First, be sure your cat actually has gotten outside the house. Cats are very good at hiding and may not come when called, so unless you know for sure your cat has gotten out, conduct a thorough physical search of your house. This means opening every drawer, turning over every sofa, etc. one room at a time. A cat was once found inside a piano, napping and not responding to calls, while its owner thought it was lost.
You may have reason to believe your cat has gotten out. Maybe there is a broken screen or a window was left open or someone saw the cat get out. If there is reason to believe the cat has gotten out, it is important to know if he snuck out at a time when it was quiet or if he escaped when he was scared by construction work at your house, a thunderstorm, or another “traumatic” event and rocketed out of the house. This can affect how far you need to search.
In general, indoor only cats have very predictable behavior – they get outside, freak out, and hide near the house. As a result, cats in this situation are typically found within a block or two from where they got out. However, they will NOT come to you because they are in self-preservation or “survivor mode” which causes them to hide in fear and silence to protect themselves from predators. They essentially behave like a feral cat.
Your cat’s personality can impact the search. A shy cat is much more likely to hide in silence. A very outgoing cat MAY respond to you. If you want to try calling for your cat, the time to do this is at night when everything is quiet. Stay in ONE PLACE and call for him or sit with someone else and have a conversation so he can hear your voice. DO NOT walk around calling him. By the time he has mustered the courage to answer you, you will be long gone. You may have to sit outside for 30-45 minutes talking to him. You can record your voice on your phone and play it in a loop.
One way to get a lost indoor-only cat home is to GET THEM TO COME TO YOU using food, toys or your voice. If you know which part of your house the cat escaped from, pick a place near that spot where the cat will feel safe approaching. In most cases, the food should be protected on one side by bushes or a wall, and open on either flank so the cat can run if it feels threatened. The food should be in shadow, not under any kind of light. DO NOT put out a litter box, as this can attract tomcats and predators who can track your cat by his scent and chase your cat out of the area. You can put out an article of your clothing (the smellier, the better) so that your cat smells you.
You will set out a “kitty buffet” in the same place at same time each night. Check the food first thing in the morning and make a log of what food was eaten. You can set out new bait in the morning to refresh the smell. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a hit on the food right away. It can take several days for the cat to build up the courage to look for food and to find the feeding station.
For the kitty buffet, put out lots of stinky “bait”. Take it out of the can and put it in a bowl. Put out a full can of tuna in oil, a full big can of wet cat food, a bowl of dry cat food, and water each night. You should assume that several other cats will eat at your buffet before your cat finds it, so you want to have enough for everyone.
The water is important for two reasons: 1. Your cat will be dehydrated 2. The water will tell you if the one feeding at the buffet is a cat (water will be clean and intact) or a wild animal (water will be gone or filthy). When you get hits on your feeding station, you should put a motion activated, night vision game camera on the feeding station to see who is eating. Charles River Alleycats can loan you a camera. Once the cat is eating at the feeding station, it’s a matter of time before he is home!
If you get calls from your fliers, you will need to determine if the sighting is credible. Ask the caller to describe the cat and ask identifying questions such as whether the cat was wearing a collar and any distinctive markings. Get the name and phone number of the caller, the location the cat was seen, the day and time the cat was seen, and what the cat was doing at the time of the sighting. Ask the caller if they can provide a photo of the cat they sighted. You will need to keep a log of calls you receive noting the above information. If the call could be credible, you will set out a second kitty buffet where the cat was seen and follow what you did on the first feeding station.
Once the cat is used to eating in the same place and same time each night, you can first try to get the cat to come to you. At the time the cat is coming to eat, sit quietly about 15 feet from the feeding spot and call to the cat. DO NOT WALK AROUND AND DO NOT APPROACH THE CAT. Let the cat come to you. We have seen a cat be 10 feet from his owner, with the owner calling to him, and the cat turned and ran in the other direction. They are on high alert and will not behave like their normal selves. If your cat comes near to you but does not acknowledge that he recognizes you by touching you with his head or paws, DO NOT REACH OUT AND GRAB HIM!! He will put you in the hospital! He must come all of the way in to you before you can pick him up. The safest way to transport him is in a pillowcase, it is easier to put him in there than into a carrier when frightened. If you have no luck with this approach, you will need to humanely trap your cat.
PLEASE NOTE: we do NOT put out a trap until the cat is in a pattern of eating at one location at a certain time. If a trap is put out before this pattern is established, it can spook the cat and foil your efforts.
To trap your cat, pick a night that it is not raining. Instead of putting out a kitty buffet, you will bait a humane trap. The trap should be a TruCatch, NOT a Hav-a-Heart. If you catch a raccoon or a skunk in a Hav-a Heart, it is difficult to release. With a TruCatch, you never need to be close to the animal to release it. Once you follow the other steps listed above, you can borrow the trap from Charles River Alleycats or local animal shelter. Put three or so tiny morsels of food in a trail leading into the trap. The main food goes all the way at the back of the trap.
The trap should be set on level ground and should not be visible to the general public. You do not want a cat in a trap to be stolen by someone ill-intentioned. NEVER leave the trap out open and baited in the rain. Lock the trap open the trap anytime you can not be nearby to monitor.
Be patient. Sometimes the search is over in a night or two, and sometimes it takes weeks. But if you follow these instructions, we are confident you can get your cat back. We follow this method for people we have helped, and have recovered over 90% of lost indoor cats we have helped with.
The average time a cat is lost is two and a half weeks. They have been recovered months or even years later. Cats are resilient and are survivors.