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Finding Your Lost Cat

Cats are highly territorial animals and will seldom venture far from home.  A basic understanding of cat behavior will give you clues as to where and how to look for them when they're lost.

The Lost Outdoor Cat

If your cat is indoor/outdoor (or outdoor-only), you may have noticed when it first ventured out that it stayed quite close to the door and cautiously started to explore (and mark) its territory.  In subsequent outings, it gradually expanded its territory as it found new comfortable resting places.  What you may not have noticed is the bounding of its territory by the markings of other cats.  Whenever it encountered consistent markings, i.e., another cat clearly had claims on the territory, your cat backed off, left some "neutral territory", and clearly marked the boundary of its territory.  (If your cat's territory eventually proved uncomfortably small, the position of that boundary (or its very existence) may later have been negotiated between the two cats.)

Once your cat has defined its territory, that's where it will stay.  It's comfortable there -- it has its favorite resting and sleeping places and it knows when and where you'll feed it.  Unneutered males will roam those neutral territories, but females and neutered males almost never will -- at least by choice.  However, the cat can be frightened out of its territory -- by another animal chasing it, by startling activity between it and its normal hiding places, etc.  When that happens, it will run away from the threat until it finds a new hiding place where it feels safe -- its fear of the immediate threat overriding its fear of (or respect for) other cats' territories.

At that point it's "lost" -- but it's not really.  The cat is in unfamiliar territory -- but it instinctively understands the nature of "territories", has had some actual outdoor experience with them and knows the general direction of "home".  When it calms down -- which may take some time (the fear of the threat is gone, but the fear of being on unfamiliar ground remains) -- it will cautiously start scouting out its surrounds (just as it did when you first let it venture outside).

It will first seek neutral territory -- and a safe hiding spot in that territory.  From there, it will scout out the neutral pathway in the general direction of home -- and find another safe hiding spot closer to home.  This process repeats, slowly and cautiously, and probably only at night, as it works its way back home.  It may take days for the cat to return -- even though it may never have been more than several houses away.  But it will return eventually (barring unfortunate encounters with predators, vehicles, well-meaning humans that "rescue" it, etc.).

The Lost Indoor Cat

As you might surmise from the above, the indoor-only cat is less well equipped to dealing with being lost than the outdoor cat.  Its territorial instincts are alive and well -- but is has no outdoor territory of its own and no actual experience with outdoor territories.  When an indoor cat "escapes" -- perhaps through an open window in pursuit of a chipmunk -- perhaps through an opening door accompanied by your attempt to stop it -- it will run some distance without thinking.  But suddenly it will realize that it's in unknown territory -- fear sets in -- and it will dash for the nearest hiding place it can see.  This despite the fact that you or your house may be clearly visible -- may even be closer than the hiding place.  The cat is terrified -- and its instincts are telling it to hide!

Wherever it found to hide, you can be quite certain it will stay there until nightfall.  Its fear is greater than the outdoor cat's because the experience is totally new to it.  After dark it may start cautiously exploring its immediate surrounds -- just as the outdoor cat did when it first ventured outside.  But it has no sense of "home" -- all of its markings are in the house, not outside.  Its instincts are telling it only to find a safer hiding place -- but that new hiding place is as likely to be farther away from home as it is to be nearer.  The indoor-only cat may eventually return on its own -- traces of your scent are outside, if not the cat's -- but it's much less certain than it was for the outdoor cat.

Finding The Cat

Start looking as quickly as possible -- especially for the indoor cat that has just escaped.  The cat is almost certainly very close at hand. 

  • Look in, behind and under any place the cat may be hiding, starting right from the exit point -- in dense plantings, under a porch or outbuilding, in an outbuilding or garage.  (A cat can crawl through an incredibly small slot when it needs to.)  And don't neglect to look up, even if the cat has been declawed.

  • Softly call the cat while looking. It's unlikely that the cat will respond -- it's terrified of everything, including you -- but it may give a very faint reply.

  • If you do locate the cat, approach it very slowly and gently -- calming the cat at the cat's pace.  Its instinct in its frightened state is to bolt if found -- even from you.

  • Try again in the evening after dark -- the cat may be coming out of hiding or a little less fearful of being found.  Use a flashlight to search all the areas you explored earlier.

  • Put out some food and water overnight in the vicinity of the exit point -- the more pungent the food the better.  The cat may go back into hiding after eating but this will encourage it to hide nearby rather than farther away (and if the food is eaten, heighten your confidence that it is nearby.)

  • If you have (or have access to) a live trap, consider putting the food in it -- if you can trap the cat, it can't go back into hiding.

  • Place a few of the cat's indoor things (things that carry its scent -- toys, scratching post, bedding, etc.) around the yard.  These may help calm the cat and keep it near.

  • Contact your neighbors (all within a 3-4 house radius) to alert them that your cat is missing.

  • Ask the children in your neighborhood to help find the cat -- they network well and know the "hiding places" in your neighborhood better than the adults do.

  • Offer a modest reward -- it's not the size of the reward that matters, but the fact that you're concerned enough to pay one.  (This can be especially motivating to neighborhood children.)

  • Check with persons who routinely are outside in your neighborhood -- dog walkers, joggers, postal carriers, maintenance workers (if an apartment or condominium complex), etc.

  • Post "Lost Cat" flyers (with a photo if possible) in your immediate neighborhood and at the local pet supply stores, veterinary offices and animal shelters.

  • Place a "Lost Cat" ad in the local newspaper's classified section.  (They might place it without charge if you ask them.)  And watch that classified section to see if anyone who found your cat might be advertising that they have it.

  • Has there been any construction activity in the neighborhood -- a new basement, chimney well, tool shed, etc., where the cat may be trapped?

  • Don't give up.  Keep looking for at least a couple of months.  It can take that long for the cat to find its way home -- and even a declawed cat can find, hunt and scrounge enough food to survive.

Before The Cat Is Lost

Although any cat is capable of getting lost, there are things you can do now to minimize the chance and to facilitate its return.

  • Make sure your cat is wearing a collar and nametag at all times.

  • Get your cat microchipped so that if it loses its collar, it can still be traced back to you.

  • Get your cat spayed or neutered to reduce its desire to roam.

  • Keep your cat indoors and be alert to its actions when you enter and leave.

  • Make sure any windows or door walls you leave open have a secure screen in place.

  • When you have workers or guests in your house who will be going in and out, close your cat off in one of the rooms.

  • Verify that your cat is inside whenever you return and before you go to bed each night.

  • If you want your cat to go outdoors, install a cat door for them to run to if they get chased or startled.

  • Use a cat carrier to transport your cat on car trips -- never let it run loose inside your car.

  • Make sure you have a good photo of your cat for identification purposes.

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