A lost cat can be upsetting, no matter the reason. To better understand why cats go missing and lost cat behavior, you should familiarize yourself with how cats view their territory. In this article, we’ll go over can a lost cat find its way back home? We’ll explain how they can return home, their remarkable navigational skills, and tips on minimizing the chance your cat goes missing, even after a move or other changes in their territory.
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Can a cat get lost? Yes, even though there’s a persistent idea that cats can always find their way home, cats can be lost. While it’s true cats have an amazing scent system that helps them return to their territory, there may be reasons they haven’t returned home. They may have an injury or be stopped by humans or other animals.
Do cats know how to find their way home? How does this system work? Lost cat behavior and the behavior of cats, in general, are fascinating and can provide clues that can help you with your missing cat.
Cats are territorial animals by nature. Like their wild cousins, domestic cats view certain areas as “their” territory, meaning they will defend it against intrusion. Their territory varies on what they have access to, so outdoor cats will have a larger territory than indoor cats. Studies of pet cats with outside access had a low territory range compared to unowned cats. The owned cats’ territory spanned at most 4.9 acres if they went outside.
Your cat’s territory encompasses any space it has access to. So if you let your cat go outside as they please, the backyard, your deck, and other exterior spaces are part of your cat’s territory. No matter the size of their territory, our feline friends dedicate areas to certain activities:
Cats “mark” their territory with various behaviors, including scratching, rubbing, spraying, urinating, or defecating. These markings send messages to other cats. Basically, your cat says, “This is my space,” to would-be intruders. Shared territories are common for households with multiple cats or with cats that live outside near others. A shared territory is a space where all are welcome, such as a bedroom or living room.
If you have an indoor-only cat, your cat’s territory will only be within the confines of your home. Just because your cat lives indoors, however, doesn’t mean they won’t be happy without some defined territory spaces. Never put their food dishes, water, and litter box altogether, as they need separate eating and potty areas. You should help create territory with scratchers, beds, and other toys spread throughout your home as much as possible.
When we ask can cats find their way home if lost, we have to think about how they mark territory with scent. Have you ever come home from work and your cat ran up to you, brushing against your legs in greeting? This move isn’t just your cat showing love, it’s also a way to mark you as “theirs.” Cats have various scent glands located in their body, including their:
These glands release pheromones as they brush, claw, or scratch surfaces, and cats use them in marking behavior. A pheromone is a type of chemical message that other cats can pick up. Humans can’t detect feline pheromones, but these messages can have a variety of meanings. A pheromone may mark a territory as theirs, yet they can also use it to indicate something is “safe,” such as a new object or an animal that just joined the household.
Your cat can pick up on these messages or scents, which may hold the key to how cats find their way back home. Each pheromone can be pieces of a map back to your cat’s territory, even if they are far away from home. Cats have a special sensory organ called the Jacobson’s organ or vomeronasal organ, which helps pick up and recognize the pheromones around them. If your cat curls his upper lip and opens his mouth slightly, it’s because his tongue collects the pheromones and distributes them to his Jacobson’s organ to “read.” When cats make this expression, it’s called the “flehmen response.”
Cats who only live indoors are known as “displaced cats” if lost in unfamiliar territory. These cats tend to act out of fear and stress. Scared, they will often hide, trying to stay out of sight from potential predators. A lost cat will be quiet so they don’t reveal its territory to others. However, if they are lost because of a move, they may try to find their way back to familiar surroundings, picking up on scents as they go.
When considering lost cat behavior, you must remember that every cat varies. Lost cats traditionally venture out at night, especially if they’re scared. The distance a lost cat travels, though, depends on its temperament and history. If your cat is a loving, outgoing cat who frequently meets new people, he might travel much longer than a shy cat who doesn’t like strangers. These cats may wander into a neighbor’s home or yard if they're curious enough.
Researchers at the University of Queensland conducted a study on how lost cats act and found the median distance traveled for indoor cats was 54 yards, or a 2 ½ house radius from their home, in contrast to lost outdoor-access cats who traveled 344 yards or 17 houses away.
As you search for your lost cat, keep these facts in mind.
The time length your cat is missing can vary. Cats may be lost for days, weeks, months, and even years. There have been incredible stories of cats reunited with their owners years after they last saw them. Cat owners can improve their chances of their pet returning after it's lost or missing by microchipping their animal. The microchip is a unique identifier for vets and police to locate owner information, thanks to a small chip embedded underneath the cat’s fur.
In 2006, Ritz the cat left his owners’ apartment and disappeared for over a decade. He was returned to his family after a woman took him to the vet after he had a severe injury. The vet scanned Ritz, discovered a microchip, and called his family to tell them the good news.
You can minimize the chances of your cat running away. First, make sure your cat is spayed or neutered. Not only does “fixing” your pet improve its health and longevity, but it also helps reduce their need to roam. However, fixing your pet is not the only way to help reduce your cat getting lost.
Training is a great way to improve your cat’s enrichment and also reinforce positive behaviors, such as coming when called. Clicker training your cat lets them associate the clicker with a treat and respond. It’s a proven way to manage unruly feline behavior, stimulate their mind, and give them exercise. Even simply playing with your cat can help improve their mood, reduce roaming, and keep them happy. Animal behavior experts recommend you play with your cat for at least 30 minutes daily. Playing with your cat also helps curb their prey drive, making them calmer and more relaxed; reduced stress means your cat won’t feel the need to run away.
A GPS tracker is an efficient and easy way to ensure you know your cat’s whereabouts, even if they leave your home. These small and light trackers attach to a collar, offering real-time tracking on a map. Whether your cat is down the street or several blocks away, you will be able to locate them.
A move can be quite stressful for your cat, whether they’re indoor-only or allowed to go outside. The move means their territory is gone, and just like humans, they may not respond well to sudden change. When you move to a new home or apartment, you should carefully let your cat acclimate to his new surroundings. Your cat may run away if too unsettled.
Once you’re in your new home, let your cat explore it. After securing the doors and ensuring everything is shut tight, invite your cat to investigate. Remember, cats pick up information with their whiskers and by interpreting pheromones. They will likely want to comb over every inch of the home, marking items as “safe” and finding their territory. Your cat must have visual and olfactory indicators that things are “safe” and everything will be like their old home. Be sure you put out their bed or favorite sleeping basket, dishes, and litter box in areas where they’re easy to access.
As your cat adjusts to their new home, spend as much time with them as possible. Pay attention to them, pet them, and play with them so they start associating the new place with good feelings immediately.
Can a cat get lost after a move? Absolutely. After a move, animal behavior experts recommend you keep your cat indoors for at least a month before you allow them to go outside, even if they previously went outside at your old home. Your cat will spend this time inside, marking his territory with pheromones and getting to know his new surroundings. This is a delicate process, and you shouldn’t rush it. Your cat needs to know that his territory is safe and that this is a safe place, or he may bolt and try to find his old territory.
Not every cat will make a run for it if you let him out. Certain breeds, such as the Persian, Ragdoll, Maine Coon, and Russian Blue, typically are viewed as more “lazy” than other breeds.
If letting your cat outside after your move is too stressful for you, do not hesitate to add a GPS tracker to your cat’s collar. This will enable you to know where your cat is in real-time and without a limit of distance. This could be especially useful if your cat decides to go back to your previous home.
Can a lost cat find its way back home? Your missing or lost cat may return on their own thanks to the powerful navigation its senses offer. However, you should consider lost cat behavior when you look for your cat. Remember to look at night; lost cats tend to come out at night. You can also take proactive steps, such as using a pet GPS tracker, to ensure you can quickly find your cat after he runs away or is lost.