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How do domesticated cats navigate so well

  1. Jun 17, 2010 #1
    I have close experience with two separate cases of house cats being separated from their home by 10 and 40 miles, yet finding their way home with no problem. How do they do that?

    Case 1: This just happened yesterday to my neice. Her cat jumped in a neighbor's van during the night. The neighbor went to the store and saw the cat jump out about 10 miles from home. My neice went looking for the cat, but couldn't find her. Then next morning, her cat was waiting outside the door like nothing happened.

    Case 2: This happened a few years ago to another relative, and this case is really amazing to me. My relative was planning to retire and move to another state. She gave her cat to my other relative that lives about 40 miles away from the home the cat was living at. Over a year later, my retired relative was visiting us and she went back to see her old neighbor to visit. To her surprise, her old cat was living with this neighbor. It turned out the cat ran away a few weeks after the move and managed to get back home. My other relative who had taken the cat didn't have the heart to tell anybody the cat ran away because she figured it was dead.

    Apparently cats have this ability, but it escapes me how they do it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 18, 2010 #2


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    hi stevenb! :smile:

    my guess is, either it's random, or the geography somehow constrains the cat to stay within a certain region, or even "focusses" it towards a certain region.


    cats wandering around on an efficient star-trek-type search pattern will return home eventually;

    cats wandering on a 2D random-walk pattern will return home with a probability of one in ten (I'm guessing), and your two cats just happen to be the lucky ones

    geographical constraint:

    it may be that there's a river or scrubland or a steep hill or some other feature near you that either the cat won't cross at all, or that it prefers to take the easy way of going alongside the feature rather than through it, and ends up being curved round by the feature (i think that's how people lost in deserts walk round in circles) … perhaps your town is particularly attractive to randomly-walking cats?

    erm :redface:have you tried asking the cats? :smile:
  4. Jun 18, 2010 #3
    Thanks for you input on this. I'm not aware of any geography that would have helped, but I'm going to look more carefully at some maps to see. The search pattern idea does make sense if cats have the instinct to employ an efficient algorithm. Also, you are right that it could just be luck. After all, 2 examples does not prove anything.

    By the way, I did ask the cats, but they are not telling. :rofl:

    After the case 2 (which happened first), I just thought it was blind luck. I figured the cat was very lonely and just knew to head north and eventually found home. We have no idea how long it took the cat to get home, and it could have taken as much as several months. It may have been very quick also, because the cat may have just wandered around the neighborhood before the neighbor took it in.

    However, after the second example (case 1), I just couldn't understand how the cat got home in less than 24 hours, from a distance of 10 miles. It just boggles my mind because even a 1 mile grid spacing on a search pattern implies many hundreds of miles of linear distance traveled. I can't help but wonder if cats have some other navigational sensing ability, but I've never heard of one before.

    If I didn't know these examples first hand, I would probably dismiss them as exaggerations, but I know the people involved very well, and the stories are corroborated by more than one person in each case.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2010
  5. Jun 18, 2010 #4
    I've heard stories like this before, but even more exaggerated. Like a dog finding his house over 100 miles away. I think there's some information we don't know about. I couldn't even find my house from 40 miles away, and that's with signs telling me where to go.
  6. Jun 18, 2010 #5
    Well, it looks like you are right. I did a search and found this case which is in my own state. I wonder, is it easier to find home in Rhode Island? Does being near the ocean create some type of scent gradient?

  7. Jun 18, 2010 #6
    There is this: a dog that returns 100 miles is going to be remembered for years, but the ones that don't are unlikely to make the news. In addition to keen senses and homing instincts, there is the classic, "remember the hits, forget the misses" bias.

    Oh tiny tim, I asked, and they just want tuna and catnip.
  8. Jun 23, 2010 #7
    It might be more pertinent to ask why are humans - certainly those domesticated humans living in urban environments - so bad at finding their way around without the benefit of technology. The ability to navigate accurately extends far beyond cats and dogs and employs a range of skills and senses. While we should admire the ability we should not be surprised by it: the survival value is obvious.
  9. Jun 23, 2010 #8
    That's a good point. As I'm contemplating this more and becoming aware of more examples, I'm becoming less surprised, but even more curious over time. While the survival value is obvious, the methods employed are not obvious to me.

    I now found another example, told to me by my wife who is an animal control officer in my town. A woman in town got divorced, and dog custody was awarded to the x-husband, much to the dog's and woman's displeasure. The woman moved 50-100 miles away and had the dog visit her ONCE at her new home. Soon after that, the dog ran away from the x-husband. Many months later the woman was driving home and saw an emaciated dog within a mile of her home. When she went to help it, she realized that it was her dog, and it was almost dead from the ordeal. The dog had somehow found her based on the knowledge from one visit! The dog eventually recovered and was fine, by the way. I believe this story is true because, although the woman might wish to steal the dog and tell a lie, I don't think she would starve the dog she loved so much. My wife was able to talk to the vet that treated the dog, and she believes the story too.

    What is particularly interesting about the four cases (2 cats and 2 dogs) above is that the animals where driven in a car to a location far away. This is not an occurance that would happen in nature. Navigating from home to a remote location, and then navigating back is an expected ability that should evolve in animals, but returning after effective "teleportation" in a car is not. Of course, the ability to find home after getting lost is useful. It is also likely that the animal is still able to track its course while in a car. The other issue is that I may be thinking too much about relative tracking and not understanding a method to determine the absolute location by some means. Perhaps we can sedate an animal, bring it 100 miles from home and when it wakes up, it will still be able to get to a place it has been before.

    Slightly off the topic, but related, I can mention another interesting thing about another dog I knew years ago (he has passed on now). This one doesn't amaze me so much, but does make me laugh. A cousin of mine had a dog who figured out how to take a ferry off of the island he lived on (Block Island off of Rhode Island coast), and then come home. He would occasionally decide to take a couple days vacation, jump on the ferry, go to the mainland and then come back on the ferry when he was missing home. He was also smart enough to make friends with the crew so that he didn't have to pay the fare. :smile:
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2010
  10. Jun 23, 2010 #9
    Great story. you have to wonder if we domesticated dogs, or they domesticated us. (Indeed there is evidence to support the latter view: if only I could remember where I read it.:frown:)

    As to the mechanisms employed, I suspect there are several and that different species use different combinations. I would expect that dogs and cats can keep an unconscious tally of how far they have travelled and in what direction. Then they have only to reverse the route - although I also recall reading (ah, but where) that there was evidence for them being able to, for example, cut the corner of a triangle to get directly home.

    Probably predators and migratory herbivores make most use of these skills. I don't envisage rabbits having much need of it.
  11. Jun 23, 2010 #10
    If a reasonable definition of domestication is modification for the purposes of a repurposing, then we domesticated wolves, making dogs. There is a feedback, where traits we find desirable are reinforced through selection, but the artificial pressure and breeding was not mutual, it was Human-to-Wolf. Initially, before breeding, it was probably a somewhat distant, but symbiotic relationship.
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