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, the organization estimates, are “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.
The Various Reasons Cats Get Lost
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 Nicole Cottam, MS, behavior service coordinator at the Cummings School. “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,” she points out, “in which case it might hide until it 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 it can take a nap undisturbed. It may be lethargic and simply unwilling to move once it has found a comfortable resting spot.
Also, notes Ms. Cottam, an indoor cat that has become ill may be inclined to hide in order to conceal its infirmity. And a cat whose owners have brought another animal, canine or feline, into the home may be wary and will hide until it 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, she observes, “when it hears a refrigerator door opening or other sounds that it associates with food preparation.”
Importance of Spaying and Neutering Your Cats
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 Ms. Cottam.
Research has shown, she says, 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,” she points out, “a cat, whether intact or neutered, may find a comfortable hiding place and just stay in the same spot until its hunger drives it back home. The indoor-outdoor cat is likely to come home to check in with its owners and look for food once or twice a day. But if it 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.”
Among the possibilities: a lost and wandering cat can get run over by a car; it can be attacked by a wild animal, such as a coyote; it could get itself hopelessly confined within a shed or other outbuilding from which it is unable to escape; it could become trapped in a parked automobile and unintentionally transported out of the area; or it could conceivably be caught and stolen by a “catnapper” — someone motivated by malice or possible financial gain.
Tips for Keeping Your Cat Happy At Home
Following are several ways in which you can make life safe and pleasant for your cat, reduce his anxieties, and help discourage him from hiding within your home or vanishing from it altogether:
Be cautious about introducing a new cat or dog into your household. “People should be aware that this is going to cause some degree of fearfulness in your cat,” says Ms. Cottam. “Introduce the new pet gradually, and keep the animals separated. 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 perhaps weeks before the cat overcomes its fear.” (See related article on page 7 of this issue.)
Never punish your cat. “If he misbehaves — has an accident outside of its 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 or garage. If you want to keep the cat inside but also want to allow him the potential 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 leash. “You can take your cat for a walk now and then by putting him on a leash. 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 and useful in the wild.”
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. An indoor cat can be very happy as he pursues and catches this substitute rodent.”
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. The fence should curve inward at the top. This will prevent your cat from being able to leap over it.”
In addition, Ms. Cottam urges 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 his 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 its 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 his home, notes Ms. Cottam. They may, however, lessen the risk that the animal will do so — a dangerous adventure that could have grim consequences.