The mystery of a cat's strong sense of direction

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Cats have an uncanny ability to find their way home
Cats have an uncanny ability to find their way home

A cat lover from Cork wrote to me recently to ask questions about recent events in his neighbourhood. He owns two spayed female cats: his house is their home but they also love to spend plenty of time outside, especially at this time of year. Everything had been very peaceful for a long time; his cats had even befriended a local fox that regularly visits the garden.

This peace was disrupted a few months ago when an adult stray tom cat took up residence outside the house. The cat lover felt sorry for the scraggy creature, and so he began to feed it. Predictably, the cat enjoyed this sign of affection, and he settled in at his new location, making it his home. He was friendly to the cat lover, even allowing him to pet him at feeding time. The tom cat didn't seem like a feral animal: it seemed most likely that he was a domestic cat who had strayed away from home, or who had perhaps been dumped.

The cat lover enjoyed the company of this new arrival, but there was one problem: he had a propensity to chase and harass one of the two residential cats. This cat was terrified of him, and she stopped going outside because she was so frightened of meeting him. It was obvious that she was not a happy cat, and the cat lover was understandably miffed about it.

To resolve the matter, and in a moment of frustration, he managed to catch the tom cat, putting him into a cat carrier. He then had to decide what to do with him, and on the spur of the moment, he decided to drive out into the countryside, four or five miles away. He set the cat free in this new location, wished it well, and drove home. He thought he'd solved this tricky problem, and presumed that the tom cat would find a new niche for himself close to his drop off point.

The tom cat was not so easily deterred. To the cat lover's amazement, three days later, the tom cat turned up in his garden, hungry but none the worse for wear.

And that's why he wrote to me: while he was aware that cats have a far greater sound range and far greater sense of smell than humans, how on earth did the cat manage to successfully navigate his way back to the cat lover? When let out of the car, he could have travelled north, south, east or west. How did he manage to successfully choose the correct direction?

This is an intriguing question which science has not yet managed to completely solve. Studies have been done involving placing cats into boxes, taking them to a new location, then releasing them to see which way they go. These studies have not been entirely conclusive, but there is plenty of evidence that some cats, at least, have a remarkable sense of direction. In 2013, one cat in Florida travelled 300 miles from a family's holiday home to their normal home: this could not have happened by chance.

There are various theories as to how cats can do this. Studies have shown that some animals - such as cattle and deer - are able to align themselves in a north-south direction, indicating that they must be able to sense the Earth's magnetic fields, lining themselves up in a way that "feels right" to them. Researchers have also identified the presence of iron in mammals' inner ears, as well in the skin in various parts of the body such as the wrists and ankles. The hypothesis, yet to be proven, is that animals are able to use their own bodies like a compass, working out which direction they have come from, and which direction they are heading.

As my cat loving reader pointed out, cats also have an exquisitely delicate sense of smell, acute hearing and excellent vision. So once his innate magnetic-based sense of direction had brought the tom cat into the general vicinity of the cat lover's home, he would have been able to fine-tune his navigation by recognising smells, sounds and sights remembered from his previous visits.

Scientists are still studying the details of animals' sense of direction, but it's a difficult topic to investigate. Cats can't tell us how they find their way, and it's difficult to tell by looking at anatomy, by measuring neurotransmitters or by carrying out experiments. It's likely to remain something of a mystery for the foreseeable future.

After I'd explained this to my cat loving reader, I had to pass on another message: it's always wrong to "dump" a cat. Just as that tom cat's previous owner would have been wrong to dump the cat near the cat lover, so it was wrong of the cat lover to drive the tom cat into the countryside to dump him. The cat was lucky, and skilled, enough to find his way back to the cat lover, but it mightn't have ended like that. It's unfair to deliberately place an unwanted animal in an alien environment and to expect them to cope on their own. There is always a better answer. As an example, there's usually a local cat rescue group who would be happy to take the tom cat in, get him checked out for full health, get him microchipped, then find a long term home for him.

While it may be easier to "dump" an unwanted animal, it's never a good option.

Animals may be able to find their way home, but they should never be deliberately put into a situation where, out of desperation, they are forced to attempt to do this.

Wexford People

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