Help! Cat stuck in duct!
September 26, 2009 10:27 PM   Subscribe

My friend's cat is stuck in her apartment's A/C duct system. What should she do?

She picked him up from a shelter today, and within a few minutes of getting home, he jumped into the A/C system and has not come out. It has been 8 hours.

She contacted the shelter, and the shelter put out an email to lots of cat people. Everyone has advised her to open some food near the duct, which she has done, and wait.

My feeling is that she should do more to recover the cat now. If she's going to have to tear up the floor or other parts of the apartment to retrieve a dead cat, why not do it now and have a good shot of getting it back alive?

She does not know the layout of the duct system. She heard the cat as recently as a few hours ago. People have advised her to wait up to three days for him to come out of his own volition.
posted by holympus to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's not going to die unless there is something about the A/C duct that I don't know! I had a cat who liked to do this. It was annoying but cats generall want to survive and won't starve themselves, just like every other animal. I'd be more worried about the pee/poop smell.

Unless the cat can't find its way it miawing desperately?

I guess she could do something to make the food smell more appetizing, like heat it up or use a fan to waft the smell into the duct...but patience is the best thing. No tearing up floors quite yet.
posted by kathrineg at 10:34 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is the duct large enough for the cat to maneuver around in?

Cats really like red laser lights. Your friend could try getting one of those laser cat toys and shining it near the opening of the duct.
posted by delmoi at 10:39 PM on September 26, 2009

We had a cat get stuck in the duct work once when we were messing with furnace filters. Tried food, calling, listening to pitiful meows and a sheet torn up so she could try to climb up to the upper floor out of one of the returns. What worked was shining a flashlight where she got in so she could see where the exit was.We were just trying to see where she was and 30 seconds later, she was like "Oh that's the way out and I'm hungry".
If the cat's just hiding and scared, try playing with a shiny chain necklace. I had an ex whose new kitten was hiding in the duct work and having a good time running back and forth inside but he couldn't resist the lure of the chain. Good luck!
posted by stray thoughts at 10:43 PM on September 26, 2009

She wants me to clarify that she feels like he is not near the area that he entered. She lives in a row house and she thinks he is probably in the horizontal duct between the first and second floor. She can't hear him moving or meowing.

She's wondering whether anyone knows if the layout of air ducts like this would be standard from house to house, and also how likely it is that they would be setup so that the cat might not be able to get himself back out, or get into a dangerous situation where he falls, etc.
posted by holympus at 10:58 PM on September 26, 2009

The cat's there because he's scared and freaked out. It's his version of hiding under the bed. Unfortunately, he just chose a rather hard-to-reach spot instead.

When he calms down and becomes more comfortable (or hungry) he'll come out. Unless it's really obvious he's stuck (really loud meowing/crying), I'd just put some food and water out near where he entered the duct and leave him the hell alone. Going in to get him is only going to freak him out more (never mind causing unnecessary damage), and force him farther away to hide. He'll come out eventually. He will not be a dead cat in three days (unless he really injures himself or something equally traumatic, but I can't see that happen just wandering around the duct system).

The only question I have -- can he get outside from the duct system? If so, perhaps a different tactic is needed, possibly blocking off his escape route?
posted by cgg at 11:06 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I heartily second the flashlight thing - I had a cat hiding under my house and managed to entice it out with a flashlight left near the door. Put the flashlight shining near (not into) the duct, put out some food/water and leave the cat alone. It will come out when it's ready.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:18 PM on September 26, 2009

She doesn't think he can get out but isn't entirely sure. She's monitoring the thread and trying your suggestions...thanks everyone.
posted by holympus at 11:26 PM on September 26, 2009

Possibly a bad idea: turning the AC on may freak the cat out and make it leave.

How did the cat even get in there? Does her house not have covers over the vents?
posted by floam at 12:19 AM on September 27, 2009

If there is some question about a ramp or incline that the cat can't get down, a towel is good, the terry cloth provides a lot of traction for them

My #$%^& cat used to jump out my window onto a neighboring slippery roof at 3 am. A towel helped him get back up. Arghhhh.
posted by kathrineg at 12:40 AM on September 27, 2009

And by down I mean case there is an incline it can't get up.

Good time to talk to the landlord if this continues and there is a question of the cat being physically unable to exit the ducts.
posted by kathrineg at 12:41 AM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

> The cat's there because he's scared and freaked out.

Agree - it can take a couple of days for cats to calm down when they are rehomed. I'd leave it longer before taking drastic action, though I see how worrying this must be for your friend.
posted by paduasoy at 3:01 AM on September 27, 2009

I'm betting he'll come out on his own when he's ready. It's incredibly common for a rescue hat to hide for the first few days when you get him home, and it's not too likely that he's stuck or lost (cats cross continents to find their owners, this one can almost certainly climb out of a few feet of heating duct).

Can she put some food down into the duct where he got in from? And push his litter tray right up to the duct as well so that it will be the first thing he sees when he comes out. Then she should leave the area around the duct entrance and go to another part of the house for a good few hours so that he has some complete peace and quiet. I bet you that when she goes back he will either have eaten a few bites of the food or used his tray and if that happens she can just relax and know that he'll come out in his own time. But if she stays near the duct calling to him he'll stay in much longer.
posted by hazyjane at 4:18 AM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hah - a rescue cat - rescue hats are generally better behaved.
posted by hazyjane at 4:19 AM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anecdotes, stuff which may or may not be of any use (obviously, I hope they are!):

When I was a child, we had a cat that followed us into an attic to get luggage before going on holiday. No one saw this. When we left we assumed that he'd gone out and we weren't worried, as a neighbour would feed him. We got back 10 days later and discovered what had happened to him. He was fine. Skinnier, very dusty, hungry but fine. (He was a bit overweight before we left, though).

AFAIK Cats rarely get stuck. Their whiskers generally prevent them entering places which are too narrow to navigate. I know this isn't always true, but worth knowing.

If a cat is usually fed buscuity cat food (the sort that comes in boxes and looks like a breakfast cereal) they often become accustomed to the sound of their particular box. I've known the rattle of a box summon a missing cat before - perhaps shaking it's box near the duct opening it might encourage the cat to try to make its way there.
posted by Dub at 4:51 AM on September 27, 2009

I'll bring this up because no one has mentioned it yet, but instead of food, maybe you could try catnip. The merest whiff of the stuff brings my cats running. Also the laser pointers mentioned above are a good idea too.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:35 AM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

This exact same thing happened to my son's cat. There are "electrical coils" (?) some type of live wires in the duct - unfortunately it did not have a good outcome.
posted by pamspanda at 5:50 AM on September 27, 2009

Also, I meant to let you know that we had to call a HVAC repairman to retrieve the cat.

Very Sad.

My son had other cats - so - he had to bolt the vent covers to the floor - the cat had pawed and pawed until he was able to remove the vent with his claws.
posted by pamspanda at 5:53 AM on September 27, 2009

Have you talked to any of your neighbours about this? It might help to have other people open their vents so the cat has multiple points of escape.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:00 AM on September 27, 2009

The cat might be sleeping. It will probably be motivated to come out only when it's hungry.

Not an easy situation -- good luck.
posted by amtho at 7:20 AM on September 27, 2009

I was in a similar situation and eventually discovered that the cat was slipping in and out of the duct work (it's not like I was going to cover up the entrance) when I wasn't around. They're stealthy! You might have to be very patient. Make sure that your neighbors cover their vents so that she can't continue to explore.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:50 AM on September 27, 2009

As a side note, are you leaving the food alone after you put it out? He's not likely to come near it if you're hanging around all the time.

Also, even if he's stuck, he may or may not meow all the time; at this stage, he has no reason to trust you, and so he may not want to advertise his location. But I'd still lay my money on his just continuing to hide, rather than being stuck; cats are very hesitant to move from a safe place to a maybe-not-safe place, even if there's food involved.

If he's still in there the day after tomorrow, then I'd call animal control and/or the vet; there's good odds that one or the other of them has dealt with this before.

My cat used to do this, but much more because he was curious than because he wanted to hide. He got in and out probably two or three times before we figured out how he was getting so dirty.
posted by Commander Rachek at 9:12 AM on September 27, 2009


When I adopted my older cats, a brother and sister, four years ago, they were fine the first night I had them at home. The next morning, they were both missing, and I realized they'd gotten behind the access panel for our bathtub plumbing and were somehow under the floorboards of the second floor of my house, in a narrow space between two beams.

I left the cover off, of course, and tried everything I could think of to tempt them out, including tossing cat treats down the hole. Sister eventually emerged when I cracked open a can of tuna near the opening. Brother was (and still is) a bit more skittish and stubborn, so after two days with no sign that he'd attempted to leave the area, my uncle brought a circular saw over and cut some of the floorboards open so we could pull him out.

I also learned my lesson - when introducing a new cat to your home, keep them locked in one small area first, like a bedroom, and slowly introduce them to more of the house over time. Also, cat-proof everything!
posted by LolaGeek at 9:55 AM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

The second cat I rescued disappeared in my house for nearly two weeks as soon as I opened the carrier. I still haven't figured out where she was all that time but one day, there she was. It can take an adult cat a long time to trust a new owner and get accustomed to a new space. Fortunately, it also takes a heathy cat a very long time to starve to death.

Tell your friend to leave food and water out, plug in a nightlight next to the bowl and to go about her day. Newkitty will eventually emerge somewhere.

Somewhere, however, might not be the same duct that she entered. To that end, it would be worth dropping by her neighbors and letting them know that if they see or hear something moving around in the ducts, it's her cat, not a giant rat and there's no need to call the exterminators.

She can also sprinkle a fine layer of flour around the food dish to check if newkitty is slinking in and out of the duct and eating while she's not looking. Cats are sneaky but they still leave footprints.
posted by jamaro at 10:01 AM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

To attempt to answer your question about the duct work: No, there is not really a standard way to know where exactly it runs, but your friend could remove all the covers in other rooms so that the cat can get out wherever it ends up. It is also worth trying to figure out if the duct work connects to a vent to the outside. Usually that will have at least a bird-screen on it, but the sights sounds and smells of the great outdoors might be more tempting to the poor rescue cat than a plate of food in a strange smelling house. My suggestion is to remove any inside screens and do an occasional review of the openings. With a flashlight and a hand mirror you can likely see most the duct work.
posted by meinvt at 2:48 PM on September 27, 2009

Fortunately, it also takes a heathy cat a very long time to starve to death.

Unfortunately cats are very good at becoming unhealthy after a relatively short period of starvation, and hepatic lipidosis can set in after as little as two or three days without food. While hepatic lipidosis isn't guaranteed (nothing ever is) and can be reversible, the risk is real and advice to leave the cat without food for days is bad and is not what a vet will tell you. Why risk permanent liver damage if you don't have to?

Please don't wait for days to deal with this, if the cat isn't out in 24 hours you should be stepping up the game to get him out. Talk to both the neighbours and to the landlord, they should be able to tell you where the ducts go and how the system works. Find out now what the chances are that he's stuck vs just scared then make your plan based on that rather than guesswork. Putting out food is a good idea and I agree that leaving him alone for a while makes sense since he's likely freaked out either way but three days is too long. And surely this will be easier to sort out with some actual information about where he is regardless of what you decide to do.
posted by shelleycat at 3:58 PM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I hope this is an obvious thought but, has your friend turned off the HVAC system as thoroughly as possible? Not just turned it off from the thermostat, but also turned off the breaker feeding it? That would be my #1 step. (I'd turn it off from the breaker just in case there are booster fans or automatic dampers or anything else electrical in the ducts that might not go off with the fan.) Also, turning it off will make it easier for the cat to hear things near the entrance.

If the cat doesn't come out after a day, I would say that it is time to call an HVAC pro to help get him out. Preferably with some people from the animal shelter or other experienced "cat wranglers" there to assist. Some ductwork contractors now have little fiber-optic video cameras that they can feed down to conduct inspections and look for blockages; this strikes me as potentially being very helpful in your friend's situation. (If you can't find an HVAC person with one of these, look in the yellow pages for "video pipe inspection" or similar. Some plumbers also use them.)

It seems totally plausible to me that the cat could have fallen or slipped down a vertical run and is now trapped in a horizontal span from which there's no escape (vertical spans on either end). I know there are runs like that in the ductwork in my current house and in previous places I've lived. (I know this from trying to run data cables inside them; they are nearly impossible to fish cables through.)

Best of luck to your friend and most especially the cat.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:04 PM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just a suggestion if you're not sure if the cat is sneaking out of the duct when you're not around: try sprinkling a little flour just inside the entrance(s) and keep an eye out for kitty footprints on the floor.
posted by burnfirewalls at 9:43 AM on September 28, 2009

Thanks for all of the great suggestions. Marcel the cat indeed returned from the air ducts at some point in the evening to dutifully use his litter box. It's good my friend listened to all of you and not me.
posted by holympus at 1:06 PM on September 28, 2009

That's great news. Now if he has gone back in, or gets in there in the future, you can wait him out with confidence since he's clearly not stuck. It's also good that he felt safe enough to come out for the litter box. Cat's feel somewhat vulnerable when they're doing their business so it shows he's not completely freaked out.
posted by shelleycat at 1:56 PM on September 28, 2009

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