Does Your Cat Have Internal GPS?


What did we do before GPS? Global positioning system has helped those of us who have an impaired sense of direction find our way home. Before that magical device, I would spend hours driving in circles, asking around, calling my friends only to find out that I was on the right street all along, just on the wrong side.

Often I read about migrating birds and turtles and feel jealous. Sense of direction is part of their DNA. Some experts believe that even cats have it. I know cats are fabulous, but I wasn’t completely convinced about their internal compass until, of course, a cat changed my mind.

It all started with a move. Moving, as we all know, is one of the most stressful situations you can find yourself in. But somehow we learn to survive it. It is not that easy for a cat.

Catherine Holm wrote that moving home with a cat doesn’t have to cause a nervous breakdown. Bringing back the normal routine to the new place seems to calm kitty down. I knew this, just like I knew this wasn’t my first move and certainly wasn’t my first cat. I felt confident there wouldn’t be huge complications. After all, I was just moving a few blocks down the same neighborhood.

My cat Marisol was now a happy indoor cat who did not seem to care at all about the temptations of an outdoor life. This was going to be easy.

Furniture in place. Litter box ready. Food and water supplied as usual. Cat, happy. Me, ecstatic. Everything was going smoothly until one day I went downstairs to check the laundry and left the door ajar. When I got back to the apartment, Marisol was gone!

“DO NOT PANIC” were the first words I told myself as my heart started pounding out of my chest. “She has to be in the building.” I still haven’t met my neighbors and boy was this the wrong way to do it. I didn’t care: “Hello, I just moved to 3A. Have you seen this cat?” At this moment I flashed a picture of Marisol. Their eyes moved from the picture to the crazy lady holding it with out of control curly hair and panicked eyes to match. “No, sorry, haven’t seen her” they all said as they quickly closed their doors. Checked every floor, elevator, parking lot, back to my apartment. No cat.

Out to the streets I went. Walked the neighborhood calling her name and shaking her food bag. No answer. Did feed a few strays along the way, the hunger overcoming their fear. But not my girl. She stayed hidden. Where was she? Was she hurt? Had she eaten? Did someone get her? I refused to think about the most horrible of scenarios, her being dead on the road somewhere.

Five days of misery. I needed help. My dad came to the rescue with a plan. “Let’s separate. You go left. I go right.” My left was not successful. But his right was! I wish I had taken a picture of that moment when my dad drove back with Marisol stuck to the back window like the famous Garfield plush toy. She was scared and skinnier but apparently okay. I couldn’t stop hugging her. Where was she? “Back at your old place,” Dad said. I had walked the area a thousand times without success. What happened that day I will never find out. Maybe her hunger finally took over and forced her to go out. But the fact that she went to the place she knew and stayed there blew my mind. Cat GPS was real.

After the ordeal was over I did some research to learn more about the phenomenon. While no one denies the possibility, there is no definitive scientific answer to the dilemma. Yes, we all read about the cat who crossed from New York to California to go back to his owner, or the one that walked 200 miles in Florida to get back home, or the one who traveled six miles to get home. But the cases are so few that it’s hard to create enough evidence to support the idea. An indoor-only cat who finds a way back? He never knew the way! How can this be?

The compass is designed to align itself to Earth’s magnetic field and always find north. Migrating species use their DNA compass to navigate the planet and go where there’s food, where they mate, where the momma has to give birth. Amazing nature at its finest.

The cat uses his acute senses to follow a route. Sounds and smells remind kitty of his territory. But what happens when the route is a new one? How does his internal compass keep him on the right path? Does he follow the sun? Is there a panic button inside that turns on when he get lost? Someday we will have the answer. For now I am grateful that my kitty knew how to work it and get herself where she felt safe: her old home.

P.S. Marisol eventually learned to love her new home. Just in case, Mommy installed a quick-slamming screen door so there was never a way out.

Has your cat ever shown evidence of having a GPS? Let us know in the comments!

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