The Nova Scotia Homeless Pet Project would like to thank the Missing Pet Partnership for providing such a wealth of practical information about finding lost pets
from the Missing Pet Partnership
Recovery Tips – Lost Cat Behavior
© 2007 Missing Pet Partnership. All rights reserved.
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.
Displaced Outdoor-Access Cats
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, send your request to email@example.com.
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.
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:
Feline Behavioral Profiling – At Missing Pet Partnership, we have discovered that the temperament of an individual cat will be reflected in its behavior when lost. Thus we have pioneered Feline Behavioral Profiling, a service of predicting lost cat behavior. This involves conducting an extensive interview with the cat owner and then providing suggestions of what likely happened to his or her missing cat. There are many possibilities (cat was trapped, displaced, removed from the area, injured, etc.) as to how an outdoor-access cat becomes lost. Like profiling criminal behavior, Feline Behavioral Profiling is simply a system of identifying the “probabilities” of what most likely happened to a particular missing cat based on a professional analysis. If your cat is missing and you are interested in checking into this (fee-based) service, contact Jenne Mundy, (210) 535-3875 or visit www.catprofiler.com. Jenne was trained by Kat Albrecht, founder of Missing Pet Partnership, in lost cat behavior and offers professional profiling services for both indoor-only and outdoor-access cats.
Article – Kat Albrecht published a fascinating article about lost dog and lost cat behaviors. It includes mistakes that humans (owner/guardians and rescuers) make that dramatically reduce the chances that a lost pet will be recovered.
Recovery Tips – Probability Categories
© 2007 Missing Pet Partnership. All rights reserved.
When an outdoor-access cat vanishes, there are basically eight things that could have happened to your cat. Here are the eight Probability Categories of what likely happened to your cat:
- YOUR CAT IS TRAPPED – Your cat could be up a tree, on a roof, under a house, inside a neighbor’s basement or shed. This means that your cat would likely be within its normal territory, usually a 5-house radius of your home. It is imperative that you obtain permission from your neighbors to enter their yards so that you can look for your cat yourself. DO NOT rely on asking your neighbor to “LOOK” for your cat. Their idea of looking will be to call if they see your cat sitting on their patio!
- YOUR CAT WAS RESCUED – By “rescue” we mean someone found your cat and assumed it was an abandoned stray and they took it into their house. This happens frequently, especially with cats that are not microchipped or that do not wear a collar and ID tag.
- YOUR CAT WAS STOLEN – Thankfully, this is just not very likely. While some purebred and exotic cats are stolen the incidents where someone knowingly steals a cat are quite rare. Cats that are exotic breeds are at risk. Also, cats who willingly approach strangers and cats involved in the middle of a neighborhood or relationship dispute are at risk of being removed on purpose.
- YOUR CAT IS INJURED, SICK, OR IS DECEASED – Injured or sick (or displaced, panicked) cats will hide in silence. We have called this “The Silence Factor” and this behavior KILLS CATS EVERY DAY! Hiding in silence is a protective mechanism that cats use to protect themselves from predators. What this means is that before you print up lost cat posters or drive down to your shelter to look for your lost cat, SEARCH under and in every conceivable hiding place on your own property and on your neighbors’ property! It is quite possible that your cat is injured and in need of medical attention and you will need to use a flashlight and crawl under your house in order to save his or her life!
- YOUR CAT WAS KILLED BY A PREDATOR – This is sad to think about, but it happens quite often. Coyotes and Great Horned Owls are voracious predators who will prey upon cats and small dogs. If you live in an area where these and other predators (hawks, eagles, cougars, etc.) roam, then this is a factor that you must take into account. One of the major signs that a coyote has killed a cat is the presence of large clumps of fur. Smaller wisps or tufts of fur can be a sign of a cat fight, but several tufts together in a clump which could have been pulled by the mouth of a predator, can be an indication that a missing cat was killed by a predator. MAR Technicians are trained in how to analyze hair fiber evidence which can even be used to facilitate forensic (i.e. DNA) testing. If your cat is missing and you find clumps of hair, contact a MAR Technician for assistance.
- YOUR CAT IS DISPLACED INTO AN UNFAMILIAR AREA – Cats that are chased from their territory either by dogs, people, or other cats who beat them up and cats that are panicked by fireworks will often become “displaced” into unfamiliar territory. Many of these cats, once their adrenaline levels have subsided, will work their way back home, often showing up the next day or a few days later. But many of these cats, especially those with skittish temperaments, will be so panicked by the experience that they will hide in fear and will be too afraid to return home. We’ve seen many cases where a cat was “lost” but was actually just three houses away, crouching and hiding in fear inside a neighbor’s yard! These cats could have jumped a few fences or crossed one street and yet they behaved like they were feral cats, afraid of humans. Some meowed and let their owners pick them up while others darted and ran from their owners and had to be humanely trapped. Understand the critical importance of conducting an aggressive, physical search for your cat within your cat’s immediate territory (neighbors’ yards) in order to determine if your cat is still within the area. The failure to conduct this type of search is why so many cats are never found by their owners and end up being absorbed into the feral cat population.
- YOUR CAT WAS INTENTIONALLY TRANSPORTED OUT OF THE AREA – Cats can be transported out of their territory either intentionally or unintentionally. Cases of intentional removal include a cat-hating neighbor who captures your cat and either takes it to a distant shelter or dumps it in a field far from your home. Intentional removal also includes cases where someone steals your cat, although theft of cats is actually a rather rare occurrence.
- YOUR CAT WAS UNINTENTIONALLY TRANSPORTED OUT OF THE AREA – Cases of unintentional transport include your cat climbing into a moving van or service vehicle and being transported to another city or even across the country. Cases of unintentional transport typically occur with cats that have a curious temperament and are more likely to climb into cars. They also are more likely to occur in mild weather when car windows are left down or service vehicle doors and moving vans are left standing open.
THINK CLOSE! Please note that unless your cat was transported (intentionally or unintentionally) out of the area, your missing outdoor-access cat could very likely be somewhere within a 5-house radius of your home. That is because sick, injured, and trapped cats are often found within their territory. The next furthest to travel would be displaced cats that might have been chased several houses or a few blocks from home. On rare occasions (but it does happen) some cats will travel up to a mile (or more) from their territory. The cats that end up the furthest (many miles) from home, and that are the most difficult to recover, are those that were transported (intentionally or unintentionally) out of their territory.
© 2007 Missing Pet Partnership. All rights reserved.
The individual temperament and unique experiences of a cat influences how far he/she will travel when lost. When giving recovery advice to someone who has lost a cat, be sure to take the following into consideration:
Outdoor-Access Cats: Cats are territorial. When an outdoor-access cat suddenly vanishes, it means that SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED to that cat to interrupt its normal behavior of coming home. The disappearance could mean that the cat is injured, trapped, or deceased within its territory. Or perhaps the cat was transported out of the area-either intentionally (by an irate neighbor who trapped the cat) or unintentionally (by the cat climbing into an open vehicle). Possibly the cat was displaced into unfamiliar territory (something as simple as being chased by a dog several houses away) causing it to panic and hide in silence. The investigative question when an outdoor-access cat disappears is: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CAT?
Indoor-Only Cats: The territory for an indoor-only cat is the inside of the home where it lives. When an indoor-only cat escapes outdoors, it is “displaced” into unfamiliar territory. Usually they will look for the first place that will offer concealment and protection. Their instinctive response is to HIDE IN SILENCE because that is their primary protection from predators. How long they remain in that hiding place and what they do from there is dependant upon their temperament. The investigative question when an indoor-only cat escapes outdoors is: WHERE IS THE CAT HIDING?
Feline Temperaments That Influence Distances Traveled: Temperament influences actions. How a cat behaves when in its normal territory will influence how it behaves when it becomes “lost” or displaced into unfamiliar territory. In addition to posting flyers and checking the cages of local shelters, encourage cat owners to develop a search strategy based on the specific behavior of their cat. Here are guidelines to use:
CURIOUS/CLOWN CAT – These are gregarious cats that get into trouble easily, run to the door to greet a stranger, and are not easily afraid of anything. When displaced, these cats might initially hide but then they will most likely TRAVEL. Strategy for recovery should be to place florescent posters within at least a five block radius. Also, interview neighbors in a door-to-door search, thoroughly searching possible hiding places in yards of houses and other areas within a close proximity to the escape point. Do not assume that the cat will come when you call!
CARE-LESS CAT – These aloof cats don’t seem to care much about people. When a stranger comes in, they stand back and watch. When displaced they will likely initially hide, but eventually they will break cover and come back to the door, meow, or possibly travel. Strategy should be to search hiding places nearby, interview neighbors door-to-door and search their yards. If these efforts do not produce results, consider setting a baited humane trap.
CAUTIOUS CAT – These cats are generally stable but they show occasional shyness. They like people but when a stranger comes to the door, they dart and hide. Some of these cats peek around the corner and eventually come out to investigate. When displaced, they will likely immediately hide in fear. If not pushed (scared off) from their hiding place, they will typically return to the point where they escaped from or they will meow when the owner comes to look for them. This behavior typically is observed either within the first two days (after the cat has built up confidence) or not until seven to ten days later when their hunger or thirst has reached a point where they will respond. Strategy would be to conduct a tightly focused search in neighbors’ yards and to set baited humane traps.
CATATONIC/XENOPHOBIC CAT – Xenophobia means “fear or hatred of things strange or foreign.” Xenophobic cats are afraid of EVERYTHING that is new or unfamiliar. Their fearful behavior is hardwired into their character; it is caused by genetics and/or kitten hood experiences (nature or nurture). These cats will hide when a stranger comes into their home, and they typically will not come out until well after the company has left. They do not do well with human contact (being held, petted, etc.) and they are easily disturbed by any change in their environment. When displaced, they bolt and then HIDE IN SILENCE. They tend to remain in the same hiding place and become almost catatonic, immobilized with fear. If they are found by someone other than their owners, they are typically mistaken as being untamed or “feral.” The primary strategy to recover these cats would be to set baited humane traps. Xenophobic cats that become “lost” are routinely absorbed into the feral cat population.
Owner Behaviors That Create Problems: Cat owners often behave in ways that actually inhibit their chances of finding their lost cat. They develop “tunnel vision” and fail to find their cat because they focus on wrong theories. They experience “grief avoidance” and quickly give up their search effort. They feel helpless and alone, often discouraged by others who rebuke them and tell them “it was just a cat” and “you’ll never find your cat.” But one of the biggest problems is that cat owners typically focus their search efforts by posting lost cat flyers and by searching the cages at the local shelter. Although these techniques are important and should not be overlooked, the primary technique to recover a missing cat should be to obtain permission from all neighbors to enter their yards and conduct an aggressive, physical search for the missing cat (and to set baited humane traps there when necessary). Simply asking a neighbor to “look” for the lost cat is not sufficient! Neighbors are not going to crawl around on their bellies under their decks or houses to search for someone else’s lost cat!
Rescuer Behaviors That Create Problems: One of the most tragic misinterpretations of feline behavior occurs when rescuers observe a cat with a xenophobic temperament and assume, based on the fearful behavior, that the cat is an untamed “feral.” While it is true that feral, untamed cats that are unaccustomed to human contact will hiss, spit, twirl, lunge, and urinate when humanely trapped, this “wild animal” behavior is also common in cats who have xenophobic temperaments! We know this because we have talked to owners of lost xenophobic cats that had to be humanely trapped in order to be recovered; the owners verified that their cats exhibited wild behavior while in the humane trap. These behaviors are a reflection of a fearful TEMPERAMENT, not a lack of TAMENESS. Shelter and TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release) workers should scan all “feral” cats for microchips and conduct research (check Classifieds, lost cat reports, etc.) to determine if the new “feral” is actually someone’s xenophobic pet cat that escaped outdoors, perhaps several weeks or months before it was found.
© 2007 Missing Pet Partnership. All rights reserved.
In general, any cat that is transplanted into an unfamiliar territory is a DISPLACED CAT. The majority of these cases involve indoor-only cats that accidentally escape outdoors. However, outdoor-access cats become 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. We’ve even discovered that some outdoor-access cats can become displaced when they are chased from their territory, ending up hiding ten houses down in a neighbor’s yard, yet too disoriented and afraid to come home! In these circumstances, even though the cat is technically an “outdoor-access cat,” it is a DISPLACED CAT and you should use the advice found on this page.
When an indoor-only cat escapes outside (or when any cat is displaced into an unfamiliar area), the cat is likely hiding (usually near the escape point) in fear. That is because cats are territorial and your cat’s territory was inside of your home. Once a cat is transplanted into unfamiliar territory, it seeks shelter because it is afraid. Cats that are afraid (and cats that are injured) will seek areas of concealment such as under a deck, under a house, under a porch, or in heavy brush and they will not meow! Meowing would give up their location to a predator. Their behavior has nothing to do with whether the cat loves you, whether it recognizes your voice, or whether it can smell you–it has everything to do with the fact that a frightened cat will hide in silence!
The method that Missing Pet Partnership has pioneered that has resulted in the recovery of thousands of “missing” indoor-only cats (and displaced outdoor-access cats) is the same method used to capture feral cats–the use of a humane trap. We call this “trap-and-reunite” or “TAR.” These wire cages are available for rental from your local shelter or veterinarian or for sale at hardware stores, pet stores, or online at www.animal-care.com. Humane traps have a trip mechanism that when triggered by a cat (or other small animal), will shut the door and contain a cat inside. We highly recommend the Tru-Catch brand of humane traps (the brown trap shown on the right – which is the size “30D” and fits small cats like this 10 pound gray tabby). Order the size “36D” if your cat is larger). Compared to other traps (like the one on the left) which close loudly when shut, the Tru-Catch is much quieter and is less likely to panic a cat when initially trapped. Most likely, you won’t find these traps at the local hardware store but you can order them on-line at www.trucatchtraps.com.
Sadly, cat owners are told to post flyers and to drive twenty miles to check the animal shelter cages but they are not instructed to set humane traps in their yard or in their neighbor’s yard where their indoor-only cat is likely hiding in fear. Animal shelters are not providing this information because they are not trained in this new information! Missing Pet Partnership hopes to provide training in lost pet behavior to animal shelter staff and volunteers so that more cat owners are given information that will help them know how and where to search for their missing cat. You can help us by telling the volunteers or staff at your local shelter about our organization and website!
If your cat is lost, be sure to read our Lost Cat Behavior page and our Posters 5+5+55 page for additional tips and information that can help you use the proper search and recovery techniques! If you’d like professional assistance then you might want to Find A Pet Detective to assist you. Other than that, here are additional resources that may help you in the recovery of your displaced cat:
Feline Behavioral Profiling – At Missing Pet Partnership, we have discovered that the temperament of an individual cat will be reflected in its behavior when lost. Thus we have pioneered Feline Behavioral Profiling, a service of predicting lost cat behavior. This service involves conducting an extensive interview with the cat owner and then providing suggestions of what likely happened to his or her missing cat. There are many possibilities (cat was trapped, displaced, removed from the area, injured, etc.) as to what likely happened to an outdoor cat when it becomes lost. Like profiling criminal behavior, Feline Behavioral Profiling is simply a system of identifying the “probabilities” of what most likely happened to a particular missing cat based on a professional analysis. If your cat is missing and you are interested in checking into this (fee-based) service, contact Jenne Mundy, (210) 535-3875 or visit www.catprofiler.com. Jenne was trained by Kat Albrecht, founder of Missing Pet Partnership, in lost cat behavior and offers professional profiling services for both indoor-only and outdoor-access cats.