What do cats do when they’re lost? It’s not what you might think

Lost cats hide when they get out

Understanding what’s going on in your cat’s furry head will help you to get them back.

So put on your cat suit and learn what they’re likely to do and how to increase your chances of finding them.

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Lost cat knowledge from the Missing Animal Response Network

The Missing Animal Response Network (formerly Missing Pet Partnership) is an American not-for-profit organisation, founded by former police detective, Kat Albrecht.

The Missing Animal Response Network has expert knowledge on what cats do when displaced from their homes. It’s not what you might think.

It turns out that checking vets and shelters, putting fliers on lamp posts and posting on Facebook isn’t very effective in finding lost cats.Not effective at all.

What lost cats do

The Missing Animal Response Network has found that:

  1. They’re unlikely to be at a shelter or pound  Only 2% of cats are found at shelters. Most cats either come home on their own (very rare for a scaredy cat or tame foster cat) or are found from doing an active search of your own, and neighbours’, properties.
  2. They’re probably nearby  Being territorial, cats usually stay very close to where they got out, especially if they’re scaredy cats. Confident cats may explore a little more.
  3. They’ll be silent and won’t respond when you call At home, they might drive you nuts with miaowing when they’re hungry, but now, they’re frightened. Very frightened. To keep themselves safe, they will usually be completely silent. They won’t miaow or call for you, even if injured. So there’s little point calling for them, as it’s unlikely they will come, no matter how much you shake the munchies tin. Annoying!
  4. They’ll go hungry They will often hide until starvation forces them to move (7 to 14 days).
  5. You need to search for them Most cats are found from really thorough searching of nearby properties.
  6. You need to search yourself  Neighbours don’t care about your cat like you do. They won’t search their property like it needs to be done – you will need to do this. If they don’t like cats, they won’t search at all.
  7. You need to search at night  Searching at night with a strong, focused torch, looking for your cat’s eyeshine, is the best use of your time. Cats are more likely to come out at night and their eyeshine makes it really easy to see them. Be thorough – crawl or look under houses, under decks, under bushes, check nooks and crannies in sheds, up trees, on rooves etc.
  8. You may need to use a humane trap  Scaredy cats can be delicate and anxious beings at the best of times. When displaced, they’re even more so. Even confident cats sometimes require trapping when ‘away from home’.Watch a video from the Missing Animal Response Network on what lost cats do.

What lost cats don’t do

There’s no evidence that these will help find your lost cat:

  • putting their litter tray out or spreading their cat litter around
  • assuming they’ve gone away to die. Sure, it’s possible they may be weak and unwell but it’s more likely that they’re simply unable to make their way home, rather than that they’ve deliberately disappeared to die. We’re pretty sure they’d prefer to be safely at home with you, than on their own in unfamiliar territory
  • assuming they’ve been killed


Other tips

    1. Think small  If a cat can fit their head through something – they will turn it sideways if they have to – they can fit their body through it. So don’t discount tiny gaps – most can easily get through 5cm. Check out some gaps that cats have got through inside houses and cats getting out of crates to give you some (scary!) insight into what our feline friends are capable of.

Amarisa squeezed through this tiny gap under a house. She was there for five days before we found her.

  1. Don’t rely on Facebook  Asking on Facebook for people to ‘keep an eye out’ is great for dogs, not so great for timid cats (but we understand the desperate need to try everything).
  2. Get support  Searching for missing cats is stressful, frustrating and time consuming; gather understanding people around you for moral support and to help you search.
  3. Try vets and shelters, but don’t rely on them  While searching will most likely be the key to finding your cat, it’s still worth calling nearby vets and visiting pounds and shelters every few days, if only to give you some peace of mind that you are doing everything you can.
  4. Visit pounds and shelters – don’t call  When you call a pound or shelter, most don’t physically look at the cats there – they rely on information in their database. If staff have listed your cat as a tortie when she’s a tabby, or as a female when he’s a male, you may miss them. This is why personally visiting is important – frustrating, but important.Also be aware that people may take a cat to their own vet, or nearest shelter, rather than the one closest to where they found the cat. Australia doesn’t have any interconnected database of found animals, so call as many vets and visit as many shelters as you can. Enlist local people to help you with the visits. Facebook lost animal pages can be good for this.
  5. Don’t give up  Cats have good survival instincts. Unless you find their body, please try to keep searching. They need you now, more than ever, to be thorough, persistent and hopeful, so that they can have the life you were both working towards – one where they are safe, valued and loved.
    Make sure you keep a record of your searching – just looking at the long list of properties you’ve doorknocked and searched may help you to feel less a little less hopeless, as you can see how much you’re doing to find them. The more you search, the closer you are to finding them, or understanding what may have happened to them.

The starvation factor

You know how cats often won’t eat for a couple of days when they move to a new home? Well, when they’re lost from their territory – your home – fear is likely to be their greatest feeling, rather than hunger.

In fact, the Missing Animal Response Network has found that cats will often hide for one or two weeks after becoming displaced from their territory. Yikes! They wait until they’re starving before ‘breaking cover’, which makes things even harder for you. So don’t give up.

Missing cat research – some hard stats

In conjunction with the Missing Animal Response Network (formerly Missing Pet Partnership), the University of Queensland conducted research on lost cat behaviour and how they were found. This wasn’t targeted just to timid cats. It included confident cats.

Their research found that cats rarely travel far from where they were lost and that CSI-type searching is the best way of finding them.

Here are their findings.

How far they were found from home

  • 50% of cats were found within a 50m radius – 2-3 average-sized houses
  • 75% were found within a 500m radius
  • 9% were found more than 2km away
  • Indoor-outdoor cats travelled further than indoor-only cats

Where they were found

  • 83% were found outside
  • 11% were found inside someone else’s house (usually very cheeky cats who get into mischief!)
  • 4% were found inside their own home
  • 2% were found at a shelter/pound
  • the cat’s personality didn’t affect where cats were found, other than very cheeky cats aka curious/clown cats – 18% of them were found inside someone else’s house!

Watch a video on the findings, by Emeritus Professor Jacquie Rand of the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation. .

Video – Find your lost cat

After receiving training from the Missing Animal Response Network, one proactive American shelter has made an excellent video on how to find your lost cat – whether they’re timid, inside-only or inside-outside. It is based on lost cat research.

Got it. Now what?

Now that you understand what your timid cat is probably doing – hiding! – it’s time to start searching. You first need to triple check that they’re not inside your home. If you’re pawsitive they’re not there, it’s time to search your property outside.

Finding confident cats

Finding confident cats is easier than finding scaredy cats, as they’re less likely to be comatose with fear for as long. If your cat is very confident and likely to approach strangers, in addition to the methods on the other pages (not instead of!), you could try:

  • listing them on various Lost Animal Facebook groups. Just be aware that cats aren’t commonly found this way and this shouldn’t substitute for active searching.
  • tagging your car to create a mobile billboard
  • using your house as a trap
  • using big signs.

Why sharing on Facebook is unlikely to help

Doing a Facebook post where you ask people to ‘keep a lookout’ for your missing cat and ‘share’ may be one of the first things you’ll want to do.

Sadly, for a timid cat, it is more likely that it will give you, and the people who’ve shared your post, a false sense that you’ve helped find your cat, without actually helping them.


Firstly, timid cats hide when they’re lost from their homes. It is hard to find someone you can’t see. Your cat has much better hearing, and eyesight, than a human. The sad reality is that your cat is likely to either run, or be completely still, if they see or hear a person.

Secondly, timid cats generally stay close to where they got out. Unless you reach your nearby neighbours through the Facebook post, the people who’ve seen the post are unlikely to be anywhere near your cat.

Facebook can’t replace searching

By all means, post on Facebook, but please, please don’t let this be the only action you take. Your kitty really needs you to put your detective hat on, doorknock (not letterbox) your neighbours and thoroughly search for them. Their very life could depend on it.

Of the 60 or so lost cats we have been involved with, none were found from a Facebook post.

‘Lost your cat?’ educational flier

Getting2Zero, an Australian organisation focused on reducing killing in Australian pounds and shelters, has published an excellent ‘Lost your cat?’ flier. It has all the basic information you need. It isn’t easy to find by searching – you might like to bookmark it.

G2Z will be encouraging pounds and shelters to give the flier to people who are seeking help finding their lost cat.