According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, well over 86 million cats currently live in U.S. homes. Two-thirds of them are considered “indoor-only” feline companions — their owners keep them confined within the home at all times. The remaining one-third are so-called “indoor-outdoor” cats — they are free to trot in and out of their owners’ houses as the mood strikes them.
Unfortunately, both types of cats can develop the upsetting habit of performing Houdini-like vanishing acts, mysteriously disappearing for hours, days or even longer before suddenly reappearing — as if by magic — to resume their normal day-to-day behavior. In some cases, however, an owner’s worst fears may be realized: The wandering cat never does return.
Various reasons to disappear
A wide variety of reasons can prompt a well-fed, tenderly cared-for cat to conceal itself within the confines of its owner’s house or apartment or to roam the great outdoors, says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Professor Emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “If an indoor cat’s owners have recently moved into a new house, for example, the cat may feel insecure and unsure of its surroundings — in which case, she might hide until she feels comfortable or is hungry.”
It’s more likely, however, that an indoor cat just wants to find a quiet place to be alone, a place where she can take a nap undisturbed. She may be lethargic and simply unwilling to move once she has found a comfortable resting spot.
Also, an indoor cat that has become ill may be inclined to hide in order to conceal her illness. And a cat whose owners have brought another animal, canine or feline, into the home may be wary and will hide until she senses that the new arrival does not pose a threat.
Usually, however, a strictly indoor cat that has sequestered itself in some obscure spot — an attic, for example, or a corner of a darkened hallway or under a sofa — will typically come around when she hears a refrigerator door opening or other sounds that she associates with food preparation.
Importance of spay & neuter
A cat that lives primarily indoors — but whose owners allow it to enter or leave the house as it wishes — poses a different set of challenges if it does not come back home when expected. Especially vulnerable in this regard are unneutered cats who by nature will travel long distances in search of a mate — an instinctive drive that is especially true of male cats, notes Dr. Dodman.
Unneutered males will roam
Research has shown that roaming cats will typically confine their travels to within a few hundred feet of their homes. But unneutered males may roam much greater distances in search of a mate.
Once outside, a cat — whether intact or neutered — may find a comfortable hiding place and just stay in the same spot until her hunger drives her back home. The indoor-outdoor cat is likely to come home to check in with her owners and look for food once or twice a day. But if she misses more than one of those check-ins and hasn’t been seen for 24 hours, you should be on the alert that something has gone wrong and start a search plan immediately.
Among the possibilities: a lost and wandering cat can get run over by a car; she can be attacked by a wild animal, such as a coyote; she could become confined within a shed or other outbuilding from which she is unable to escape; she could become trapped in a parked vehicle and unintentionally transported out of the area; or she could conceivably be caught and stolen by a “catnapper” — someone motivated by malice or possible financial gain.
Some tips to follow
Following are several ways in which you can make life safe and pleasant for your cat, reduce her anxieties, and help discourage her from hiding within your home or vanishing from it altogether:
– Be cautious about introducing a new cat or dog into your household too quickly. People should be aware that this may cause some degree of fearfulness in your cat. Therefore, introduce the new pet gradually, and keep the animals separated for a period of time.
They should be able to see each other but not be able to get at each other physically. If your cat is afraid, you shouldn’t force him to come out of hiding and interact. It could be a matter of days or weeks before the cat overcomes its fear.
– It’s never a good idea to punish your cat. If she misbehaves — has an accident outside of her litter box, for example — don’t yell or stomp your feet. This is likely to make the cat afraid of you and go into hiding whenever he sees you.
– Keep all doors to the outside of your home closed. If possible, always enter and leave your home by the same door. And it should preferably be a door that does not open directly to the outdoors, but instead leads into another inside area, such as a mudroom, enclosed porch or garage.
If you want to keep the cat inside but also want to allow her the joy of being exposed to the outside world, you might want to try a sealed enclosure — a cage with a little door that is attached from the inside to an open window. An alternative is an outdoor cage that is tightly sealed to prevent the animal’s escape.
– Use a harness and leash. You can take your cat for a walk now and then by putting her on a harness and leash (be sure to try this out indoors to make sure she can’t easily escape the harness). Some cats may not like this, but it’s certainly worth trying. If the cat does get used to it, this can provide the animal with a lot of environmental enrichment.
– Install scratching posts. One or more of these posts, placed at various locations within the house, will allow the animal to engage in scratching behavior that would be normal in the wild.
– Regularly engage your cat in mock hunting activities. There is a hunting instinct that is present even in indoor cats, so you should try to engage your animal in activities within the house that allow him to exercise this instinct. For instance, you can drag a furry ball on a string across a carpet to mimic the movement of a mouse. It is important to try to schedule regular play for your indoor cat — for his environmental enrichment and also a good way to get some exercise and avoid obesity.
– Enclose your property. If you’d like to let your cat go outside for exercise and fresh air now and then, surround your backyard with a very tall fence. Ideally, the fence should curve inward at the top. This will prevent your cat from being able to leap over it.
Make sure your home is safe
In addition, experts urge owners to become familiar with all of a cat’s hiding places and to make sure they are safe. If, for example, the cat seems to like hiding inside a washing machine or wood stove, you must prevent her access by keeping its doors tightly shut when not in use. And, of course, unless you intend to breed your cat, your pet should be spayed or neutered, which will discourage his or her impulse to leave home and roam in search of a mate.
None of these measures, of course, is guaranteed to prevent a cat from leaving the safe confines of her home. They may, however, lessen the risk that the animal will do so — a dangerous adventure that could have unwanted consequences.
How to Locate Your Lost Cat
If your cat has been absent from your home for 24 hours, it’s time to take action. To recover a missing cat, experts recommend the following:
– Conduct a thorough search that covers every obscure area — high and low — within 500 feet of your home. Keep in mind that a curious indoor cat who suddenly finds herself in unfamiliar outdoor surroundings may be terrified and will do everything possible to keep herself concealed. Look in the various nooks and crannies that may be appealing to a frightened cat. Don’t assume that she will come when you call her! Her fear instinct may have kicked in and she is in “survival mode.”
– Go door to door in your area, alerting neighbors that the cat is missing. Have several current photographs of the animal on hand. Current photos will be more effective than a verbal description.
– Place notices in your local post office, library, schools and so forth that describe the lost cat and provide necessary information on how you can be contacted if she is found.
– Ask personnel at nearby animal shelters and humane organizations whether any cat fitting the description of your missing cat has turned up. Here’s where current photos will also come in handy.
– If possible, have proof that you are the owner of a cat that has been found by a neighbor or turned in to an animal shelter.
– Borrow a humane trap from your local shelter and put very tasty food in it to see if this may lure her.
Forms of Identification to Utilize
Several identification methods are available that can improve your chances of recovering your lost cat. “The more of these measures you take, the better,” emphasize experts. The three most frequently used methods are collars with ID tags, tattoos and microchips.
– Collars and tags that are worn around a cat’s neck should contain at least the owner’s name, address and telephone number. These tags are inexpensive, but they can wear out, break or be ripped off by a cat. Be sure that you update the information if anything changes.
– Tattoos usually carry a number specifically assigned to a cat by a registry organization that maintains health records and ownership information for that specific animal. The tattooing must be performed by a veterinarian or a properly trained specialist. It is a painless procedure, typically done on a cat’s inner leg or on the inside of its outer ear. Unfortunately, a tattoo is likely to become illegible over time, and the procedure will have to be repeated.
– A microchip is a tiny electronic device, about the size of a pea, which is quickly and painlessly implanted under a cat’s skin, between its shoulder blades. The device houses a memory circuit that contains a registry number specifically assigned to the cat and provides a permanent means of identifying that animal. Just be sure that the number is registered and that you update your contact information any time you move, change your phone number, etc. Otherwise, a potential rescuer can hit a dead end when trying to contact you.