Are cats or dogs better at finding their way?

Graham Southorn
Bristol 51° 27' 13.644" N, -2° 35' 30.048" E

From lost cats walking hundreds of miles home to stray dogs ‘commuting’ into cities by train, incredible stories of animal navigation aren’t hard to find. But are domesticated animals really so adept at finding their way around?

To find out, HERE 360 talked to animal behaviour expert Dr. John Bradshaw, a BBC presenter and author of two bestselling books, In Defence Of Dogs and Cat Sense. In this two-part blog post, we will look into how cats and dogs navigate and find out which does it better.


Lost and Found

It’s a common occurrence for people who move house: they lose their cat. The reason it happens is because cats bond much more strongly to places than to people. If your new house is less than a mile from your old one, says Dr. Bradshaw, the cat won’t stay long. “It just keeps going back to the old house until eventually someone adopts it,” he says.

But when it comes to cats navigating their way home from further afield, there’s a definite cut-off. “They seem to be able to get back to their old house if it’s less than two miles away. I think that’s about the biological limit of how far domestic cats would successfully be able to navigate, apart from the odd fluke,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

Cats know their local neighbourhood, and they start learning about it when they begin life in a new home. The process takes them a few weeks, says Dr. Bradshaw. “We know from radio tracking experiments that they do a kind of scoping exercise. They go outwards in spirals, although the patterns are not always quite round because of the way our streets are laid out.”


image credit: woozie2010 

This knowledge of where things are is stored in a cat’s brain as a mental map, he explains. “Experiments done in France many years ago show that they have a kind of two-dimensional cognitive map in their heads, much the same as ours. If you offer a cat a shortcut, it will know to take that shortcut as long as it can recognise where it is.”

Cat Vision

If a cat has previously run along two hedgerows at ninety degrees to each another, it would instantly know that the quickest way home is across the diagonal rather than the edges. The ability to follow shortcuts makes cats fundamentally different from simpler creatures like ants, which retrace their steps or follow a sequence of visual landmarks.

Cats don’t just use sight to get around, however. “Cat vision is pretty poor except at night, when they can see a lot more than we can. But during the day it’s not great.”

Instead, they get a lot of information from their number one sense — smell. “I think that some of the time, and possibly even most of the time, cats are finding their way by smells as much as they are by visual landmarks,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

Smells, of course, are carried by the wind, which could contribute to cats getting lost. “If you live near a fish-and-chip shop and you move a couple of miles, your new home will at some point be downwind of it. The cat will probably be able to find its way upwind based on that odour alone, and go back to its previous home.”


But what about really long homecomings? Take the story of Holly, a four-year-old tortoise-shell, lost when her owners drove their motorhome up the Florida coast for an R.V. rally. Despite efforts to track her down, it wasn’t until a few weeks later that Holly turned up — at a neighbour’s house.

Dr. Bradshaw, though, isn’t convinced that Holly came back under her own steam. “Its claws were incredibly worn. Some people put that down to running, but it was only the claws on its back legs — not the front. The most likely explanation is that it got underneath its owners’ vehicle, or another vehicle travelling in roughly the same direction.”

He’s also skeptical of other reported long-distance reunions. “Cats tend to go into places either for security or for warmth, so they’ll go up underneath a car, and then they can’t get out when the vehicle pulls away. I think that in most of these incidents, animals have been transported accidentally or deliberately by people.”

Holly was fitted with a microchip, so her identity could be proven. But in other cases, there’s wishful thinking on the part of desperate owners, says Dr. Bradshaw. “In a lot of the stories of people whose cats have apparently travelled a hundred miles, what they’ve actually found is a stray that looks very much like it. They suspend their disbelief very quickly, and almost subconsciously.”


image credit: mjk23

Now read the dog’s side of the story. Is man's best friend also the better navigator?


Topics: Features, Weekend Reads