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Some Background

I live in an apartment at the 12th story of a high-rise residential apartment building in a typical Chinese city. The building has elevators and stairwells. In every story of the building, there are tens of apartments along the long hallway. About 2 months ago, I encountered a cat when I was about to go out from home and waiting for the elevator. When the elevator arrived and door opened, this cat just popped out of the elevator. He followed me and just sit at my doorstep, seemingly wanting to go inside, so I let him. I then adopted this cat whom I think was abandoned by others (which is not uncommon) in the same residential area.

First Time Letting Go

As time goes by, he became increasingly eager to going out. Several days ago, I let him go. He knows where the stairwells are and where it leads to (i.e., "the outside world"). (The experience was gained by his former "failed" attempts to "escape".) So he went by himself, like the same voluntary way he came to me at the beginning.

Another day I saw him outside and "miao"-ed at him. Then he just came back with me. (He went in and out elevator swiftly with me, and sit at my doorstep waiting for me to open the door.)

The Second Time Letting Go

He came back, ate, drank, and sleep. After less than 48 hours, he seems to want to go out again. As before, I let him go.

The Unexpected and The Question

Yesterday afternoon, less than 2 days after his second leaving, my girlfriend opened the door as we were about to go out. The cat was just lying there waiting for us to open the door so that he could go in.

We are really shocked at this. Therefore I wish to know:

Is it normal for a cat to manage to go back "home" in a situation where s/he has to climb an exact number of stories to get the correct floor and find the correct door among tens of other doors?

How does he know which story to go for and which door to stop at? Is it by scent?

Any information is appreciated. Thanks in advance.

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    Of course it is normal, otherwise people would not be able to keep outdoor cats. =) – Kai Feb 5 '15 at 16:17
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Cats always return "voluntarily".

Dogs return home (or, more usually stay home), because they want to belong to a pack and they stay with their pack (e.g. owners, potentially other dogs and pets, etc.).

Cats, on the other hand, are typically just attached to convenience. Got some good food there? Someone to ruffle their fur? Feeling safe? The cat will return for that. As such I wouldn't even be surprised if the cat has more than one "home" in your building, given its size.

As for orientation it's less about visuals as far as I'm aware (so not really counting the floors or anything like that). I once read that cats heavily rely on their nose for orientation, to follow known scents. Even if you just go along some hallway, you will leave a trail of hair, scurf, etc. - any clues for the cat to find you again. Combined with the cat's excellent sense of time (of the day), it's not unlikely for the cat to wait for you in the future as well, especially if you keep opening the door/returning at a common time of the day.

We once had a cat who'd always wait for me at our doorsteps everyday when I returned from work, and the cat would not wait longer than 15 minutes. It would go there a few minutes before I arrived.

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Cats identify places and other animals primarily by scent, not sight; each hall of your building will smell like the people who live there, even if they look the same. This cat that has apparently learned your and your girlfriend's scent represent food, safety and affection, and he will follow those scents back to you when he wants those things.

However, cats also have a need to explore/protect their territory, and if they're used to living outdoors, they may eventually get bored being cooped up inside an apartment. (Wouldn't you?) That is why he periodically leaves.

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