Cats use a sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field to navigate home over long distances. This has not been proved beyond doubt but science is gradually realising that this is what is going on. There are many stories of cats finding their way home. They have a great homing instinct but we should describe this as good good navigations skills coupled with a determination to be within their home range.
Firstly, I’ll quickly describe the earth’s magnetic field, which is similar to a bar magnet only it is tilted through 11 degrees from the axis of the earth.
It is believed that electric currents in the molten magnetic core of the earth creates its magnetic field.
How does a cat use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate?
You probably know that the compasses that we buy pick up the earth’s magnetic field and tell us where north, south, east and west are. From this information we can more easily navigate home. It helps to navigate in a car if you know where north is. Even without a compass, you can tell where north is by observing the roads, major landmarks and the sun. You should know if major roads run north-south or east-west and where major landmarks are in relation to your position. The sun tracks across the south. From all this information you can get a bearing on which direction you are travelling in.
Discovery.com state: ‘Animals navigate with magnetic cells’. They say that animals have specialized cells which pick up the earth’s magnetic field. It is believed that humans also have ‘magnetic cells’.
Scientists discovered these cells in the noses of trout which respond to magnetism. We know that fish (and birds) have superb navigation skills over long range.
The scientists have discovered magnetite inside these cells. This is an material rich in iron and sensitive to magnetic fields. How the system works remains a mystery but a signal must be sent to the brain via nerves from these cells which is processed to orientate the animal.
I will, therefore, speculate with some confidence that domestic cats have magnetic cells to help them navigate home. There will be other methods going on as well, I suspect, somewhat as I have described for humans. And we know that cats have good spacial skills because some cats patrol their territory and return to their home (our house/apartment) when they are outdoor cats.
Various theories have been proposed about cats’ navigation skills, one of which touched on the paranormal (Psi trailing), but sensing the earth’s magnetic field is by far the best.