Into the Night: The Conundrum of Lost Cats
By: Leslie Harris
Seek and Ye Shall Find
Would you know what to do if your cat got lost? New evidence shows that the search process for an indoor cat who has escaped to the outdoors differs radically from that used to find an indoor-outdoor cat who has disappeared.
At her website http://www.lostapet.org/, pet detective Kat Albrecht uses her experience to help people find their lost cats. But Kat is careful to note that the search for an escaped indoor cat and the search for a missing outdoor cat should be conducted very differently.
If your indoor cat accidentally slips into the great outdoors, the first question you should ask yourself is “where is she hiding?” A cat who lives exclusively indoors is likely to be terrified upon venturing outside. Most likely, she has sought the very first available hiding space—a shrub, a porch, a garage—and holed up. Cats who are normally shy around strangers will stay in this hiding place, remaining silent, even as their frantic people walk right past them calling their name.
Here’s Kat’s recommended process for finding a lost indoor cat:
- Concentrate your search on a 3-house radius around your own home.
Use flashlights and comb every potential hiding place—under bushes, porches, piled building material, crawl spaces, etc.
- Set a baited humane trap near the closest hiding place to the escape point. This technique often catches a shy indoor cat.
- Most indoor cats who escape hole up and don’t move. The cat may not eat, relieve herself, or make a sound. She will likely even ignore her humans walking back and forth in front of her hiding place calling her name.
Outdoor Cats Gone Astray:
Finding an outdoor cat who goes missing is a different story. According to Kat, people who lose their indoor-outdoor cat need to ask themselves, not “where is my cat hiding?” but “what happened to my cat?”
Outdoor cats can meet with any number of ill fates—from traffic accidents to predatory dogs or wildlife. Because outdoor cats typically have a well-defined outdoor territory, they will often disappear into a safe place within that territory if they become injured. That means the search needs to start with a place that acts as the cat’s outdoor litterbox (under a porch or a shrub is still a likely place to start).
An outdoor cat who becomes frightened and gets chased out of his territory may revert to the behavior of the indoor cat. Outside his territory, an outdoor cat will likely find the first hiding place available and hole up. This means asking your neighbors to keep an eye out for your cat or, better yet, allow you to search their outdoor property for him. Again, a baited humane trap is a great way to capture a wary pet who has become displaced.
Keep in mind that thousands of perfectly friendly cats in our community end up in animal shelters because they become separated from their families. Without some form of identification, neighbors and shelter workers have no way of knowing how to find a lost cat’s family.
Helping a Lost Cat Home:
The shorthaired orange cat had been hanging around the nice lady’s condominium for weeks. He wasn’t wearing a collar and he ate voraciously. In short, the big orange guy seemed lost.
The lady posted flyers around her neighborhood and ran an ad in the newspaper. Having given up hope that the cat’s family would come forward to claim him, she brought the big boy to the local animal shelter.
As with all new animals, the orange cat underwent a physical examination upon admission to the shelter. That’s when the shelter staff noticed that his nails had recently been trimmed.
Suspicious that truly homeless cats were unlikely to have neatly trimmed nails, the staff called the nice lady back. She hadn’t trimmed his nails for him.
So the staff encouraged the nice lady to help them with an experiment. They put a collar on him with a tag that said “if this is your cat call (the nice lady’s phone number).” The nice lady came to the shelter, took the orange cat back, and turned him loose outside her condo.
Sure enough, she soon received a phone call from someone in her condo group. The orange cat belonged to them. He was living at home and just visiting the nice lady (to eat her food, of course!). His family wasn’t paying any attention to the found cat flyers the lady posted or reading the lost and found ads…because their cat was coming home everyday!
Most of the thousands of homeless adult cats entering animal shelters are perfectly friendly, loving…lost cats. They are wearing no traceable identification, often look very much alike, and are probably taken from their own neighborhoods by neighbors with good intentions.
If you find a lost cat, do your best to find his first family before taking him to your local animal shelter.
Here are a few tips:
- Check the cat for a collar and tag. If he isn’t wearing one and he’ll let you pick him up safely, take him to a local animal shelter or veterinary hospital and ask them to scan him for a microchip. While you are there, the staff can help you determine the cat’s breed and color (standardizing color descriptions in lost and found reports is a nightmare for shelter workers…Is she a Blue-cream? A dilute tortoiseshell? A muted calico?). They’ll also help you determine the cat’s sex (oh, the stories we could tell you about the “terribly pregnant” female cats who turn out to be portly neutered males!).
- Put a collar and a tag on the cat asking his people to call you.
- Place notices in all of your neighbors’ mailboxes. Don’t just go to the houses on either side of you…walk up the road and around the block. While lost indoor cats are usually only 2-3 houses away, a frightened outdoor cat might run several houses away and then become disoriented.
- Don’t assume that you know what all of your neighbors’ cats look like. Remember that many of your neighbors probably have indoor-only cats that you have never seen.
- Don’t assume that thin or limping cats are abused. One nice lady found a tiny, emaciated black cat who was limping. She assumed the worse—that someone had tossed the little darling from a moving car. It took an hour of constant encouragement to get the nice lady to post signs about the cat in her neighborhood. Not only was she sure she knew what all her neighbors’ cats looked like, she didn’t want to return this cat to a life of abuse. Sure enough, the cat wasn’t an abused little kitten. He was an elderly cat in end stage kidney failure with arthritis. He had always lived indoors and had wandered off when the pet sitter’s back was turned. He was able to return to live safely with his family.
Tag…You’re It! Seventy-five percent of the lost dogs who enter an animal shelter will be reunited with their people. Only two percent of lost cats in shelters will find their original caretakers again. Why the startling difference? Because most people put tags on their dogs. Not only do dog licensing laws require that your dog be tagged, but more people are likely to put a collar and a personal identification tag on their dog.
Cats are a little more slippery. Many people believe collars to be unsafe, fearing that their cat, in her inevitable gymnastics, will snag her collar and hang herself. Fortunately, expandable or breakaway safety collars are available. These collars are designed to stretch and peel off over the cat’s head or simply come unsnapped when the cat strains them.
Of course, there are always those anti-establishment cats who think “Collars? We don’t need no stinking collars!” and they manage to pull them right off over their head and bat them around on the linoleum. For these cats, may we suggest the microchip.
A rice-sized radio transmitter, a microchip can be easily implanted into the scruff of skin over your cat’s shoulders. Once the cat finds himself in an animal shelter or a veterinary hospital as a stray, the staff can scan him, detect the microchip, and trace its unique identifying number back to you.
While microchips aren’t the solution to every lost cat situation, they are a back-up strategy for cats who can’t or won’t wear collars.
Think your cat doesn’t need to wear identification because she lives exclusively indoors? It is a rare indoor cat who doesn’t stage at least one great breakout during her lifetime. An identifying tag or microchip (preferably both) can be her ticket home.
Leslie Harris is the former Executive Director of the Dakin Humane Society.