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The homing instinct – can cats really find their way home?

Top tip – it’s much easier if they’re microchipped! Plus, what a change in the law will mean for every cat owner...

 

There are plenty of stories of cats who have gone missing for days, weeks, months and even years, who have somehow, miraculously, managed to find their way home – including Big Ginge, who was recently reunited with his owners 10 years after he went missing from their narrowboat. A team from Cats Protection became aware of a stray in Lichfield, Staffordshire, who they nicknamed Marmalade. Following a vet appointment, his true identity (thanks to his microchip) was discovered.

 

Then there’s the story of Zeke, a Maine Coone who disappeared from his London home in July 2016 after being bullied by two new cats that arrived in his household. Owner David Blane, from Haringey in north London, said Zeke began spending more time outside and then disappeared completely. However, in October 2021, the missing cat was found and taken to the North Hertfordshire branch of Cats Protection. Bianca Kubler, the branch co-ordinator, said: “He was dishevelled, and his coat was quite dirty, but he was a healthy 9kg (20lb) boy with an insatiable hunger and, despite needing five teeth removed and a good bath, he was in good health.” Yet Zeke seemed depressed, which all changed once he was reunited with his owner after five long years. Ms Kubler said that even after all that time, Zeke recognised Mr Blane and “it seemed like a light had come on.” Zeke is now back home, and with no other cats to contend with, is ruling the roost again.

 

And how about the incredible tale of Porsche? When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States in October 2012, Uranie Roberts and her daughter Carol Baumann were forced to evacuate their home, gathering their belongings – including their beloved cat Porsche – and heading in-land to shelter with family eight miles away. But, in all the commotion, Porsche managed to escape. When the time came for them to return home, the pair were forced to accept that they’d seen the last of their furry friend. Yet, in May 2013, there was a familiar sound at the back door. There, on the porch, was Porsche. “I saw the green eyes and I said, ‘My God in heaven, it’s Porsche!’” revealed Carol Baumann. After half a year, Porsche had made his way eight miles across the storm damaged coastline and seemed none the worse for wear after his epic journey. Uranie Roberts said: “It’s just amazing how he found his way home. I wish he could talk!”

 

A sense of direction

Whether it’s technology or instinct that’s better at helping cats find their way home is up for debate. There are some feline experts, including vet Sandra C Mitchell, who believe that cats really do have a special homing instinct that helps them find their way back. She says: “Although we don’t know for certain how it works, evidence supports the idea that cats are able to use the earth’s geomagnetic fields – potentially combined with scent cues – to locate their homes. However, much like people having a sense of direction, some cats may have stronger instincts than others and be able to follow the trail home more effectively.”

 

It’s an intriguing idea and not without foundation. In fact, it’s thought that other species such as migrating birds seem to have an internal global positioning system (GPS) that allows them to follow the same pattern every year, using the sun and stars to help orient it. Some researchers think birds may also recognise landmarks.

 

Why do some cats wander?

However, it’s better to put your favourite feline off wandering altogether. A good place to start is to consider the reasons why your cat might be likely to roam in the first place. Sandra C Mitchell suggests that these scenarios are likely contenders:

  • Looking for a mate if they haven’t been neutered

  • Defending their territory from a neighbourhood cat

  • Hunting – Your cat might have been distracted while involved in the thrill of the chase

  • Ilness or injury – If your cat was not feeling well or was injured, they may have sought sanctuary in the quietest, safest spot they can find

  • Seeking out food – Is a neighbour feeding your cat?

  • Disruption in the household – If there are new animals or people in the house, major house repairs, big changes (from a cat’s point of view), or an unstable environment, some cats will decide to look for calmer territory

 

How can you encourage your cat to stay closer to home?

While you can’t do much about a cat-loving neighbour who dishes out free meals to tempt your pet away, there are lots of practical things you can do to transform your cat into a happy homebody. For example:

  • Neutering – Beneficial for both female and male cats, unneutered males are much more likely to roam further from home, potentially putting them in harm’s way of busy roads and other hazards.

  • Understanding the importance of territory – One of the strongest traits of cat behaviour is territoriality. Every cat spends much of his or her time familiarising themselves with an area (your house, garden and immediate vicinity), patrolling, monitoring and defending it. If a new cat appears, it could cause problems.

  • Ensuring your home is cat friendly – For cats, their environment is everything. Anointed by their personal scent, their home is the safe space they can truly relax in. That’s why they have an in-built need to feel in control of their environment and can find change rather stressful. Cats are happiest when surrounded by familiar things and routines that are predictable and consistent. So, a few tweaks to your home to turn it into an even cosier cat haven that they’ll love hanging out in.

  • Creating a cat-friendly garden that's full of feline-focused features – such as a safe sunny spot to snooze in, a high-up lookout post, something to scratch on, a secluded toileting area and sensory experiences with cat-safe plants. With so much on offer, your cat won’t want to stray far.

  • Scheduling in playtime with your cat every day – Of course kittens love to play, but as cats get older, play is a great way to keep them fit, lean and healthy, as well as keeping their brain alert and active There are benefits for owners too. Playing with your cat will teach you about your cat’s personality and strengthen the bond and trust between you – and will help your feline friend realise that staying at home can actually be lots of fun.

  • Getting your cat microchipped – The best way to be reunited with your cat if they stray or become lost is to ensure they are microchipped. According to Cats Protection, 6 million cats, that’s 26% of owned cats, are not microchipped. A microchip is a small chip, about the size of a grain of rice, containing their owner’s information, which is registered to the unique serial number of each chip. The procedure is quick and easy and involves implanting the microchip under your cat’s skin between their shoulders below the back of their neck.  

 

Microchipping your cat will soon become law – find out what this means

What’s more, microchipping your cat is soon to be the law in the UK. Under the Action Plan for Animal Welfare and following a consultation process, the government found that 99% of people support compulsory microchipping for cats. When cat microchipping shortly becomes mandatory, the following will apply:

  • Owners will be required to microchip their cats by the time they reach 20 weeks of age

  • Contact details must be stored and kept up to date in a pet microchipping database

  • Owners found not to have microchipped their cat will have 21 days to have one implanted, or may face a fine of up to £500

Commenting on this change in the law, Cats Protection’s Head of Advocacy & Government Relations, Jacqui Cuff, said: “Microchipping is by far the most effective and quickest way of identifying lost cats and can help ease the pressure on rescue charities like Cats Protection. Without a microchip, a lost cat will most likely end up being rehomed to a new home as there is often no trace of their original owner.”

So spread the message to all your feline owning friends – microchipping your cat is a must in 2022!
 

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