Another lost cat question
November 16, 2011 2:09 PM   Subscribe

How much sense of place do cats really have (or another lost cat question)?

One of my cats got out the front door last night. Normally these are entirely indoor cats, but he manages to sneak out a couple of times a year. His usual behavior on doing so is to go two feet from the door, have an "OMG! OUTSIDE!", munch some grass, and is coaxed back inside. Or he runs around to the back door where he heads inside. This time he got out, headed to the back yard, and is now GONE! This happened at about 10:30 last night, and I spent until 2 wandering in ever-widening circles calling his name and he didn't show up. Did the same in the morning, and have been wandering around every couple of hours since, though recently I've started taking a bag of cat food based on a previous suggestion and shaking it as I call his name.
So now we're pretty freaked out. We've lived here for a little over 5 years, and he's never done this before. One more data point is that it rained yesterday before he got out, and the ground was pretty wet until about 11 am this morning. Has anyone had a cat do this, and return? Are we out one cat? There isn't anything in our area big enough to eat him.
posted by Runes to Pets & Animals (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm really sorry, we recently lost a cat (outdoor-indoor) and the not knowing is hard. Cats do come back, they are better used to their surroundings if they are familiar with the outdoors but they can still find their way. My vet parents' rule of thumb is three weeks. I don't know your area though do I can't say if wild animals are an issue.
posted by boobjob at 2:21 PM on November 16, 2011

Here's a detailed discussion.

Most cats not only have some sense of place and direction but are actually actively territorial. If a cat has left its "area" and isn't back in a few days, odds are decent that something happened to it. Could be a good something, e.g. neighbors took it in and fed it, an okay something, e.g. animal control has apprehended it, or a bad something, e.g. ... yeah.

But one day is probably not enough time to get immediately worried. Cats are pretty independent, and one sneaking off for a few days isn't entirely unusual. Still, if he isn't back by the weekend, something's probably up.
posted by valkyryn at 2:22 PM on November 16, 2011

Our indoor cat got out last year, and he was out all night. He, apparently, stayed close to the house, as he got into a fight with another cat in our back yard. In the morning, we found him huddled behind a bush near the house. He was terribly defensive and shaken. It took us a good long time to coax him back into the house.

I guess my answer, after all that, is cats have some sense of place or home. Though, based on my kitty's experience, it's more informed by a sense of "Holy crap! I have no idea where I am!!!".
posted by Thorzdad at 2:29 PM on November 16, 2011

I had a cat come home after a month and Fergus always heads straight up a tree. Don't give up hope -- and look above you!
posted by elsietheeel at 2:37 PM on November 16, 2011

My feeling on this from a lifetime of being around cats is that they are pretty good at making their way home unless they get scooped up by someone who figures the cat for a stray or it falls victim to misfortune. As I mentioned once before in an AskMe, when I was a kid I had a cat that disappeared for the better part of a year before returning -- admittedly that was a cat that went outdoors regularly, but even with indoor cats I have seen them come boomeranging back after days or weeks. Best of luck.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:37 PM on November 16, 2011

Over the summer I found a lost cat. I'd seen a sign for it about 10 minutes before I saw the cat so I knew it was the same one. From what I remember it had been missing for more than 3 days, possibly a week, and was about 1.5-2km from its house. The cat really wanted to go home because I had it on my shoulders/in my arms for the 45 minutes it took for the owner to come pick it up.

While I don't doubt that cats have a sense of place. If yours has travelled into the unknown then I wouldn't count on it finding its way back. Put signs up so that people know it is missing and who to contact if they find it.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:38 PM on November 16, 2011

Chances are he's hiding in some "safe"-feeling enclosed place very close to your house. Look for him with a flashlight, and look underneath porches, in trash enclosures, under dense hedges, that kind of thing. Even if you walked right by him he might not meow, because their instinct tells them to shut up and hide.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:46 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


My aunt secretly brought my cat to a friend of hers who lived 20 miles away and told me she'd ran off. 20 miles of forests and mountains and no civilization. My cat ran away from my aunt's friend house that very night.

Three months later my cat was standing in front of our door looking mighty hungry and mighty pissed. My aunt fessed up and the cat and I lived happily ever after for another 12 years. She was the best cat in the world and the smartest, but I can definitely tell you that some cats have a very refined sense of where "home" is.
posted by lydhre at 2:50 PM on November 16, 2011 [11 favorites]

So sorry you're going through this, and I hope your fur baby returns home soon!

FWIW, several years ago Mr. Adams and I had just moved into a new house in a city about 45 minutes away from our previous home. This was in mid-December. Shortly after the following January 1st, I was carrying in some stuff from the car to the house and had propped open the front door. Our indoor cat, Savannah, who'd never ventured outdoors in either our previous house or this one, shot outside suddenly and disappeared behind the bushes. I immediately dropped everything and looked behind the shrubbery but that quickly she'd vanished. Mr. Adams and I spent the next couple days wandering the neighborhood, calling her, calling the local shelters, and even using two extension cords to run the electic can opener outside on the porch to see if the sound would summon her. (Local ordinances prevented us from posting "Lost" flyers.) I felt like a major heel because Savannah was Mr. Adams' baby and thanks to my laziness she'd gotten outside and vanished. Flash forward to mid-March and I was walking up to the corner store when I heard a "meow" and turned to see Savannah crouched on a neighbor's front porch four doors down from us. I walked up the steps and picked her up and knocked on the door, but no one was at home. Mr. Adams, of course, was stunned and ecstatic that I'd found Savannah....why she didn't return home when she was so close we can only guess. Either the neighborhood was so new to her that she had no clue where she was, or the neighbors had found her and "adopted" her and kept her inside. In any case, please continue searching and don't give up hope!
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:56 PM on November 16, 2011

I second the suggestion to look under bushes, in your or your neighbors' garage/porch/wherever is a bit confined. I've walked by or near my missing cats more than once without noticing them because they mostly don't speak up!
posted by Hellebore at 2:56 PM on November 16, 2011

Cats know where home is. Less than 24 hours is early to worry, though I would go to local shelters with a picture anyhow (better safe than sorry).
posted by jeather at 3:07 PM on November 16, 2011

Cats often know, but do put up signs and talk to neighbors. A cat I once know loved basements & attics and would do anything to get in them. You may have a neighbor with a mystery!cat in their garage or basement.
posted by pointystick at 3:13 PM on November 16, 2011

As others have mentioned, cats *do* generally not only know where their home is, they're liable to be territorial about it. That said, a normally indoor-only cat -- no matter how much they might enjoy "escaping" outdoors -- is very likely to go into "hiding mode" once outside, as that environment is so unfamiliar and overwhelming to them. Many indoor-only kitties will run away if their humans try to approach and many won't even respond to their name being called once outside -- this isn't because they're deliberately "ignoring" or shunning you, but because they're in a state of sheer sensory overload. Once they've gotten their bearings, however, many will start trying to inch their way back to the door, etc. -- your best bet at getting them inside again might be to leave an open box (turned on its side) or other container the cat can fit into with a blanket or shirt or some familiar object from inside that they'll be able to recognize by smell. Leaving food out is also a good idea, though do this cautiously if you live in an area frequented by raccoons or skunks. etc. Good luck and I hope your kitty comes home soon! I've got four and I would be absolutely devastated if anything happened to any of them...
posted by aecorwin at 3:14 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The cat might be nearby, and shut in somewhere. We lost our cat for a couple of days and after a lot of searching, we found her in next door's yard. Unlike most cats she wasn't good at jumping, and the fence was too high for her and the alley to the front was closed. We hadn't been able to see her because our sightlines didn't include the spot where she was.
posted by tel3path at 3:52 PM on November 16, 2011

The Missing Pet Partnership has some really excellent tips on lost cat behavior and finding a lost cat. Good luck!!
posted by trillian at 6:00 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Our indoor cat escapes a couple of times a year and has been gone as long as three days before meowing at the door wanting in. Once he hid in the crawl space under the house while some workmen had the crawl hole open. Even though we were pretty sure that's where he was, he didn't come out for two whole days.
posted by tamitang at 8:03 PM on November 16, 2011

Great link, trillian - I like their list of lost cat behavior patterns, broken down according to the cat's temperament.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:09 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The advice on Missing Pet Partnership helped me find my cat when he was lost- he was, just as suggested, hiding somewhere close by. (He was in a neighbor's garage.)
Print out flyers to hand out to your neighbors directly- I think if you talk to people, they may have a little more investment and be willing to look a little closer at cats they see, rather than just assuming it's a stray or outdoor cat? Mine definitely helped me track him down.
posted by insufficient data at 12:39 AM on November 17, 2011

So now we're pretty freaked out.

Lots of us can relate, for sure. Sometimes doing things can help with that. If you haven't yet, put a "lost cat" ad up on Craigslist. Also, while I'm really liking trillians link to the Missing Pet Partnership into, you don't mention if the cat has tags or microchip (I'm assuming it doesn't), so be sure to check the websites for nearby animal shelters - many now have online lost and found pet reporting - and send a note to any neighborhood email list, if you have one.

Should you be worried? Well, I've had a cat go missing for days and then come back hungry but fine, and also had one go missing because a neighbor's housesitter thought it was a stray, took it to the vet and had already decided to adopt it when the neighbor came back and saw my 'lost cat' note in her inbox. That was a close one.

So yeah, doing things can help with the freaking out, and also with the finding the cat.
posted by mediareport at 5:50 AM on November 17, 2011

My ex and I's cat went out through a screen window (we didn't realize the screen was ripped) and was gone for an entire weekend. It was so hard to deal with it! We read somewhere to take a shirt that one of us had worn and put it outside at the doors so she can smell you when she is nearby. I don't know if it was a coincidence but she was there the next morning scratching at the door.
posted by getawaysticks at 8:19 AM on November 17, 2011

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