What does talking to stray cats, urinating into a cup, and spreading dirty kitty litter all have in common? All three are methods that cat owners have falsely been told will help to bring their lost cat back home. But how do we know these methods are false or ineffective, especially when so many people have used these methods and their cats have returned home? The answer is found in, of all things, science!
First, We Need To Look At The History Of Lost Cat Behavior.
Prior to 1998, there was nothing on the Internet about lost cat behaviors. I know that because I began to study the topic back then and there were no hits on Google. I was inspired to research “lost cat behaviors” back then because at the time I was aware that much had already been studied about “lost person behaviors.” By examining the distances that certain categories of people (i.e. hunters, berry pickers, backpackers) travel when lost, search managers are now able to predict the distance people will travel and dispatch search teams accordingly, thus increasing the probability of recovery.
So in 1998, I began to study lost cat behavior. I looked at where they were found, their temperaments, the distances that they traveled, and the most successful recovery methods. This is how I discovered two of the most important behaviors: “The Silence Factor” and “The Threshold Factor.”
The “Silence Factor” is the principle that when a cat is sick, injured, or panicked and afraid, it will hide in silence, often within its own territory. This is critical because, for so many years, cat owners have been told to expand their search for miles and miles when in fact, research has since proven that because of their territorial nature, cats do not travel very far when lost. What that means is they are more likely to be found either in your own yard (trapped, hiding in fear, deceased) or inside your neighbor’s yards than they are to be found 20 miles from your home.
The “Threshold Factor” is the principle that panicked cats (i.e. indoor-only cats that have escaped outside, outdoor-access cats that were scared by fireworks or beaten up by another cat) will hide in silence until they reach a certain threshold point. When the cat reaches his threshold, which sometimes is as short at several hours and as long as several weeks, he will finally break cover (and return to the door he escaped from), meow, or enter a baited humane trap if one has been set outside.
A cat’s Threshold point likely has more to do with the cat’s temperament and his comfort level than it has to do with anything in the environment (i.e. food, kitty litter, etc.). A super skittish “feral-like” cat that escapes outside might take weeks to reach his threshold point and, in some cases, might never reach a threshold point to where he would willingly come home. On the other hand, a cat with a friendly temperament that escapes outside might respond and come back to the window he jumped out of within just a few hours or, more often, within a few days. In most cases, these cats never travel far but rather they are hiding near their escape point.
By 2001, we (myself and the “pet detective” students I have trained) had seen enough repeated cases of these two behaviors (Silence Factor and Threshold Factor) that we began to consistently coach cat owners who’d lost their cat to focus their search efforts on their own property and their neighbor’s property. It was very clear that some (not all) cats were returning home on their own, regardless of whether their owners had left any food, water, or any object outside. Over and over again we received reports like, “I found him! He was hiding under my deck all along!” or “She’s home! She was hiding under a shed in my neighbor’s yard.” We advised owners to place wildlife cameras in their yards and many who did were able to confirm that their cat WAS still in their neighborhood and they just needed to focus on trapping their cat.
Along Comes a Meme
Then, sometime after 2015 (and well over 14 years after we discovered the Threshold Factor), a meme began to circulate on social media platforms. It said, “If an indoor cat gets outside and lost, put their dirty litter box outside. They can smell it from up to a mile away and find their way home.” Suddenly, people start trying this. Lo and behold, dirty litter is being set out and cats are returning to their front doors. The meme caught on in social media circles like wildfire and the people who put dirty litter boxes out and had their cats return home within hours or days were convinced it was all due to the dirty kitty litter box. But here’s the problem. They assumed that a cause-and-effect relationship existed between the dirty kitty litter (cause) and their cat returning home (effect).
However, anyone who has taken a statistics class is familiar with the statement, “Correlation does not imply causation.” This statement refers to the fact that you can’t legitimately claim a cause-and-effect relationship (dirty kitty litter causes lost cats to come home) between two variables strictly based on an association.
The suggestion to put a dirty kitty litter box on your doorstep to help bring your cat back home is called a “questionable-cause fallacy.” The Questionable cause is when someone incorrectly says that one thing causes another. A fallacy is when someone uses false logic to make an argument. An example of a questionable-cause fallacy is to say, “Every time I go to sleep, the sun goes down. Therefore, my going to sleep causes the sun to go down.”
The Dr. Dolittle Method
Last year, I ran across a fascinating article from Japan Today. The title was, “How to find a lost cat: Unique method proves to be surprisingly effective.” The “unique method” they use to recover cats in Japan is, well, pretty nutty. The method is: “Talk to all the cats in your neighborhood and say to them, ‘If you see my cat, please tell him to come home.’ I am sure someone put this into a Japanese meme because apparently, word spread rapidly and people in Japan were out talking to neighborhood cats, and guess what? Lost cats (and even lost dogs) were coming home! The author of the article ended it by saying, “What surprised everyone was the number of responses from other people who said they had similar results with their own lost cats after speaking to stray cats in the area, leaving us wondering if this method might just really work.” (The article did not indicate whether this method only works if you talk to cats in Japanese or if it would work in English, too)
What tipped the scales for me to finally write this blog was that today I heard a new one—someone shared on a lost pet page yet another questionable-cause fallacy when they wrote, “Seems weird, but pee in a cup and pour it on your lawn. My blind cat found his way home within 6 hours after I had been looking for four days.”
WHEN will we stop giving out poor advice and start giving out factual advice that is based on science? For example, the Missing Cat Study (published in 2017) was the first study conducted specifically to learn the typical distances that cats travel when lost as well as the most effective recovery methods. In that study, researchers interviewed over 1,200 cat owners who’d lost and then found their cat and asked a series of questions. What the study showed is that 75% of indoor-only cats that escape outdoors are found within 160 yards (basically within 2 blocks) with a median distance of just 54 yards (a 2 ½ house radius). And 75% of outdoor-access cats who vanish from their territory are found within 1,700 yards (basically within the length of over 1 ½ football fields). According to the study, the most successful search method used (by 96% of participants who found their cat) was conducting a physical search for their lost cat. They didn’t passively wait for their cat to return, like so many cat owners do. Instead, they actively searched the area for their cat.
Why Is It BAD To Put Out Dirty Kitty Litter?
Setting out scent lures—dirty kitty litter box, human urine, even cat food—is a passive approach to finding a lost cat. It promotes a “wait-and-see” approach which is highly dangerous. If you tell a cat owner to put a scent outside their house and everyone says that doing so will “bring your cat home,” human nature shows that cat owners will opt to stay home and wait and see if their cat will come home on his own. Sitting inside your house and waiting for your cat to return is much easier and more comfortable than intruding on your neighbor and asking him if you can go snoop around in his yard on your hands and knees to look for your cat. Many cat owners will ask their neighbor if their neighbor will search their own yard for the missing cat. BIG mistake! Your neighbor is NOT about to crawl around on his/her belly to look under their deck or house for your missing cat, and yet that is where statistics say that your missing cat is most likely to be!
Cat owners who put out a dirty kitty litter box and take the “wait and see” approach or who trust their neighbor to conduct a methodical search of their yard will miss out on finding the cat that is trapped and unable to come home, injured (hidden in silence) and succumbing to infection, or displaced out of fear.
What Should I Do Instead Of Putting Out Dirty Kitty Litter?
It is critical that you ask your neighbors for permission for you to enter their yards slowly and carefully, using a flashlight to check every nook and cranny for your lost cat. In addition to increasing the chances that you will actually find your cat (hidden or trapped), searching neighbor’s yards can actually increase the chance that your missing cat will be encouraged to come home. On multiple cases where our pet detectives entered a neighbor’s yard in search of a lost cat, they did NOT physically find the cat, but within a few hours after they left the “lost” cat returned to the owner’s home! I mean this happens A LOT! These cats are often hidden so well that they are not seen and yet they certainly hear (and likely smell) their owner’s scent. And if this search of the neighbor’s yards occurs a few or several days after the cat went missing, chances are good the cat will be thirsty enough to reach his threshold point and return home.
Don’t overlook the night search where you can use a flashlight to look for eyeshine as well as you’re more likely to hear your cat since the ambient noise levels drop late at night, increasing your ability to hear faint meows. We’ve also seen many cases where a cat was hiding inside a neighbor’s garage which the cat owner actually already initially searched within a few days of the cat vanishing. Turns out that many cats can be hiding inside your neighbor’s garage but if the cat is too panicked and has not reached his threshold point (if he’s only been in the garage for a day or two) when your neighbor lets you search their garage, your cat might not respond. But one week later, the thirsty cat, now accustomed to being inside the neighbor’s garage, may finally meow and break cover during the second search of that same garage. You should also purchase a wildlife camera (they can be purchased cheaply at Walmart in the hunting section) so that you can confirm whether or not your cat is still hanging around your home.
Here’s a story of my blind neighbor’s cat Buddy who did just that, she assumed he ran away but cameras proved that he was returning to the front door multiple times. You can also consider consulting with a lost cat recovery expert like those found in the MARN Network as they can coach you in camera and trap placement and even coach you how to lure your cat to come into your house or garage using a method called “House As Trap.”
Telling cat owners to put out a dirty kitty litter box, to place human urine on their lawn, or to talk to neighborhood cats and ask them to talk to your missing cat is, well, just not sound advice. When it creates false hope and promotes inaction by cat owners who hesitate to conduct a proper search for their cats, dirty cat litter advice can actually do more harm than good.