also important to be attentive to the cat and to pet it to reassure it as much as possible.

Besides, the loss of visual and olfactory cues can lead to stress and cause your cat to forget about cleanliness for a while. Therefore, its litter box must be constantly clean but, above all, in plain sight. Do not hesitate to put more than one if the new home is much larger than the previous one.

Signs of stress in a cat after a move

In the new house, your cat will, of course, find all the furniture that it has initially marked. But the new place will inevitably have smells that your cat will not recognise, and which could overshadow its own. This situation is often very stressful for the cat.

Signs of stress may manifest themselves in compulsive behaviour such as uncontrolled licking of a paw or other part of the body, self-mutilation, unusual nervousness, constant vigilance, or aggressiveness, or on the contrary lethargy, untimely meowing, and loss of appetite.

How to help a cat calm down after a move?

If the cat shows signs of severe stress, synthetic pheromones can be used. Some pharmaceutical companies have successfully reproduced synthetic pheromones. These pheromones are sold in spray or diffuser form and are developed to help the cat regain its balance during a period of intense stress when its own pheromones are not enough to soothe it. Like natural pheromones, they are odourless to humans.

Using a feline behaviourist can also help you identify and understand the causes of stress and thus find solutions that will help your cat get better. To do this, the behaviourist will ask you about the cat's routines and identify any changes that may have upset its balance. He will then establish with you the actions to be taken and/or the attitudes to adopt that can help him.

Using a GPS tracker to never lose your cat

It is not easy to look for a cat when it is not home, let alone find it. It is important to note that even if it calms them down, neutering does not prevent cats from going outside. Even when spayed or neutered, a cat who is free to go outside enjoys walking, climbing, hunting, and even more finding a hiding place to rest. They can therefore be anywhere.

A GPS tracker works with a sim card in conjunction with a free smartphone app and is therefore very useful as it allows you to locate lost animals very easily.

A GPS tracker to find a lost cat

With a GPS tracker for cat, you won’t need to shout to call your lost pet, who might be stuck or in hiding. You won’t need to walk through the neighbourhood at random without knowing where to look. With the real-time tracking function and no distance limit, the mischievous feline won't be able to escape your vigilance. You can follow its movements and know its exact position in real-time. If your cat takes a long time to return, just follow its movements and go and look for it.

Moreover, the secret life of a cat can be fascinating for its owners. With the GPS chip, the cat will no longer have any secrets for its owners, who will know exactly all the routes it takes.

How to get your cat used to recall with the GPS tracker?

How to get your cat used to go outside and come back? It is totally doable to get your cat to come back to you by calling its name. However, if your cat is out of ear range, the recall function of the GPS tracker makes sense and is therefore not at all trivial. Indeed, this function allows you to condition your cat to return to the call.

To do so, simply activate the ringtone or vibration mode of the GPS Cat Tracker from your smartphone app as soon as the cat eats repeatedly throughout the day. When your cat goes to its bowl, the ring or vibrate mode should be triggered. The aim is for the cat to assimilate the ringing or vibration of its GPS tracker with food.

This way, when it is getting late or if you think your cat is taking too long to come back, simply activate the transmitter to trigger the ringing or vibration of the GPS tracker and your cat will come home without delay to enjoy a bowl of kibble.

Cats have a well-founded reputation for rarely getting lost. And for good reason, they are fiercely vigilant about their territory, which they cover as often as possible and which they know to perfection. However, despite its instinct and innate sense of direction, it can happen, unfortunately, that a cat gets lost. An unusual circumstance or a frightening situation can make a cat lose its bearings.

Therefore, it is important, when moving to a new house, that you help your cat immerse itself in the new territory. Your cat must recreate the olfactory signals that reassure and soothe it, discover this new environment and make it its own. This takes a little time, which is why it is important to keep your cat indoors for a certain period of time for its safety.

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