Cats on the Move

When you're planning to move, don't forget that some cats strongly resent being taken away from their familiar territory and may decide to return to their previous home - occasionally traveling huge distances as a result. McCavity was a member of this group. Back in 1960, he made headlines when he decided to trek back to Cumbernauld near Glasgow in Scotland, from his new home close to Truro in Cornwall in the far south-west of England.

McCavity covered the distance of about 800km (500 miles) in only three weeks. Sadly however, he was so weakened by his efforts that he died shortly afterwards, but other cats have managed to undertake longer journeys of this type and survived.

Perhaps the most amazing case on record comes from the USA. When Mr and Mrs Woods moved from California to Oklahoma in 1951, they decided to leave their cat Sugar behind with a neighbour because he was terrified of travelling and their move entailed a journey of about 2400km (1500 miles). It was roughly a year later when a cat resembling Sugar jumped directly on to Mrs Woods' shoulder in the garden of her new home.

Although struck by the amazing similarity, she did not think that it could possibly be Sugar, until she detected the distinctive deformity of his left hip joint when stroking him. Checking back with her friends in California, Mrs Woods then discovered that Sugar had left his new home shortly after she and her husband had moved away and had not been seen there since. As to how Sugar was able to track down the Woods over such a distance is a remarkable mystery.

Scientific investigations

While animals ranging from sea turtles to swallows can find their way back over thousands of miles to their birthplace, using the earth's magnetic fields, Sugar had no knowledge of the new area cat walking in where his owners now lived. But other similar events suggest this was not just a staggering coincidence. Over 200 cases of cats travelling long distances have been researched and it appears that they walk around 5km (3 miles) per day on average, usually pausing to hunt on the way.

Such journeys have now become the subject of serious scientific investigation, since the first experiment into a cat's ability to find its way home was carried out back in 1921. Professor Herrick started this field of investigation by driving his cat to a spot 8km (5 miles) from his home in Cleveland, in the US state of Ohio, and letting it go to see if it could find its own way back here. The professor arrived home considerably more exhausted than his cat, having followed it on foot as it headed home unerringly by the shortest route, across fields and through hedges, leaping other obstacles in its path.

How cats find their way

It now seems likely that a cat relies initially on the Earth's magnetic field to orientate itself and head off in the right general direction under such circumstances, before switching over to sniff out its precise destination and noting familiar scenery.

Cats regularly mark their territories with their scent and are known to have a very keen sense of smell which would be essential for this purpose. What is much harder to explain is as to how a cat can set off into the unknown and manage to find people long distances away in a totally strange area.

Scenting skills would appear to be of very little value, nor are there any other obvious points of guidance which a cat could use in such cases. In fact, at the present time, we simply do not understand how this could be achieved. Perhaps surprisingly, some scientists have seriously proposed that cats must possess a form of extrasensory perception for this purpose, to enable them to reach their destination.

But such a journey also requires deliberate dedication on the part of the cat - after all, it would have been much simpler for Sugar to stay with his new owners rather than embark on an arduous and hazardous journey into unknown terrain. This in turn suggests that cats can become just as attached to us as we are to them!