Cats With Double Lives

Do you know where your outdoor cat goes when he's away from home? (You might be in for a big surprise!)

Recently, a woman asked for advice in a chat room for pet enthusiasts. She explained that her outdoor cat would go off for days, sometimes a week at a time. Naturally, she would worry about him. Then, just as mysteriously as he had left, he would show up again at her door and make himself at home as if he had never left.

One day during one of her cats absences, the woman went to visit a neighbor down the street. As the neighbor asked her in for a cup of coffee, the woman

Outdoor Cats

Bev Caldwell


shouted, “Theres my cat!” Indeed, there was her cat lounging on her neighbors couch.

“No, thats my cat,” said the neighbor. “Ive had him for about a year.”

Surprised, to say the least, the two women compared notes and discovered that the cat spent time at both their homes. Each thought she was the cats exclusive companion, but the cat apparently didnt agree. He had no problem living in two different places with two different human caretakers.

CatWatch recommends that cats remain as indoor pets. However, if you do have an outdoor cat, how do you know if your cat is leading a double life – and what, if anything, can you do about it?

Why Cats Wander

“It all starts with your cat going off and exploring,” says Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, the James Law Professor of Animal Behavior at Cornell Universitys College of Veterinary Medicine. “The cat gets into someones home through an open door or cat door and finds something very attractive there.” It may be some nice, cozy sleeping places, some great food that the cat hasnt tasted before – or even the kind of attention the cat receives from the humans living there.

Attention does not necessarily mean more attention, says Dr. Houpt. “A cat may end up in another household where he is not picked up all the time, if thats what he prefers.”

Then, all it takes is a few visits to the new territory and, if the human occupants encourage the cats visits, “the cat may start time-sharing between one house and another,” says Dr. Houpt. Owners often dont realize whats happening until they happen to spy their cat going into someone elses home.

There could also be another reason why cats wander off. “When I was young, my parents had a cat. But my military family was always on the move,” explains Dr. Houpt. “One time we had to relocate 50 miles away after recently coming back from being overseas. After this latest move, the cat disappeared. While talking to her new neighbor one day, my mother discovered that her orange cat had taken up residence with a family a mile away and had become very attached to each of the children and the father, in particular. I think our cat left because of fear – lots of noise from helicopters and large vehicles – and also having not developed an attachment to our new home.”

Who Wanders the Most?

“I suspect that males tend to wander more because they tend to have larger territories and walk longer distances,” says Dr. Houpt. “Theyre similar to their male lion counterparts; male lions dont hunt as much as females and are more likely to take handouts.”

In fact, a study done on barn cats showed that females went hunting more often than males, who were likely to live out of dumpsters. Therefore, your male cat may be more likely to end up in another household than your female cat.

In most cases, cats go back and forth between homes, visiting each every day and truly leading “double lives.” But there are cats that walk into someones house and choose to stay.

Honoring Your Cats Choice

“I find that most human companions are partially amused and partially upset when they discover their cat has strayed,” says Dr. Houpt. What do you do if you want your cat to stay loyally at home?

The best idea is to keep your cat indoors. If that doesnt work, ask your neighbor not to feed your cat or show him any attention. That may encourage your cat to stick closer to home. Or you may decide to let your cat choose where he wants to spend his time, and you may end up accepting that you can share your cat – a kind of joint cat custody.

“Straying cats are decreasing,” says Dr. Houpt, “as more people keep their cat indoors. And because more people work nowadays, a wandering cat wont be going to the neighbors house for coffee, because the neighbor wont be home.”

So unless you dont mind your cat leading a double life, learn to keep your cat indoors. Thats the best way to ensure feline fidelity and safety.