Back in 1997, MAR Network Director Kat Albrecht began to study the behavioral patterns of lost cats and dogs. Due to a background in search-and-rescue (searching for lost people), Kat understood the critical connection between behavior and the distances that people travel when lost. It made sense to Kat that the behavior of cats (and dogs) would also influence the distances that they travel. Here’s a small sample of what Kat has learned and now teaches the consultants and pet detectives listed in the Pet Detective Directory.
If you need help, check our Pet Detective Directory page to see if you can find a local resource (volunteer, paid professional, or a Facebook team) that can help you in your effort to recover your missing cat and you have a better understanding of Lost Cat Behavior or Missing Cat Behavior’s.
There are 3 Types of Lost Cat Behavior or Missing Cat Behavior
Displaced Indoor-Only Cats (i.e. Cats Who’ve Escaped Outdoors)
If your indoor-only cat has escaped and is somewhere outside or in unfamiliar territory there is good news — your cat is probably not “lost” at all! In most cases, a cat that is unexpectedly transplanted into an unfamiliar area is considered a DISPLACED CAT. Most cases of displacement involve indoor-only cats that escape outside. However, outdoor-access cats can become displaced as well.
When cats are displaced into an unfamiliar area, the cat is most likely hiding in silence, often not far from the escape point, and they will not meow! This is because cats are territorial and their primary protective measure from predators is to hide in silence. 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 Kat Albrecht and her network have pioneered (starting back in 1999) 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. 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 http://www.trucatchtraps.com.
Displaced Outdoor-Access Cats
Displacement for outdoor-access cats happens when the cat is chased out of their known territory (i.e. beat up by another cat, chased by a dog, or even panicked by fireworks where the cat bolts in fear and ends up in a yard he has never been in before). Displacement of outdoor cats can also happen when an outdoor-access cat is being transported to another location and accidently escapes—like when involved in a roll over car accident, escaping their carrier at a vet’s office, or escaping a camper while on a camping trip. Over the years, we’ve discovered that outdoor-access cats that were chased from their home ended up hiding in a neighbor’s yard ten houses down, too disoriented and afraid to come home! In these cases, even though the cat is technically an “outdoor-access cat,” it is a DISPLACED CAT and you should follow the instructions for displaced cats.
In one of the investigations that Kat Albrecht solved, her cat-detection dog 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 that are displaced either don’t possess this skill or they’re too frightened to use it. 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 also 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.
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 Kat Albrecht discovered early on 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. Large, neon lost cat posters should be used, and social media posts (especially for area-based social networks like Next Door), however, social media posts and neon posters should be a supplement to a targeted search in the immediate area of where the cat disappeared. Most often this involves an aggressive, physical search of a cat’s territory. And yes, that means looking under and in every conceivable hiding place in your yard and in your neighbors’ yards!
In 2017, a study was conducted by the University of Queensland, Australia (Kat Albrecht and Dr. Jacquie Rand conceived the study and UOQ and MPP collaborated on the study). Here is a summary of the study results:
- 1,232 cat owners who’d lost a cat took part in the study.
- The number one method that was the most successful in recovering a missing cat was conducting a physical search of the area.
- The median distance found (how far the cats traveled) for missing outdoor-access cats was 315 meters (344 yards). This is roughly a 17-house radius from their owner’s home.
- The median distance found (how far the cats traveled) for displaced / escaped indoor-only cats was much less—it was only 50 meters (54 yards) which is roughly a 2 ½ house radius from their owner’s home.
The results of this scientific study confirm what Kat Albrecht discovered years ago and that she teaches in the MAR course—the physical search for a missing cat needs to focus within your immediate neighborhood! Social media posts are important, but obtaining permission from your neighbor to search their property is critical! Simply handing a flyer to your neighbor and asking them to “search” for your cat IS NOT ENOUGH! Your neighbor is not going to get on their belly to look under their deck or under their house, yet that is where your cat is most likely to be! It is up to you, the owner, to conduct this type of slow, methodical search with a flashlight. If you are not comfortable in doing this type of search, then consider hiring someone from our Pet Detective Directory who IS comfortable in conducting this methodical search.
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.” As you search for your missing cat, consider which category seems the most likely for your particular cat:
Eight Probability Categories related to Lost Cat Behavior
- 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. If you cat has ever vanished for a few days and came home very thirsty or hungry, he might be prone to becoming trapped.
- 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.
- 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.
- YOUR CAT WAS INTENTIONALLY TRANSPORTED OUT OF THE AREA –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.
- YOUR CAT IS INJURED, SICK, OR IS DECEASED –Injured or sick (or displaced, panicked) cats will hide in silence. 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!
- 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.
- YOUR CAT WAS KILLED BY A PREDATOR –This is sad to think about, but it does happen. Coyotes and Great Horned owls are predators that occasionally prey upon cats and small dogs if the opportunity presents itself. If you live in an area where these and other predators (hawks, eagles, cougars, etc.) roam, then this is a factor that you should consider. However, although coyotes can and do sometimes kill cats, not all coyotes are cat killers! We’ve encountered many cases where cats were lost for weeks in areas where coyotes dwelled and the cats were never harmed.
Digital Wildlife Cameras
Sometimes setting a humane trap is not the best method to use to recover a missing cat. In many cases, the use of digital wildlife cameras combined with feeding stations is a better way to confirm possible sightings or to confirm that your displaced cat is still in the immediate area. Cameras work especially well 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 any of the trained resources listed in our Pet Detective Directory 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 MAR Network Director 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!
For more information on wild life cameras visit Surveillance Cameras page.
Additional Lost Cat Behaviors
The Silence Factor: This is a term that Kat Albrecht coined to describe the lost cat 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 Kat Albrecht 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 lost cat behavior.
Kitty Litter Myth
Many web sites (and even some pet detectives) recommend that if your cat is lost that you spread cat litter, cat feces, or scent articles of the cat owner around the home that the cat is missing from. The concept is that your cat ran away or is out of the area and by putting something with your scent on it (a dirty t-shirt, dirty underwear, etc.) in your yard, it will attract your cat and encourage him to come back home. Some also advocate putting out dirty cat litter or feces—as if the cat needs this cue to help him find his way back home. The MAR Network does not advocate this practice for the following reasons:
The first reason we don’t recommend the kitty litter method is that the urine/feces scent could attract aggressive cats into the yard where a missing cat could be hiding. Cats are territorial and when an indoor-only cat escapes outdoors, that cat is often hiding within the territory of another (outside) neighborhood cat. Dirty cat litter can attract community “tom” cats (intact male cats) or other territorial neighborhood cats and that scent could predispose them to want to defend their territory, drawing them into the area where a displaced cat is hiding in silence. These territorial cats are put into defense mode when they detect the pheromones from another cat’s urine and feces, causing them to be ready to fight. These cats are then more likely to beat up and chase the lost (displaced) cat from his hiding place, making a recovery more difficult. However, using cat food (and a wildlife camera) will draw a territorial cat in also, but the scent of food will not likely trigger the same level of aggression / readiness to fight as urine and feces would. None of this has been proven in a scientific study (yet), but it is the opinion of the MAR Network that you are better off investing time and effort in conducting a physical search for your lost cat and using wildlife cameras or a humane trap than you are in putting out dirty cat litter.
You can likely find many on-line testimonials from cat owners who claim positive results from scent luring scattering dirty cat litter or feces in their yards or placing their cat’s litterbox on their porch. It is more likely that these cats returned home due to one of two factors: a behavior called “The Threshold Phenomenon” (described above) or simply due to their temperament than due to anything that they smelled. Cat owners mistakenly associate the fact that their cat returned home due to a scent lure (dirty cat litter) when, in fact, their particular cat would have returned home on its own anyway with or without a scent lure because it finally reached its threshold (indoor-only cats hiding in fear) or the cat was trapped somewhere and finally got free (outdoor cat trapped in neighbor’s garage, up a tree, etc.). As stated earlier, in many cases a food lure (placed inside a humane trap or set down on the ground with a wildlife camera pointing at it to capture photos) is the best type of lure to use and is a highly effective recovery method. Another scent that could help (at a humane trap) is to spray Feliway, a pheromone that helps to calm stressed cats.
The final reason why the MAR Network does not advocate using dirty cat litter as a scent lure for cats is the most important one: it is a passive approach to finding a lost cat. Cat owners might believe they are “doing something” by placing dirty clothing or cat feces in their yard. Some Internet folklore posts have claimed that “cats can smell a mile away” and advise you to simply put your cat’s litterbox outside, claiming “it works!” However, scientific research has shown that these cat owners would have a higher chance of recovering their cat by conducting an aggressive, physical search of their yard and their neighbor’s yards. We understand that it is less intrusive to your neighbors to set out a dirty cat litter box on your porch and hope that your cat will come home than it is to ask your neighbor permission to enter their yard and to crawl around under their house or deck, but a physical search of your neighbor’s yards (and baited humane traps and/or digital wildlife cameras) is the most effective recovery method for finding a missing cat.
If you would like to share information on just the Kitty Litter Myth you can share this post.
Cat Stuck Up A Tree?
If you locate your missing cat trapped up in a tree and you need assistance, visit the Cat in a Tree Rescue. If you live in Western Washington you can contact Canopy Cat Rescue, a non-profit organization that specializes in cats stuck in trees. 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.
Disclaimer: Initially posted on Missing Pet Partnership’s website (which was developed by MPP Founder Kat Albrecht), the following lost pet recovery advice is part of MAR Network’s 8-week and 10-week Missing Animal Response (MAR) Course and is posted on this site both to help train volunteer and professional lost pet recovery resources and to benefit pet owners needing advice. Feel free to link to this page so that this info may be shared in order to educate pet owners in your community.