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Do cats have a sense of direction?
9 years ago

Feline Sense of Direction
By Chris Williams

            “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Kate Armstrong, DVM, of Ontario’s Wellington North Veterinary Clinic. I had told her of my Siamese cat vanishing and subsequent sightings by two motorists claiming to have seen a Siamese cat trotting along the shoulder of the highway. The first roughly ten kilometers away, the second just outside of town, hours before my cat returned meowing and clawing at the front door.

            I asked Dr. Armstrong, “Is it possible? Could a cat actually do that?”

            She responded, eager to discuss a question in her realm of expertise.

            “I can’t think of a proven medical answer as to why a cat might possess a heightened sense of direction, but we can look at what we do know for sure. Cats are predators by nature. Distant relatives were known to mark their territory and then return to that same area after hunting. We also know that wild cats followed migratory patterns, bonding to and claiming their areas. They were very protective of them and definitely had a good sense of their surroundings.”

            She paused. “Come to think of it, I’ve heard a few stories of farmers moving away and taking their barn cats, then getting a call from the new tenants wondering where the cats in the barn came from.

            “Well, we know that all cats use their whiskers for balance. They are able to judge distance and the size of objects with them. They use them as judgmental feelers or a sixth sense if you will. They also have an extraordinary sense of smell. Their noses have over two-hundred million odor sensitive cells as compared to the five million that humans possess. These could all contribute to a cat having the ability to find home from a great distance.”

     My first thought was that a cat would have relatively developed cognitive and reasoning abilities to be able to figure out where it was and to find its way home. According to studies by the department of animal behavior at the American Museum of Natural History, cats have an ability to retain information that is far superior to other domestic animals. It is their nature to store information on their surroundings, as is shown when a cat is placed in a new room for the first time and it proceeds to sniff out and investigate every nook and cranny. By these same studies it was proven that a cat showed far more reasoning ability than a dog when faced with an obstacle or a problem in order to obtain a treat.

            I didn’t find these pieces of information surprising at all, as I have witnessed my cat use articles of furniture to reach desired locations, open doors, and turn out lights.

            It seems far-fetched to think that a house cat could find its way home from tens or even hundreds of kilometers away. Is it possible that cats might have some scientific advantage, which would allow them to have a heightened sense of direction?           

            Rupert Sheldrake, research fellow for the Royal Society of Biochemistry, states in his article “The Unexplained Powers of Animals” that “a cat’s tissue is rich in iron particles, which may give the animal extra sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field” and that “some biologists hope that homing in of pigeons and other animals including horses, dogs, and cats might turn out to be explicable in terms of a magnetic sense.” Further he writes, “The failure of conventional attempts to explain many kinds of homing navigation implies the existence of a sense of direction as yet unrecognized by institutional science.”

Unfortunately I did not find any hard evidence to back up this unproven theory, however Jonathan Grayson’s claim to having tested homing sense on live cats in his article “Psychology of The Lost Cat” gave me something to think about. He used 15 cats and hand-built mazes located at different distances away from his home. He would then release them one by one into the labyrinth. He claimed that of 15, 13 of them came out of precut openings around the edge of the maze facing the direction of his house. He noted that the oldest cats did this in the shortest period of time, and that the success rate increased the closer he was to his house. He noted that when any of the cats were tested with several magnets tied to their collars, none exited the maze in the right direction. Could the magnets have been disrupting the cats’ biological compass?

9 years ago
Without finding any real answers backed by scientific evidence, I was left to form my own opinion on the subject. I found it quite possible that a cat’s sense of direction is based upon habitual and hereditary instinctive abilities. Some animals seem to navigate using this unexplained sixth sense of intuition. Although I am not ruling out the possibility of the existence of a magnetic sense being proven by biologists in the future, I find it unlikely that this is the sole navigational aid to felines and other animals. Perhaps a combination of unexplained magnetic phenomenon and intuition is what allows animals to find their way home from great distances.

My cat found his way home from the journey, and if it was luck that got him back to the front door, he must be the luckiest cat alive. 


CHRIS WILLIAMS is a freelance writer in Mount Forest, Ontario.
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