Lost Cat Behavior

Recovery Tips – Lost Cat Behavior

One thing that makes Missing Pet Partnership’s work unique is that we’ve discovered that not all lost cat incidents are the same. An indoor-only cat that escapes outdoors is a very different situation than an outdoor-access cat that suddenly vanishes. There are three basic categories of missing cats: displaced indoor-only cats, displaced outdoor-access cats, and lost outdoor access cats.

Displaced Indoor-Only Cats (i.e. Cats Who’ve Escaped Outdoors)

If your cat has escaped and is displaced outside or into unfamiliar territory there is good news — your cat is probably not lost at all! That is because it is likely that your cat is hiding and, depending upon the terrain, he/she is probably closer than you think! The investigative question and mystery to solve when an indoor-only cat escapes outdoors is: WHERE IS THE CAT HIDING? If your indoor-only cat has escaped outdoors or has escaped into an unfamiliar area (escaped from vet’s office, escaped due to car accident, escaped while camping, escaped from kennel, etc.) then visit our Displaced Cat Behavior page for assistance.

To read an encouraging story about how a cat that was displaced for over five months and was recovered due to MPP advice, a wildlife camera, and humane traps, read the Li’l Miss Kitty Story.

Displaced Outdoor-Access Cats

Myron in Humane Trap

If you’ve lost a cat that is allowed outdoors part-time or for brief periods of time and he/she has vanished, then it is possible that he/she is not missing but is hiding in fear. That’s because even outdoor-access cats can become displaced. Here’s how it works. A cat can become “displaced” into unfamiliar territory when he/she is chased off (beaten up by another cat, chased by a dog, etc.) and he/she ends up in a yard or area that is total foreign to him/her. We’ve had many cases where cats that were “lost” were actually only five houses away or a block away, hiding inside a neighbor’s yard in fear because they were disoriented and unable (or unwilling because of fear) to return home. In one of the investigations we solved, one of our cat-detection dogs located a missing cat named Gizmo who was missing for 3 days. Gizmo was hiding inside an abandoned bathtub in a yard just two houses away. While some cats have the remarkable ability to use the homing instinct to work their way back to their territory, other cats who are displaced either don’t possess this skill or they’re too frightened to use it.

The majority of cases of displacement involve indoor-only cats who’ve accidentally escaped outdoors. However, any cat will be displaced when they escape from their carrier while at the vet’s office, escape from an RV while traveling on vacation, or escape from a vehicle during a car accident. In cases of displacement, even though the cat is technically an “outdoor-access cat,” it is a DISPLACED CAT when it ends up in an area that is unfamiliar. A cat’s individual temperament can range anywhere from a bold “clown-like” cat to the other end of the spectrum which is a catatonic “feral-like” cat. This temperament will influence how far he/she will travel and whether or not he/she will respond to human contact. Recovery techniques should be geared around a missing cat’s unique, individual temperament. If he or she is skittish, he/she will more likely be nearby hiding in fear and you’ll need to use a humane trap to recover him/her. If he or she is gregarious, he/she could easily travel several blocks (even a mile or two) and you’ll need to knock on doors and post fluorescent posters at major intersections in the area. Be sure to visit our Displaced Cat Behavior page for more information on the topic of displaced cat behaviors.

Lost Outdoor-Access Cats

By “Lost Outdoor-Access Cat” we mean that you are the caretaker of a cat that is routinely allowed to go outdoors, even for brief periods of time. One of the most profound discoveries that we have made at Missing Pet Partnership is that the methods that should be used to search for a lost outdoor-access cat are much different than those used to search for a missing indoor-only (or a displaced) cat! When an outdoor-access cat disappears, it means that something has happened to the cat to interrupt its behavior of coming home. Cats are territorial and they do not just run away from home (like dogs do). Thus the tactics and techniques used to search for a missing cat should be different than those used to search for a missing dog.

Lost cat posters will not always help find your cat if it has crawled under your neighbor’s deck and is injured and silent. We believe that lost cat posters should be used (be sure to visit our Posters 5+5+55 Page) but they should be only a supplement to a primary search which most often involves an aggressive, physical search of a cat’s territory. Yeah, that means looking under and in every conceivable hiding place in your yard and in your neighbors’ yards!

When an outdoor-access cat vanishes, the investigative question and mystery to solve is: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CAT? There are basically eight things that could have happened to your cat–we call these “Probability Categories.” If your outdoor-access cat has vanished, read about the possibilities vs. probabilities of what happened to your cat.

Here’s a Lost Cat Tip Sheet that Missing Pet Partnership Founder Kat Albrecht developed as a handout for shelters to give to people who’ve lost a cat. For permission to reprint this material, please send a message to use using our Contact Us form.

Digitial Wildlife Cameras

A relatively newer technique that MPP recommends is the use of digital wildlife cameras combined with feeding stations, especially in cases where a cat is displaced in an apartment complex where there are zillions of cats, in areas where there are many raccoons, or in other situations where a humane trap would be difficult to use. The concept is setting out food with a wildlife camera that will snap photos of all the animals that eat that food so that when you come back the next morning, you can pull the SD card, put it in your computer, and see photos of raccoon, raccoon, raccoon, CALICO!! THERE IS MY CAT!! From that point you could work to strategically humanely trap your cat while avoiding the raccoons and other cats. This is something that MPP could consult with you about if you decide to pursue this technique. We recommend infrared cameras that does not flash (because then no one sees them and they are not likely to be stolen). Here are some of MPP Founder Kat Albrecht’s blog stories about dogs and cats that were recovered due to the use of digital wildlife cameras:

Bebe (displaced cat) – Bebe, a skittish cat who escaped and “lost” in a neighborhood for four months was finally captured on camera by MPP and hours later, captured in a humane trap.

Buddy (displaced cat) – wildlife camera helped confirm that he WAS in the yard but was NOT going into the small trap, thus a “drop trap” was used instead.

Mugsy (displaced cat) – wildlife cameras helped confirm that displaced cat Mugsy was in fact in a remote area of the woods.

Binky (displaced cat) – wildlife cameras helped rule out a wrong cat (gray tabby with white chest) in one area while the other camera confirmed right where Binky (Russian Blue cat) was hiding.

Burley & Keko (two different displaced cats) – wildlife cameras used to confirm that Burley was hiding in his own yard (it took 33 days for him to enter the humane trap!) and yet Keko was found miles away due to microchip.

Otto (panicked dog) – wildlife camera helped confirm that a “white & black dog” spotted in a remote area was in fact Otto, a missing dog.

Mack (panicked dog) – digital wildlife camera used to confirm missing dog Mack was in deed within a particular neighborhood. When a humane dog trap failed, he was ultimately captured using a “magnet dog & snappy snare.”

Bill (panicked dog) – digital wildlife camera used to confirm hiding place for Bill, a dog who escaped and was on the run for nearly one year!

Missing Pet Partnership uses Moultrie Spy 40 Game cameras, but there are many brands and models out there.

Additional Behaviors

The Silence Factor: This is a term that Missing Pet Partnership coined to describe the behavior when a sick, injured, or panicked cat will hide in silence. It is a natural form of protection for a cat to find a place to hide under a house, a deck, a porch, bushes, or any place they can crawl. The Silence Factor kills many cats because while the cat is sick or injured and hiding under a neighbor’s deck, cat owners are typically busy “looking” for their cat down at the local shelter or they are busy posting flyers on telephone poles. Instead, the proper search for most cats in most situations is to conduct an aggressive, physical search of the immediate area while understanding that the cat might be close by but hiding in silence.

The Threshold Factor: This is an interesting behavioral pattern that Missing Pet Partnership has observed with displaced cats. Many of these cats initially hide in silence, but eventually break cover and meow, return to their home or the escape point (window or door), or finally enter a humane trap. While some cats take only hours or a few days to reach their threshold, many others take several days (typically ten to twelve days) before they break cover. We suspect the threshold is reached due to their thirst, although more research needs to be conducted into this behavior.

Additional Resources

If you’ve lost a cat you should first check to see if there is a professional pet detective who can assist you. You can find a listing of professional (volunteer and/or fee-based) pet detectives by visiting our Find A Pet Detective page. In addition, here are other resources that may help you in the search for your missing cat:

Cats In The Bag – Pauline Phung’s site catsinthebag.org is a great resource for how and why you should humanely trap a lost cat and includes a lost cat forum.

Testimonials – Make sure to visit our Lost Pet Testimonials page to read lost cat recovery stories that will encourage and inspire you to NOT GIVE UP HOPE in finding your missing cat!

Cat Trapped in a Tree? If you locate your missing cat trapped up in a tree and you need assistance, visit the Cat in a Tree Rescue. They maintain an international listing of tree climbers who offer rescue services for cats trapped in a tree. Their website also contains additional helpful information about how cats behave when trapped in trees and what to do if your cat is trapped on top of a utility pole.

CANOPY CAT RESCUE – They rescue cats stuck in trees all over Western Washington.

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