Lost cats leave behind heartbroken families. And, if they’re not found, they contribute significantly to the homeless, feral, shelter, and “community cat” populations. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common situation. “At least a third of all cats get lost at some point in their lives,” says Pam Stonebraker, associate executive director and humane education coordinator at the Tompkins County, N.Y., SPCA.
“An indoor-only cat that finds itself outdoors is likely to be very spooked,” says Stonebraker. “They are less likely to respond to an owner’s calls, more likely to travel farther, and less likely to find their way home than more confident cats.”
Hiding in silence is the behavior most typical of a spooked cat, notes former police detective turned pet detective Kathy “Kat” Albrecht. In such cases, a digital wildlife camera and a baited humane trap are tools that can save the cat’s life and help reunite her with her owners.
However, outdoor-access cats that don’t come home should be treated as a matter of even greater concern. Generally, says Albrecht, “When an outdoor-access cat doesn’t come home, it means that something has happened to the cat—she may be trapped and unable to come home, or she could have become sick, injured, or chased off by a predator or another cat.
Purr-sonality Affects Lost Cat Behavior. How a cat behaves when she’s in her normal territory will influence how she behaves when she becomes lost in unfamiliar territory, says Albrecht, adding, “It’s a good idea to base your search strategy on the specific behavior of your cat.”
Albrecht asks cat owners this important question: “What does your cat do when a stranger comes into your home?” If the cat is friendly, curious, and fearless when a stranger comes into the home, when displaced into an unfamiliar area, the cat will initially hide in fear but is ultimately likely to overcome the fear and either travel or return home. “A gregarious, outdoor-access cat is often easiest to find and grab,” says Stonebraker.
However, if the cat is so skittish and fearful that when a stranger comes into the home she runs and hides under a bed and won’t come out for hours, that cat will likely not return home when displaced. Instead, she may hide in fear indefinitely. Albrecht believes that stress-induced memory loss caused by the release of the hormone cortisol could explain why such cats are often never found.
“Owners typically try to find their cat by posting flyers and checking local shelters, but these cats are well-hidden and silent—and often quite nearby,” says Albrecht. Sadly, many skittish cats are mistaken for untamed feral cats, based on their fearful temperament. “If not microchipped, these cats are at risk of ending up in shelters and being euthanized,” warns Albrecht.
Mistakes Owners Make. A common error cat owners make is not having identification on their cats—no collars, tags, or microchip. Another mistake, says Albrecht, is putting the cat’s dirty litter box outside, believing it will attract him. In actuality, it can backfire—it may attract a neighbor cat who beats up on the missing cat, making matters worse. “If your lost cat eventually comes home, she would’ve done so whether there was a litter box, a dozen roses, or nothing left outside at all,” says Albrecht.
Other owners tend to wait too long to search for a lost cat, notes Stonebraker. “Some cat owners mistakenly believe that the cat will come out when it’s hungry. Or they simply give up, thinking the cat has gone off to die.” Partly as a result of this attitude, the percentage of owners reunited with their lost cats (about 8 percent) is much lower than for lost dogs (about 40 percent). The take-home message, says Stonebraker? “Don’t wait to find them!”
Successful Steps to Recovering a Lost Cat. Owners who have the best success in finding a lost cat remain calm but take immediate actions. “Check local shelters, veterinary offices, and lost-pet websites—but also use your own social-media network, such as Facebook, to cast your net even wider,” says Stonebraker. Most importantly, she says, “Go out and look!”
Start by searching your own property to make certain your cat is not trapped, injured, or hiding in silence. “Search by day, but also search late at night when there is less ambient sound and you have a better chance of hearing a meow,” advises Albrecht. “Use a flashlight to search for ‘eye shine’ and look in all potential hiding places.”
Next, obtain permission from your neighbors to enter their yards, and conduct a slow, methodical physical search for your missing cat. While this may be an uncomfortable request, “Simply asking the neighbors to look for your missing cat is not sufficient!” Albrecht says. “Your neighbor is not going to crawl around on his belly to look under his house or deck for your missing cat, yet the statistics show that this is where your cat is most likely to be hiding.”
Many cats wander into open outbuildings and garages, and get stuck there when someone closes the door, notes Stonebraker. She recalls one cat becoming trapped in a restaurant that was closed for the winter. “Fortunately, someone heard the cat meowing, caught her, and brought her to the shelter, nearly starved. She had been trapped in there for two months.” That particular story had a happy ending: The adventurous cat lived and was soon adopted. Stonebraker notes that it is not unusual for cats to return home after having been missing for months. Her take-home message? “Don’t give up!”
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Even if you have indoor-only cats, it’s a good idea for them to wear collars and tags, especially if they tend to be “door jumpers.” Have a few good recent photos of your pets on hand, in case they are ever needed for flyers. Spay and neuter your cats to help dampen wanderlust.
And, advises Stonebraker, “Take extra precautions during holidays—particularly noisy ones like the 4th of July, when cats are particularly likely to bolt if they get freaked out by nearby fireworks.” During holiday time as well, when visitors and hubbub abound, notes Stonebraker, “It may be safer to keep cats, especially shy ones, confined.”
Kat Albrecht has been helping families find their lost pets since 1997. In 2004, Albrecht launched the first-ever pet-detective academy that trains both volunteer and professional pet detectives. A positive new trend is for such trained cat lovers to form volunteer MAR (Missing Animal Response) search teams that respond with trained cat-detection dogs, high-tech search gear, and recovery equipment to help detect and recover missing cats. Albrecht and her “pet detectives” have helped thousands of families recover their beloved lost cats. To learn more about lost-cat-recovery training, visit www.missinganimalresponse.com.