Cats are known for their keen sense of curiosity — it’s what we love most about them! But curiosity paired with an instinctive fight-or-flight response may sometimes prompt a skittish kitty to make a mad dash for the door. And that could leave pet parents scrambling to figure out how to find a lost cat when they’re most distraught.
When a cat goes missing, “It’s understandable that you’re going to be upset,” says Joey Lusvardi, a Minneapolis-based cat behaviorist and owner of Class Act Cats. “But you can’t help your cat if you’re not able to function.”
That’s why planning for the worst-case scenario before it happens is the best way to help ensure a successful recovery. So we surveyed some leading cat rescue experts to find out the best way to increase your chances of bringing a lost cat home quickly and safely.
Why Do Cats Run Away?
According to Kat Albrecht-Thiessen, Founder and Director of Missing Animal Response Network (MAR), cats don’t tend to “run away” in the traditional sense. “Cats are territorial by nature,” she explains. That means their instinct is to remain close to the area they call home so they can defend their turf.
What’s more likely is that cats experience “accidental escapes.” These can happen if a cat roams or is spooked outside of their home territory. In these situations, Albrecht-Thiessen says, cats tend to hide.
So what might cause a cat to leave their familiar home turf? The answer varies, depending on the cat, their environment, or circumstances. But here are three likely causes:
- Curiosity: An open window, a forgotten screen door, the irresistible allure of chirping birds – sometimes, exploration takes precedence over boundaries.
- Fright: Loud noises, unfamiliar strangers, or even a new housemate can send a kitty scrambling for sanctuary.
- Hunting instincts: Outdoor adventures can lead territorial cats astray, lured by the tantalizing scent of prey.
The answer may also depend on whether you have an indoor-only cat or an indoor-outdoor cat.
An indoor-only cat’s territory consists of the house, apartment, or rooms in which they feel safe. By nature, indoor cats are less likely to venture beyond their home turf. But that doesn’t mean they’re immune to unlatched doors or the call of the wild.
Sometimes, a change in the household or “the wrong series of events can lead to them bolting out the door,” Lusvardi says.
Whatever the cause, an indoor cat stuck outside may not stray too far. Because they don’t like to be outside their territory, indoor-only cats are more likely to be found hiding in your backyard or a neighbor’s yard, says Lusvardi.
Keep in mind, your cat’s not playing hard-to-get. “When they escape from indoors, cats often become panicked and hide in silence,” Albrecht-Thiessen says.
An indoor-outdoor cat’s territory is based on a wide range of factors, including the cat’s temperament, spay/neuter status, and surrounding environment. For example, gender plays a role in how far a cat may roam. Generally, male cats have a territory about three times the size of a female cat’s territory, Lusvardi says.
Male cats living in urban settings tend to have territories spanning about a block. However, some cats may go on random outings — or “walkabouts” as Albrecht-Thiessen calls them — beyond their normal territory. In rural settings, these territories can span for miles.
Because of this, it can be hard to tell whether an indoor-outdoor cat is lost or just exploring their home turf. Still, that may not be much comfort if you’re worried about your cat’s safety.
No matter why your cat is MIA or how far they stray, there’s one thing experts agree upon: The best way to improve your chances of getting a lost cat back is to ensure they can be easily identified when found.
So before the worst-case-scenario happens, be sure to:
- Microchip your cat and routinely update your information in the microchip database.
- Always dress your cat in a breakaway collar with up-to-date contact information.
- Keep a recent photo of your cat on hand.
These proactive steps apply to all cats (and pets, in general). However, once your cat is officially missing, the tactics become a lot more specific.
How to Find a Lost Cat: 6 Important Tips
According to pet detective Kimberly Freeman, a MAR-certified pro who offers Lost Cat Finder kits, consulting, and search & rescue services, there’s no one “cookie cutter” approach to finding a lost cat. And she would know. Since she started her career in 2012, Freeman has recovered cats across 48 states and 23 countries.
Freeman says any search strategy should take into consideration variables such as weather, terrain, population density, and possible threats, such as local wildlife or busy roadways. But most important of all, she says, is factoring your cat’s personality into the equation.
“Even cases that seem impossible can be solved, even after weeks, months, and years,” Freeman says. “The key is understanding the details of the cat’s personality, analyzing the probabilities, and perhaps most importantly, not giving up.”
What might work for one lost kitty may not for another. So keep your cat’s unique preferences and personality quirks in mind as you follow these expert-approved tips to bring your lost cat home safely.
1. First, search the immediate area
The first step to take when a cat is missing is to do a slow, meticulous search of your house (if you didn’t actually see your cat dart from the door). If you did witness your cat’s escape, start with the areas immediately surrounding your home, like under your deck and in your garage.
If you can’t find your cat after thoroughly searching your own property, then branch out into your immediate neighbors’ yards. However, “it is critical that you ask your neighbor for permission to enter their yard,” Albrecht-Thiessen says. “And look under and in every conceivable hiding place because research shows this is where your cat is most likely to be.”
2. Continue searching at dawn and dusk
Cats are most likely to be found close to their home turf in the first 24 hours after they go missing. So it’s important to start searching as soon as you notice your cat is missing. However, according to Lusvardi, be aware that your search may be most productive at dawn and dusk.
“Cats are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active around sunrise and sunset,” he explains. “Your cat may be more likely to emerge to try to find food or hunt around these times.”
Plus, with the help of a spotlight, a cat’s eyeshine could give away their hiding spot.
3. Lure them home
If it’s safe to do so, Albrecht-Thiessen suggests leaving the door to your home cracked open a bit. She adds that you can place a plate of food in your yard with a wildlife or security camera pointed at it. “Once you capture your cat on camera, you can then place a humane trap where you previously only had the plate of food,” she says.
However, both of these options run the risk of admitting or attracting rodents, other toms, and predators. At the first sign of any unwanted visitors, remove the food and keep your door closed.
Some well-meaning pet parents may think setting their cat’s litterbox outside could help lure them home. However, both Albrecht-Thiessen and Freeman warn against it. “Cats bury their waste for a reason — they do not want to announce their presence to predators,” Freeman explains. “Litter boxes attract other animals into what should be your cat’s safe zone.”
4. Hand out flyers and post lost cat posters
To spread the word about your missing cat, experts recommend a multi-layered approach.
- Create small flyers with your cat’s photo and your contact information. You can hand these directly to neighbors, post them on bulletin boards (local veterinary offices and grocery stores are good locations), and leave them in mailboxes or on porches in your community.
- In addition to the flyers, Albrecht-Thiessen recommends creating giant, eye-catching posters for high-traffic areas, like intersections. Some tips:
- Use large, neon poster board and affix two plastic sheet protectors.
- Write “REWARD” (if you’re offering one) at the top of the poster and “LOST CAT” at the bottom, using a thick, non-water soluble, black marker.
- In one sheet protector, place a full-sized picture of your cat.
- In the other, place a printout of your cat’s description (in five words or less) and your phone number.
Remember, keep your poster direct and to the point. “You don’t need any more information than this,” Albrecht-Thiessen says. Too much information and it becomes more difficult to spot and read.
5. Contact local shelters and veterinary offices
Call around and ask if a cat matching your pet’s description has been brought in. “You can make this process even easier by getting your cat microchipped ahead of time and making sure the registration is up to date,” Lusvardi says. Some microchip companies can push a lost-cat alert to the microchip when requested.
6. Post on social media
Community-based platforms like Facebook and NextDoor can be effective tools for broadcasting information about your lost cat and capturing the attention of other animal lovers. However, be sure to use this strategy in conjunction with the other tips, as it’s all too easy for your post to get buried by other posts.
“Be sure to provide a recent picture of your cat and a description of them along with your phone number,” Lusvardi suggests. “Include the area where the cat was last seen and any relevant information about your cat’s temperament, too.”
Bonus Tip: How to Find a Lost Indoor Cat
Because indoor-only cats are not accustomed to the great outdoors, it can take a lot of work to lure them out of their quiet hiding places. Freeman shares one strategy that worked for Poncho, a leash-trained cat lost in a mountainous area of the Sierra National Forest.
“Searchers spent ten days combing the hills, shaking treats, calling, and setting lots of baited traps,” Freeman says. “This drew in lots of hungry wildlife, including coyotes.”
Since the typical search strategies were not working, Freeman suggested a new approach. She instructed Poncho’s parents to sit near bushes that looked like an appealing hiding spot for a cat. “They sat for hours wearing one LED light and talked in low tones to each other like they were at home — no calling the kitty,” she explains.
It took two or three nights of the same setup — sitting and talking quietly near the bush — until there was a small meow and Poncho emerged from his hiding place.
Freeman notes that this may not be the right approach for every lost cat. But it’s worth considering as a starting point when the standard tactics aren’t working.
Prevention Tips: How to Keep Cats
To keep your cat safe and sound, feline experts recommend securing screens and checking for any rips or tears in window coverings to prevent accidental escapes.
Keep your cat in a separate room behind a closed door if you’re in a situation where people will be going in and out of the house, such as during a party or when house renovations are underway.
When transporting your cat, always double-check the security of your pet carrier.
If your cat is a known flight risk, work on training cues to stay put when the door opens or create a double entryway so that one door is always secure.
To track your indoor-outdoor cat’s whereabouts, consider a GPS tracker that reports back on where they’ve been and might offer other benefits, like sleep tracking and activity level.
But the truth is that not every scenario can be predicted or prevented. “This is why microchipping is so critical” — even for indoor-only cats, Albrecht-Thiessen says.
For on-the-ground assistance, look for an animal rescue professional certified by the Missing Animal Response Network. Experts such as Albrecht-Thiessen and Freeman are standing by to help. Or contact your local shelter or rescue for professional assistance.