Whether they’re indoor-only cats or they’re used to going outside, cats get lost for many reasons. And if you’ve ever lost your cat, you know how terrible that feeling of helplessness can be.
Taking action immediately is the most important factor in bringing your lost cat home. After making sure she’s not hiding somewhere in the house, get the word out to neighbors and on social media as soon as possible.
In a 2012 report, the ASPCA reported that 74 percent of lost cats get back home. Nearly 60 percent return home on their own, but 30 percent of cat owners find their cats by searching for them. Only two percent were located at shelters.
So, Why Do Cats Run Away from Home?
They don’t really pack up and leave.
Indoor-only cats that get lost are almost always inadvertently let outside, or slip out through a loose window screen. Once out, they usually become quickly disoriented and go into hiding.
Cats who have outdoor access are obviously at much greater risk of getting lost. And if you’ve just moved to a new home, the risk of your indoor-outdoor cat getting lost is all the greater. This is because your cat doesn’t immediately identify the new house as home and, being the territorial creature he is, he will look for his old house.
To avoid this, keep your cat inside your new house at all times for a minimum of two weeks. Four weeks is better, and if he’s not showing any interest in going outside, then keep him as an indoor-only cat. His expected lifespan will increase from 2-5 years to 15-20 years or more.
If your new neighborhood is relatively safe, protected from busy roads and wildlife, and your cat does want to resume going outside, supervise him as much as possible at first. Let him out before you feed him, so that hunger will motivate him to return when you call.
Where Do Cats Go When They’re Lost?
Most cats, even those who are used to going outside, don’t venture that far from home. They are usually found within a radius of a few blocks, often even closer, under a neighbor’s deck or hiding in a shed or under some nearby bushes.
Once a neighbor’s cat took a nap in my car, giving me quite a start when I spotted her in the rearview mirror that morning as I drove to work. I kept my car windows rolled all the way up at night after that.
Cats don’t usually come when called by their owner (even at the best of times). And when they’re lost, even that behavior is likely gone. They are probably afraid and somewhat disoriented, possibly hurt; being in an unknown territory makes them quiet and watchful.
If you happen to spot your cat as you go calling around the neighborhood, don’t try to grab or chase her. You might just scare her off and anyway, a cat’s top speed is nearly 30 mph, so that’s a race you wouldn’t win. Sit down and stay put. Pull out some of her favorite treats and speak calmly and quietly. Hopefully she’ll choose to approach you and allow you to pick her up.
Getting Your Cat Back Home
There are steps you can take to get the search for your lost cat started quickly.
Get the Word Out
Use social media to spread the word: include a picture of your cat and the name of the street where you live in your message. Ask your contacts, friends and followers to share and retweet. Make posters for area lamp posts, bus stops and telephone poles; put them up at local stores, vet clinics, animal shelters, pet shops and groomers.
Neighborhood schools and playgrounds are good places to put “Lost Cat” posters. Tape them lower, at a child’s eye level. Kids playing outside, riding their bikes and taking short-cuts, might spot a cat adults driving or walking don’t see.
Check found notices at the same time, and don’t forget about craigslist and any online community listings, including Facebook groups. Local rescue groups might also spread the word to their followers, so reach out.
When you deliver flyers to your neighbors, talk to them if possible. Ask them to check their garages and sheds, and to look inside their cars. You can place flyers under windshield wipers on cars parked in your neighborhood as well.
While a cat’s preference is for immediate shelter that is very close by, she will also look for one that has escape routes. Still, while an enclosed space isn’t her first choice of hiding spot, she can’t help it if someone closes a shed door suddenly.
If your cat is microchipped, inform the company that keeps the database and make sure your contact information is current. If you don’t remember which registry it’s with, call your vet to see if they have that information on file.
Go to shelters daily; do not rely on phone calls. The staff is busy, and the person you’re talking to may not even know that a cat was brought in earlier that day. If you can’t go, see if you can get someone to go for you. They can take a picture of your cat and call you if they see one who looks like it might be him.
Around the House
Put your cat’s food outside your home, at about the same time every day. Choose an area that is sheltered and quiet, so that he won’t be afraid to use it. Spray the area with Feliway and sprinkle catnip around to make it more invited. Put some of his used litter nearby, scattering it under bushes. You can also put some of his fur (or fur from another pet in your home) outside, around your yard. Cats have a very good sense of smell and these familiar scents could lead your cat home.
Set up a surveillance camera to monitor the area where you’re leaving food. You might be lucky and see that your cat is the one eating everything. While it doesn’t necessarily get him back inside the house, it can be comforting to see that he’s okay and not going hungry. You can also make plans to be there the next night to see if he’ll come to you.
If you’re like many cat owners, and have a multi-cat home, watch how the other cats behave. If a cat starts acting differently, like meowing at a door or window, she might be telling you that her friend is there. Similarly, if you start hearing yowling in what used to be a quiet neighborhood, that could be your cat encroaching on another’s territory.
Trapping Your Cat
If you spot your cat but simply can’t get him to come to you, probably because he’s disoriented or afraid, you can try using a humane trap. I’ve used the Havahart trap in rescues, and have been successful with them. Check current pricing on Amazon.
One trick if your cat is too fearful to approach the trap is to disable it, and place food nearby, moving it closer at each feeding until you can feed your cat inside the disabled trap. Once she goes willingly into the trap for food, set it and trap her. To speed up the process a bit, you can try withholding food for a day and see if hunger conquers her fear.
You must be nearby when using a trap, so you can quickly move your cat into your home (or take her directly to the vet if you think she’s hurt). Don’t leave the cat in the trap for a whole day while you’re at work; have someone there to put a blanket over the trap to calm her down, and then to call you.
Pet Safety App
There’s a great app from the ASPCA that you can download here. It has a checklist of the actions you should take in the event your cat goes missing. It helps you include the crucial information you need on a flyer and allows pet owners to store vital medical records. It’s also a useful resource in case you’re facing a natural disaster.
An Ounce of Prevention, etc. etc.
It’s obviously easier on everyone if you do everything possible to keep your cat from getting lost in the first place. Some of the steps you can take are:
Fix Your Cat. A spayed or neutered cat will not stray looking for a mate.
Microchip Your Cat. Get your cat microchipped, so that he can be easily identified. While they are not tracking devices, the radio-frequency identification implants are permanent records of identification which can be read with a scanner at a vet clinic or animal shelter.
Use a Collar. Put a quick-release reflective collar with ID on your cat. This tells people at a glance that the cat is owned, and if they are able to hold him, they can get your contact information from the tag. I think driver’s license pet tags look great: they are ID tags with your cat’s picture, home address and phone number on them.
Secure the House. Make sure all windows, screens and doors are secure: closed and locked, and in good condition. See that house rules are stated and followed. If you have a busy house full of visitors, it would be better to close off your cat in a separate room than run the risk of having him slip outside and get lost.
Form Negative Associations with Doors. You may have already done this with a spray bottle when your cat jumped on the kitchen counter or exhibited some other behavior you didn’t appreciate. If you’ve got a cat who tries to bolt out the front door every time someone opens it, blast an air-horn or some other noise-making device, so he associates that door with something negative.
Fence Your Yard. Fence in your yard or patio with cat-safe fencing. You can convert an existing fence or wall by attaching arched extenders at the top so your cats can’t climb over. Check the current prices on Amazon. This option is probably the safest outdoor environment you can give your cat.
Get a GPS tracker. Real time trackers, like Paw Tracker, use GPS to keep tabs on your cat’s exact location, and you can track him on your smartphone with an app. It’s wearable tech that attaches to your cat’s collar or harness.
What to do if you Find a Lost Cat
As a cat owner, you probably know what to do if a cat appears in your yard or approaches you on the street. Look for her collar ID and call the phone number listed. If that doesn’t work, run her to the vet to check for a microchip.
Hopefully you’re able to keep her in a spare room for a few days while you report a found cat is all the usual venues: social media, on neighborhood sites like Nextdoor and any other local pet web pages, and at your local shelters and veterinary clinics. Check for lost reports at the same time, and put up posters wherever possible.