Cat Care & Advice

My cat is lost! What should I do?

If your cat is missing at dinner-time, your most natural and sensible reaction will be to wait a while. He might have had a snack elsewhere, or be otherwise engaged in the neighbourhood. If he has still not returned at bedtime, look for him in the house first, checking every corner and drawer before starting a search in the street. Shine a torch into bushes and hedges: if he has come to harm and crawled into hiding, it will probably be too late to save his life if he is not discovered until next day. If he is not found, then the catflap must be left open day and night until he returns.

 

If the cat is still missing next morning, there is reason for concern. You should immediately telephone all local vets and animal hospitals with a detailed description, in case he is brought in or reported found. Next, leave plenty of food outside both the front and back doors, taking care to replace it immediately if eaten by other cats. This is especially important if the cat is new to the house or not used to being outside: the smell of food may attract him back. In addition, leave an item carrying your scent (ideally an old shoe) outside both doors, to help him to identify his house.

 

There are a number of things that may have happened to the cat:

 

  • He may have got onto the street through his own front door or through a window, or via a neighbouring house. Remember that cats can squeeze through gaps as narrow as 2″ high (even, in the case of Honeypot, a 4-month kitten, a gap of 1″).
  • He may have been snooping around in another house and become locked in, remaining undiscovered for some time. Especially during the holiday season, you should check any houses that show no lights at night. Calling at the window late at night may result in the appearance of a little face, or the call of a faint little voice from inside. It may be necessary to gain access to an empty house: the police are often helpful in such situations.
  • Your cat could be locked into a shed, garage, coalbunker, derelict house, building site or even a vacant flat.
  • Open floorboards offer tempting but treacherous hiding places. Partly for safety reasons, builders will often not co-operate and will maintain that there is no cat inside: they would otherwise have heard it! This is a misconception: whereas some cats will protest loudly when they find themselves trapped, others will not make a sound for fear of discovery. Their inbred wild instincts take over, and they lose their normal trust in people in this frightening situation. In such cases, we sign a declaration of indemnity if required, and then search the place painstakingly, peering down beneath the floorboards and shining a torch to the end of each joist in search of clues like pawprints in the dust or the gleam of eyes. Although builders will insist that there is no passage under the floor between rooms, gaps left for copper piping have proved large enough for cats to squeeze through.
  • The cat may have been stolen, or simply carried away by children and been unable to find his way home when they tired of their game.
  • “The cat must have deliberately crawled away to die…”: this is a very commonly used explanation for the disappearance of an elderly or sick cat, and in my opinion is a misinterpretation of what really happens. As long as a cat is not in pain and can walk, he will continue his habitual round through neighbouring gardens, checking on his territory.
  • Finally, and sadly, foxes can sometimes attack or kill cats.

However, you need to think positively and start an extensive search for your missing cat.

  • First, put large waterproof notices on trees and lamp-posts, starting near your home and widening the area to streets further away as time goes on. Renew these notices if necessary, so that people know that the cat is still missing. The words LOST, CAT and its COLOUR, as well as your telephone number should be in 2-3″ high letters so that people can read them from cars and take the number down as they drive past. DO NOT give your address! People in the past who have done this have had a number of similar-coloured cats dumped on their doorstep – especially by well-meaning children – and so even more cats have ended up misplaced.
  • Put notes through letterboxes asking people to leave their sheds and outhouses open for a while, so that a trapped cat can escape. A shy cat will often hide behind stored articles and will not come out immediately if it hears strange people. In my experience few people will go out of their way to help find a missing cat, so the owner should press for permission to check sheds and gardens personally. We have had cases where cats became trapped between fences or between a fence and a shed: one had a fatal outcome, the body being found 2 months later.
  • Make contact with your local cat feeder (vets will usually know who this is). Your cat may already have joined his or her free buffet.
  • Although lost cats are usually found less than 200 yards away, you will need to enlarge your radius of searching and leafletting before long. Lost cats may move on fast in search of food.
  • Equipped with a cat-basket, food dish and torch, continue nightly searches. It is vital to do this completely silently, wearing soft shoes. A lost cat will run away when it hears people approaching or talking, and will refuse to respond out of fear – which will increase the longer he has been lost. As your search should be made late at night, remember to call in a low voice – cats can hear far better than people. It is important to stand totally still in one spot for many minutes, calling at intervals and listening for an answer. In almost all cases in which we have been involved, we have managed to hear the cat and recover it. Usually he was just a few streets away. In two cases we shuffled our soles along the pavement on the way home and were delighted when the cat returned a few hours later. We had no idea where he had been, but he may well have heard us calling and been too shy to respond; however, once all was quiet he checked the spot where we had been and followed our scent home. On several occasions we have managed to attract a very shy ex-feral cat with the help of a tape-recording made in his home at feeding-time, with the sounds of a tin-opener, rattling biscuits, begging cats and familiar human voices – in one case, the sound of a child’s music practice!
  • Fortunately, lost cats often end up in the gardens of kind people who recognise their plight and start feeding. Once they see your notices and contact you, it is only a matter of time and patience to entice the cat into a basket or trap.
  • Cats can squeeze into the smallest places. In one case a couple moved and left two cats behind. Luckily a neighbour noticed them appearing at an upper window and began pushing food under a gap in the door, but neither the RSPCA nor the police could find any trace of the cats in the house. By chance we met a concerned policeman, and went to see the feeder. By a process of elimination we concluded that they were hiding behind a wooden kitchen unit and tested the theory by sprinkling the floor and inside of the cupboard with flour. Next morning footprints confirmed their hiding place, and we were able to trap the cats, have them treated for poisoning, and rehome them.

The search for a lost cat can become tiring and disheartening, but you must not give up! Unfortunately people often stop looking for their lost cat too soon. Many times I have been asked for a new kitten only a few days after a cat has gone missing: “He must be miles away… Somebody must have taken him… He’ll be all right, he’s a survivor”. Such comments show an unwillingness to persevere and a lack of affection and loyalty. More anxious owners keep asking: “Do you think I shall get him back?”. The answer is quite simple: only if you do not give up! If you stop looking, your cat really will be lost and may end up as a stray. If you persevere you may well get your cat back – or at least find a valid explanation for his disappearance.

 

WHAT CAN I DO TO PREVENT MY CAT BECOMING LOST?

Keeping the cat off the street as much as possible, and, in particular, keeping him locked indoors at night will reduce the chance considerably. At night cats will venture further and will encounter more dangers.

 

Microchips and collars with an address/’phone number are a great help in returning a lost cat to his owner. Collars can be dangerous, but fortunately it is now possible to buy totally safe cat collars with a special plastic section that will come apart if the cat is caught up or tries to free itself. Microchips are an increasingly used aid for reuniting lost cats with their owners: a minute device containing a unique identification number is injected by the vet under the cat’s skin between the shoulderblades. The identification number is detected using a special scanner and is held on a national registry. A lost cat can be scanned by a vet, vet nurse or rescue agency, the microchip number identified and the owner contacted via the registry. Recently we have had several cases of cats returned to their homes using this method.

 

© Elke de Vries, CAT 1977 Fieldwork Advisor, 1999

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