Homing Instinct in Cats – Why do Cats Try and Return to their Old Home After Moving?

Moving homes is stressful, and even more so for our cats to whom we can’t explain what is happening. You may have heard the advice to keep your cat inside after a move to prevent them from trying to get back to their old house, which according to reports happens in 30% of the cases. But why do cats try to go back to their old home? And what can we do to prevent it from happening? In this article we will give answers to those questions.


The reason why cats try and get back to their old home after a move, is because they are territorial animals that establish a safe core territory. In this core territory they feel safe and comfortable, and once it’s established, they have no reason to leave this area. Cats that live in a house, will consider this their core territory. 

A cat’s primary sense is smell, and they mark their territory by leaving their signature scent. These scent marks also serve as a warning to other cats to stay away. The most commonly known way of marking territory with their scent, is by spraying urine, but cats have more ways to mark what they consider theirs, such as rubbing their cheeks on objects, and scratching surfaces. This all leaves behind the cat’s signature pheromones.

When moving homes, a cat will not consider the new house their core territory. The move will often make them feel unsafe, and leaving their established territory is stressful. Because of this, they may try and find their way back to the territory they consider theirs, where they can feel safe and comfortable again. 


How do cats find their way home?

There is still much unknown about how cats can find their way home over long distances, but evidence currently available indicates that they are able to use the earth’s geomagnetic fields to locate their territories, possibly in combination with the use of their fine sense of smell. The ability to find the way home from a great distance through unfamiliar territory is also called homing instinct. 

While all cats have a homing instinct, it will not be as strong for every cat, and some cats will be able to follow the trail home better than others. This means that many cats also will not find their way home, end up lost, or in the worst case injured or killed. 

How to prevent your cat from returning to their old territory?

  • The most important step is making sure that your cat doesn’t leave the new home for a minimum of 4 weeks. This will give your cat the chance to establish a new core territory and mark it as theirs. Your cat may feel stressed and not be themselves, so prevent them from escaping through windows, cat flaps, or when opening the door. Wondering if you should allow your cat outdoor access after they have settled in? Have a look at our article: Should I Let My Cat Go Outside?
  • Bring your cats favourite items and be sure not to wash them, unless really necessary. Having their smell around them will help them feel safer and make the experience just a little bit less stressful for them.
  • Prevent overall stress. Make sure that everything is set up and ready before moving your cat in. Consider using a pheromone diffuser or spray. Cats are very prone to stress, which can also trigger other behaviour issues, such as peeing outside the litter box. 
  • Change the address details connected to the microchip on the microchip databases where you have registered the chip, and at the vet your cat is registered with.

If your cat does manage to sneak out and doesn’t come back, their old territory should be one of the first places you look. Inform the new residents to contact you if your cat shows up, and place missing posters in the new and old neighbourhood. Keep checking the old territory as travelling over long distances can take time, and there have been reports of cats found after 6 months having travelled 60 km, and even between 80 to 128 km over a span of 2.5 years. For more tips on what to do when your cat is lost, have a look at our article: What to Do When Your Cat or Dog is Lost – A Step by Step Guide. 


When moving homes, cats need time to establish a new core territory. While establishing their territory, they may try and escape to try and go back to their old home. Try and make the move as smooth as possible for your cat to prevent stress, and prevent them from escaping while they are settling in.

If you would like to know more about our cat sitting or cat relocation services. Feel free to contact us. We will be happy to help.

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