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How to Find a Missing Cat

If your cat is lost, these are the best ways to find it.

Most people think of their cats as family members (Howell et al 2016) and it can be heart-breaking when a cat goes missing. Although there are only a few studies of the best ways to find missing cats, they provide essential information to help people search for a lost pet.

Jan Thorpe/Pixabay
Most missing cats are hiding close to home
Source: Jan Thorpe/Pixabay

Important steps to prevent and reunite missing cats

There are some steps for all cat owners to take that will help in case your cat does get lost.

First of all, ensure your cat has some kind of identification such as a microchip, tattoo, or collar with tag. In a 2014 study, only 67% of veterinary clinics recommended microchips for all cats compared to 86% who recommended them to all dogs (Dingman et al. 2014), so ask your vet about a microchip if your cat doesn’t already have one.

A collar is a visible way of showing that a cat belongs to someone, but will not enable people to contact you unless it has an identification tag. Some people don’t like to use collars because they think their cat won’t like it, or it’s not safe (Harrod et al. 2016). Be sure to get a breakaway collar that will release if it gets stuck to something so your cat does not become trapped. It is easier to teach cats to wear a collar if you start when they are kittens, but adult cats can be taught to accept them (you may need to use a technique called desensitization and counter-conditioning).

In some places, tattoos in the right ear are used as an identification strategy. They identify the vet clinic that did the tattoo, the year in which it was done, and the animal. Once the clinic is contacted, it is then possible to contact the owner of a cat. Tattoos can become hard to read or illegible over time.

Microchips are another form of permanent identification. They are not visible but can be found by scanning the animal at a shelter or veterinary clinic. If you find a cat, be sure to have them scanned for a microchip. In the past in the US, competing microchip standards made it harder to reunite pets, but nowadays clinics should have a universal microchip scanner.

Permanent identification requires you to update the microchip registry (or the vet clinic’s records for a tattoo) any time you move house or change telephone number. If there is a central pet registry in your area (such as the US pet chip registry or the BC Pet Registry) be sure to register your cat and keep the information up to date.

Varun Kulkami/Pixabay
Cats can climb trees easily but it's harder for them to get down
Source: Varun Kulkami/Pixabay

As well as having permanent identification, it is important to teach your cat to come when called. First, decide what their recall cue will be; it could be their name, but since you are likely to use their name at other times too, it may be better to pick another cue such as “Here, kitty” or “Come”. Pick a time when it’s quiet, say the recall cue, and then give them a food reward that you know they love (such as a cat treat, piece of tuna, or some licks of a squeezable cat treat). Repeat this at random times.

Then begin to try it at less quiet times, and gradually increase the distance you are calling your cat from. Always give your cat a great reward when they come to you, because you want to give them a good reason to come when called. Practice recall throughout your cat’s life, not just when they are a kitten. Some of you will find you have already trained a recall cue quite by chance, e.g. if shaking the treat packet makes your cat suddenly appear.

Many cats go missing after leaving via an open door or garage (74%), but some escape via a window (11%), broken window screen (6%), or jump from a balcony (5%) (Huang et al. 2018). Keep your property secure, fix any broken or flimsy screens, and make sure that all occupants and visitors know the rules about open doors and windows etc.

As well, make sure you have a photo of your cat that shows clearly what it looks like. If you ever need to make flyers, you’ll have a photo to use.

If you move house and plan to give your cat outdoors access, or if you bring a new cat home to live with you, keep them inside for the first 2-3 weeks until you are sure they are used to the idea that their new home is home. If they are going to be indoor-outdoor cats, make sure you accompany them on their first visits outdoors. Pick a time just before mealtime so you know they will come back inside to eat. Don’t let kittens outside until a week after their vaccinations are complete (typically around 13-14 weeks), and don’t let them outside unsupervised until after they have been spayed or neutered (around 4-6 months) because even kittens can have kittens.

If you are training your cat to be leash-walked, you might like to take a carrier with you that your cat can go in if they get spooked by something (a soft carrier is easy to carry).

Strategies for finding lost cats

One study found that 15% of pet owners had lost a dog or cat in the previous five years, and 85% had been reunited, but people were more likely to be reunited with a dog than with a cat (only 75% of cats were reunited) (Weiss et al. 2012). In this study, 59% of cats were found by looking in the neighborhood and 30% came home on their own; only 2% were found at the local animal control.

More detail on search strategies is found in a questionnaire study conducted by The University of Queensland and Missing Pet Partnership (Huang et al. 2018). In this study, a third of missing cats were found alive within 7 days, and half after 30 days. By 61 days, only 56% of the cats had been found, and beyond this only a few showed up.

Of the cats that were found, most had not gone far from home. Indoor-only cats were found 39m from home, on average, and indoor-outdoor cats 300m from home (although this difference was not significant). For all the cats (indoors, indoor-outdoor, outdoors), the median distance from home was 50m, and 75% of cats were found within 500m.

Thomas B./Pixabay
Cats are very flexible and cat fit into very small spaces
Source: Thomas B./Pixabay

What this means is that if your cat is missing, you should search very carefully close to home. Being cats, you will not be surprised to learn that some of those that were found turned up waiting by the door to be let in. Cats were often found in nearby hiding places such as hiding in a yard, in bushes, under decks, or inside sheds. Cats that were considered curious were the most likely to be found in a neighbor’s house.

This study also looked at the strategies people used to look for their cat. A physical search for the cat was most likely to be successful, and this included searching the yard and surrounding area, calling the cat while looking for it, asking neighbors if they had seen the cat and would keep an eye out for it or help search, and walking around during the day looking for the cat. The most successful advertising strategies were putting up posters and distributing flyers about the cat. In this study, although a lot of people called their local shelter about their missing cat, it was not a common way for them to be reunited (fewer than 2%); however, the scientists think people were given useful advice on how to search for their cat.

It’s also worth considering the strategies people use if they find a lost pet. It seems many people will not take the animal to a local shelter/animal control because of fears of euthanasia (Lord et al 2007). Instead, the tactics they use to find owners include advertisements in the newspaper, walking around the neighborhood, and putting up signs. Only 10% had been able to use the pet’s identification tag to reunite them with their owner. Social media has grown considerably since this survey was done and is likely a much bigger factor these days, but it is important to remember that some owners may not be reached by this method as not everyone uses social media.

Remember to think about what it feels like for your cat and the kinds of places where they might hide. Cats have flexible spines and their collar bone is not connected to other bones, so they can squeeze into narrow gaps. If they are timid and shy, be quiet when searching so that you won’t startle them. Also think about what happened prior to them disappearing in case it gives any clues as to where they might be.

Here are some tips to help.

Tips to find a missing cat

If your cat has literally just run out of the door, don’t chase them. Keep them in sight and try to persuade them to come to you; this may involve getting low down, calling them, not looking directly at them (which can be scary to a cat) and reaching your hand or a finger out to see if they will come up to you. Shaking the treat packet may also help. An indoors-only cat will want to get home again, so make sure they have a clear path back indoors and don’t get in their way.

Andreas Lischka/Pixabay
Many lost cats come home by themselves
Source: Andreas Lischka/Pixabay

If you are not sure where your cat is, search carefully inside the house in case they are under furniture, in a wardrobe, in the basement, or some other hiding place. Cats can get into some surprising places, especially if they are fearful and new to your home. I once had a cat hide inside a box-spring mattress, and similarly they may be able to get inside your settee, open cupboard doors or drawers (which may shut behind them), hide in small gaps behind furniture, get in behind the washing machine or fridge, hide behind books on shelves, or curl up underneath your clean linen.

The most successful strategy is searching on foot. Since most cats are found close to home, search very (very) carefully in the immediate area. Look in places where a scared cat might hide such as in bushes, in sheds, under decks. Remember to look up too, since cats like high places and might be hiding in the branches of a tree or on the roof of a shop or shed.

It’s a good idea to search at a quiet time of day. After dark, you can search with a flashlight. You might see the light reflect back from their eyes.

When searching, take a treat packet with you and shake it from time to time, but remember a scared cat may not dare to come out to you.

Many people suggest putting your cat’s litter box outside but I have not found any evidence to say if this works or not. If your cat is an indoors-only cat, you could put their litter box outside close to the point where they left. The idea is that cats have great noses and will be able to smell it. They may find it reassuring, come back to use it, or wait nearby. However, if your cat has outdoors access, there seems little point in doing this as they will be used to toileting outside anyway, and the smell may only bring other cats into the area to investigate.

Make a hiding place right by the door. A cardboard box turned upside down and with a hole cut out to make an entrance will do. Put some of your cat’s bedding inside it. You’re providing somewhere for your cat to hide in case they come back when you aren’t there to let them in. You can put food and water nearby too (but be aware that this may attract rodents and other animals).

Remember to listen in case you hear your cat meowing. If you have a baby monitor, you could leave it outside the front door in case you hear a meow. If you have a trail cam, set it up so that you will see if your cat is in your yard (or your neighbor’s yard, with permission).

Speak to neighbors and ask if they have seen your cat. Ask them to carefully check hiding places on their property, or if they will let you search their yard for your cat.

If you find your cat in a tree and believe them to be stuck, call local arborists to find one who will go up to get your cat. Sometimes shelters or community cat organizations keep a list of arborists who are willing to rescue cats from trees.

Make ‘lost cat’ flyers with your cat’s photo on them and put them up in the neighborhood where people will see them, such as near community mail boxes or on utility poles. Include your phone number so that people can contact you if they see your cat, but don’t put your name and address for security reasons.

Post your ‘lost cat’ flyer to social media too. Make the post public so that it is shareable, and share it to any missing pets and neighborhood groups in your area. Again, don’t post your address.

Call your vet and tell them your cat is missing. You might be able to put up a flyer at their office too.

Visit your local animal shelter and animal control in case someone has taken your cat there. Some will take details of missing cats to keep on file.

If you have recently moved house, you should also search back at your old address, as there have been cases of cats going back to where they used to live.

If you want to put out a trap for your cat, your local shelter, community cat rescue, or animal control may be able to assist (they will charge a small fee for trap rental). As well, many areas have a pet finder business that (for a fee) will try to locate your missing pet.

Search the found cats database in the US and check tabbytracker which covers the US and Canada.

Above all, keep searching close to home (very close to home for an indoors-only cat). This is the most important thing to do.

When you find your cat, remember to update social media postings and take down the flyers you put up in the neighborhood.

Good luck finding your cat!

References

Dingman, P. A., Levy, J. K., Rockey, L. E., & Crandall, M. M. (2014). Use of visual and permanent identification for pets by veterinary clinics. The Veterinary Journal, 201(1), 46-50.

Harrod, M., Keown, A. J., & Farnworth, M. J. (2016). Use and perception of collars for companion cats in New Zealand. New Zealand veterinary journal, 64(2), 121-124.

Howell, T., Mornement, K., & Bennett, P. (2016). Pet cat management practices among a representative sample of owners in Victoria, Australia Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 42-49

Huang, L., Coradini, M., Rand, J., Morton, J., Albrecht, K., Wasson, B., & Robertson, D. (2018). Search methods used to locate missing cats and locations where missing cats are found. Animals, 8(1), 5.

Weiss, E., Slater, M., & Lord, L. (2012). Frequency of lost dogs and cats in the United States and the methods used to locate them. Animals, 2(2), 301-315.

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