How do you coax a cat out of the crawl space?
December 5, 2016 6:41 PM   Subscribe

Last Monday (11/28), my cat got outside and went under the house into the 117-year-old crawl space. I went in the crawl space on Tuesday and Wednesday, saw/heard/smelled no sign of him, and we assumed he was out in the neighborhood. Then the weird under-house sounds started, and it took us until about Friday/Saturday to be mostly sure he was under there.

On Sunday, I peeled back one of our heat vents and got him to bat at a baggie of Fancy Feast I lowered down with dental floss (he didn't get it), so he's definitely not inside the heating ducts, as I feared. He's laying on top of the ducts and pooping near them. I was able to hear a lot of sounds, and I'm 99% sure it was him; I also heard his very distinctive meow on Thursday morning, right above where he's been laying. He's been following us around the house; he's walking on the heating ducts, and we can hear him. All the clues point to him.

But, I went under our house for the third time tonight, made it to where I know he's been laying, and came face to face with THE WRONG STEALTH CAT. It was a cat who hangs around outside and belongs to one of our neighbors; he was hanging around when I got home tonight, and I think he darted under when I came outside. Not wanting a face full of claws, I backed out of the crawl space in record time. I haven't heard my cat all night.

We've been trying to use a Havaheart trap since Thursday, and all we've caught are all the stray cats in the neighborhood. (It's a known problem in the town...) If I leave food out (tuna, anchovies, Fancy Feast, smelly Purina stuff - heated up and room temperature), it attracts more WRONG CATS. If I go under the house, he hides. If we sit and wait, he just plays with the vents, walks on the ducts, and seems pretty content to have his own Cat Cave. I believe he's licking condensation off the bathroom pipes or is finding some other source of water; he sounded healthy yesterday.

Here are the tactics I have tried all week: (1) gone under the house three times; (2) dribbled my pee around the yard - I heard Brits are told to do this??; (3) scattered vacuum cleaner dirt around the yard; (4) slept outside on the deck for an entire night, in 25 F temps, after reading a tip that it might help; (5) sat on the deck speaking conversationally; (6) immediately left 50+ flyers in my neighbors' screen doors, plus newspaper ads, Facebook posts, shelter visits, vet visits, and flyers up at the vets and community spaces; (7) spent an entire afternoon peering through the crack between a vent and the subfloor; (8) repeatedly called his name, using the customary "food food food" howl that he's been trained to respond to; (9) left food outside and chased away strays; (10) tapped on bowls with spoons, because that always had him come running; (11) shaken a plastic canister of dry food with the "food food food" call; (12) took the laser pointer under the house; (13) took his bell under the house; (14) spent 12 hours in 20 F weather with the heat turned off, thinking he'd be less toasty and come out; and (15) left articles of clothing, articles of his bedding, and his litter box outside. I think I've read every single AskMefi, Yahoo! Answers, Just Answers, web article, etc. about this, and done everything recommended, and NOTHING.

Something I've wanted to do but can't: put the trap under the house. It won't fit under the deck (if my husband can't fit, it can't fit), and, even if I could get it down there, I'd likely end up with WRONG ANGRY HISSING CAT STUCK IN A CAGE. Seriously, the neighbor's cat can smell wet food a mile away, and he teleports to it.

Something I'm planning to do unless talked out of it: rip up the bathroom vent entirely and see if he'll come up into the bathroom. Which means either hiring a vent repair company or sending me down there to somehow repair it (because guess whose husband can't fit under the deck to get into the crawl space...). Now that I know I can get to it, I'm seriously, seriously considering this.

For what it's worth: the cat is six and a half years old. He spent his first six months outside. We've had him for six years, inside only. He's never been lost outside or in a crawl space before. He has all claws and most of his teeth. He's current on all his shots. He is microchipped with an active subscription. No collar.

It's been eight days now. I really thought he'd be out by now. What do we do? I keep telling myself to chill out and stop messing with him, but then I worry that he doesn't have a confirmed source of water or food. Any tips/ideas/anecdotals/etc?

(I keep joking with coworkers that I'm going to kill him when I see him, but I just want some cuddles. I can't believe how much I miss the little guy.)

posted by coast99 to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't have tips but I have a cat who was locked under someone's balcony for almost 4 weeks and she eventually got out, meowed at the door, and then ran back under the balcony again to hide. I sat under there with a can of wet cat food and waited and waited. Eventually she came out and ate the wet cat food and I grabbed her. So if I were you I would wait near the food -- ideally under the house where the cat is. That should dissuade not-your-cat, especially if you are talking.

The cat almost certainly will get bored of this new place and want to come inside again, though.
posted by jeather at 6:58 PM on December 5, 2016

Does kitty like catnip? You could try to use that to entice him out.

And if you feel comfortable, maybe talk to your neighbors about their cat: see if there's a time he hangs out at their house (or if they're friendly if they can keep their cat inside for a day) so you're efforts aren't thwarted by strange cat's presence.

I'm sorry your kitty is being difficult, I know how you feel: one of mine freaks out everytime we move and finds the weirdest hiding spots for the first few hours: fridge, cupboard, closets, in the walls.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:24 PM on December 5, 2016

I have found that even when (somewhat feral) cats aren't interested in food, they often find play irresistible. If I were in your shoes, here's what I'd do:

1) Prepare an area where you can corner him down there, or maybe a kind of box, or have a second person whom the cat knows assist you.

2) Prepare the following homemade toy, which you will find is superior to commercial toys: stick + ribbon (a.k.a. "snake on a stick"). Use A) a ribbon that will show up well under your house, or a light-colored shoelace, plus B) a long straight stick, maybe 1 yard.

For the stick, you might use a wooden measuring yard/meter stick or a study dowel, or the plastic stick from a commercial cat toy (remove the old toy). Attach shoelace or ribbon to the end of the stick. Make sure the ribbon won't come off, maybe by making a hole in the stick and fastening the ribbon through there. Glue _might_ work. Test this by pulling on the ribbon very hard. If your cat likes this (he probably will), the ribbon will be grabbed by his claws or teeth and pulled very hard.

Do not attach anything to the end of the ribbon. Keeping the end free and light will allow more realistic animal-slithering-on-the-ground motion.

3) You can see where this is going. Go down there, make sure there's enough light for him to see the toy and for you to see him. Play with the toy by running it along the ground, like a snake or mouse would. If he can see it, even if he's up high, he may well go for it.

4) Lure him somewhere you can corner or grab him. If you don't have a good way to corner him, have your friend (who the cat knows) play with him and lure him out so you will have both hands and all thinking available for grabbing him. See if you can get him to relax and / or eat and/or let you pet him a little, if possible, but when you grab him, make it a 100% certain grip, calm and sure -- not a flailing awkward grab.

If you're under the crawl space for this, have a plan for getting him out of the crawl space with you. I know I couldn't actually carry a cat out of my crawl space.

Even cats who are too shy to be petted or to eat in front of you will usually play with a ribbon. Something primal kicks in and they cannot resist.


Alternatively, you could try luring him with freshly prepared crab or tuna. That would be hard to resist.


Do you already know about scruffing cats? Google it if you don't.
posted by amtho at 7:52 PM on December 5, 2016

This happened to me.

The crawl space was in a basement and the cat refused to come out for almost two months. I think they tried kitty Prozac in the food they were putting out at one point? I was overseas and my cat was relocated to a friend's home after a traumatic event in my home while I was away. Anywho. I finally got annoyed and told my ex if he wanted her to come out, he needed to set up a cot in the basement and sleep there overnight. He fell asleep, woke up, and the cat was on his chest or at the foot of the bed, I don't remember. My point was if he hung out long enough and became peaceful, she would feel OK and emerge. Which she did.

If your cat likes you, set up a chair and read. Put out some tuna and some water. Be quiet and patient. Wash, rinse, repeat.

You can and should rent a FLIR camera and/or some sort of animal specialist with a powerful FLIR set-up. If the cat is trapped, this may help you locate the area. You may have to open a wall or floor to access where the cat is trapped. If that's the issue.

These are your two best courses of action. Please let us know when Kitty is OK!!
posted by jbenben at 8:40 PM on December 5, 2016

This is probably completely unfeasible, there a way to trap, then contain (in a garage or something, with plenty of their own food/water/litter) enough of the strays for a few days, such that eventually your cat is the only one left?
posted by unknowncommand at 8:59 PM on December 5, 2016

If he's usually friendly towards other animals, another cat or a dog might lure him out.

If you can get near him at all, rather than trying to grab him directly, try throwing a large towel or sheet over him. (Even better if you have a big net, but most people don't have big nets handy.) That might confuse him enough that you can gather him up in it, then sort out cat from sheet once you get back in the house.

You could try a smaller trap that would fit in the crawlspace. Havahart makes squirrel-sized traps. Obviously won't work if Kitty is too big.

Dr. Elsey's Cat Attract Litter has some kind of "natural herb attractant" in it that allegedly lures cats to use the litter box. Might be worth trying out?

You could try scaring him out by banging on the pipes and making lots of scary noises, but that seems somewhat cruel, especially if he's already a bit freaked out.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:11 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Can you block up the whole crawl space but for a tiny gap and put the trap at the gap? Then listen for him to enter it and grab him right away.
posted by fshgrl at 9:18 PM on December 5, 2016

Not sure how big the crawl space is, but we had a feril cat stuck under some garage-length cabinets recently, and we blocked off his escape routes, so he could only go the direction we wanted him to. Then we got the floor wet until he moved, and he eventually did. Took a couple hours, but we did make it work. It sounds like your crawl space is not as easy to access.

Alternatively, any way to use the trap to block the exit to the crawl space, so only your cat could get in and the other cats can't?
posted by cnc at 10:38 PM on December 5, 2016

I'm guessing he's freaked out. Cats stuck in weird spaces get scared, outdoor-access or not. My cat was once stuck in a garage or 8 days, so I appreciate how stressful it is, but I think you need to go down there again, hang out until he shows up, scruff him, and put him in a pillowcase. Wear long sleeves and gloves.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:27 AM on December 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

We tried everything to lure an escaped cat back to the house, even got a trap destroyed by what was probably a raccoon after catching the neighbor's cat a couple of times. Eventually the escapee showed up on our doorstep while I was baking a lasagna. I really believe that the smell of hot food brought the kitty to the door, but that might be because we weren't in the habit of cooking much food there at the time.
Maybe the smell of a hot baking meaty thing (or even meat in a slow cooker) might bring the kitty out, in conjunction with other tips above?
posted by aabbbiee at 8:09 AM on December 6, 2016

As someone who did a simple repair on my home ducts, I will confirm that it's probably not at all impossible to remove the last section of duct that feeds into the in-floor grate - and in fact replacing it will be possibly easier than removing it. If it were my house (old, with generations of DIYers) then there would be significant variation between different vents, as to whether it's just the tension of the duct, or held in place with screws, or taped on the outside with cloth or duct tape, or also wrapped with insulation, so I'd check out various different ducts and maybe choose the easiest one to open even if that's not hte one he's sleeping on top of. But the good news is, ducts are in general made of separate component pieces attached end to end, and disassembling isn't necessarily a destructive operation.
posted by aimedwander at 10:12 AM on December 6, 2016

I used to lure our scaredy-cat out from under the bushes when she was hiding outside and out from under our dresser (wtf, scaredy-cat!) with a laser pointer, because as afraid as she was, she couldn't resist the lure of chasing things and string, her normal go-to, wouldn't work in extreme scaredy cat mode. (Obligatory photo here; she's not so much a scaredy cat now.)
posted by Lynsey at 10:14 AM on December 6, 2016

I don't have much to add about how to catch your little guy, but it might ease your mind to put a bowl of water down there for him?

What if instead of food, you put a heating pad in the trap, covered by something with his scent or yours? You mention that it's cold and you think he's enjoying the heat ducts, so maybe the heating pad would lure him and not attract as many Wrong Cats?
posted by purple_bird at 2:45 PM on December 6, 2016

Another idea for bait, cat grass. I usually keep a batch around, and if I forget for a week my cats are hovering around my feet almost as soon as I walk in the door once I get the next batch. If your cat usually has some, I doubt he has much greenery in the crawl space, so he might fin it appealing. And ideally it won't be as attractive to the cats who are wondering around the neighborhood so they won't show up and scare yours back into hiding.
posted by ghost phoneme at 3:03 PM on December 6, 2016

Thank you for all the suggestions and tips! Catnip does nothing for him. Cat grass is a great idea, and I might pick some up tomorrow from PetSmart. I've slept on the deck (above the crawl space) overnightand spent hours out there talking out loud and reading in silence; the neighbor cat comes, but Oreo does not. Re: catching him by playing - if I could see him, I would try that, but I've only heard him. He's nowhere to be found when I'm in the crawl space. Lastly, I don't think he's trapped down there, because we've heard him moving the entire length of the house (bathroom --> bedroom --> living room and back again). I've not heard him on the kitchen-->dining room side, which I think is weird - but I've been down there, and there's nothing that would stop him from going to that side.

For what it's worth, there is only one way into the crawl space, unless the cat has found an invisible-to-humans cat hole. The crawl space isn't a series of tunnels or anything; it's completely open, about three feet tall, with only two or three walls. The issue is its age, and how narrow the ground-to-joist gap becomes in many places, along with the wires, ducts, debris, etc. It's in good shape for 117 years old, but it's still a mess. And, honestly, ever since I came half-a-foot-away, face-to-face with the neighbor cat (who pees in the neighbor's house and will never be inside again! Great people), I'm pretty freaked out by the idea of going too deep in (the living room is the furthest, deepest, darkest corner). The other issue is that we just built a deck on top of the crawl space access (which is also the reason the crawl space access isn't sealed - we hadn't re-sealed it yet), and to get to the crawl space you have to crawl under the deck. The opening there is less than half a foot high. I had to dig a boob hole so I could BARELY fit under; one more muffin, and it's game over. Long story short: EVEN IF I somehow manage to get an empty trap underneath, I don't see how it's coming out with anything in it.

I went back under the crawl space for about two hours tonight, armed with stinky wet food, water, and a laser pointer. I laid still in the dark near the food, and I didn't see him or hear him. I called his name, and then I went back to where I found the neighbor cat yesterday. Nothing. Except I laid on top of an already-crushed heat duct, and, boy, was it toasty - reinforcing my idea that he's curling up by them. Since yesterday, it's actually been complete radio silence, which is a stark contrast to Sunday - and even Saturday. I'm just hoping the neighbor cat spooked him, and he's gone to ground under the house instead of out in the neighborhood somewhere. Or worse. I left the food and a huge bowl of water down there, near the opening.

I also just lowered a sandwich baggie of water into his bathroom hideout; I lost the string and can't see if it made it okay. If he's maybe hiding out in the living room (which I have not explored), then hopefully he returns and gets it.

My plan is to wait for some noises, and, if those noises happen, likely disconnect the bathroom vent and see if he'll come up through the floor. If by tomorrow evening I don't hear anything, it's back to the shelter, posting flyers, and trying to find him outside.

Again, thanks for the support! I'm still holding out hope.
posted by coast99 at 6:28 PM on December 6, 2016

Is there any chance he's *in* the ducts rather than on top of them? (I mean surely you would have smelled some cat smells then though...) :/ I hope he emerges safe and sound.
posted by purple_bird at 8:56 AM on December 7, 2016

This is less directly related to the crawl space thing, but I just wanted to mention that you could try taking his litter box and putting a bowl of smelly wet cat food inside the litter box, and leaving that outside, as close to the crawl space as possible. (I know you mentioned leaving out his litter box, but it doesn't sound like you tried leaving the food bowl inside of it.) Supposedly this should help keep other kitties away from this food since it will have his scent all around it. No idea if this works, but it could be worth a shot.

Good luck! I hope you're able to get your kitty back safe and sound.
posted by litera scripta manet at 3:13 PM on December 7, 2016

If I had to bet on "only one entrance" or "cat found a way in/out that no human can see", I would put a lot of money on the latter.
posted by jeather at 5:25 PM on December 7, 2016

We found a hole in the foundation (!) right by where I think he's been hiding. I can just barely see the crawl space through it, but I can fit my cat-head-size fist inside of it, so... He can fit through, and maybe explain how the neighbor cat got down there so fast the other night. I left a smelly food trap by it (someone is home all day to check it). The other cats have gotten the trap memo and don't bother with it anymore (except one critter who got a bag of food out of it without tripping the trap).

Is this something I should seal up so he can't use it anymore? (It is something that definitely needs sealed up.)
posted by coast99 at 8:11 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

If the weather is tolerable, I'd consider repeating some of what you did earlier by the larger entrance: hanging out and talking conversationally, tapping on bowls with spoons, etc. He may feel safer coming out of that entrance for some reason.

One time I lost my cat in a new apartment for hours (before the furniture had even arrived!), I was convinced she'd run outside. Long story short, I'm moping in the living room while my husband takes a shower, and she's suddenly there. She'd found a hole and gotten under the counter somehow. It may be a coincidence, but I wondered if shower noise told the cat things had settled down (no more movers) and it was safe to come out and get food. Is there something you usually have on in the background when it's calm, like TV or music? You could also play that while hanging out.
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:54 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

To clarify, redo what you had done previously at the larger entrance at the newly discovered entrance.
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:55 AM on December 8, 2016

I sat outside the smaller hole for two hours last night with food. I might have heard a meow, but it was windy. I sprinkled flour by the hole and put his litter box near it, with a can of smelly food inside the litter box. Tonight, the flour is untouched (no kitty prints), and so is the can of food inside the litter box. That really surprised me - that trick works!

Tonight, I got home from work and had a great conversation with my bathroom vent. I heard a lot of calm movement down there, so I lowered down some smelly wet food. It didn't get touched. I put it up near the top of the vent, tied it to the toilet paper holder, and took the dog for a half hour walk; when I got back, I lowered it back down, and a cat pounced on the bag, then jumped up at the vent to get it. I couldn't see the cat at all - it always stayed out of sight. About ten minutes later, the neighbor cat calmly sauntered into view and started licking the ground. I threw a clump of Oreo's old litter down there.

The neighbor cat zeroes in on any food I leave/have out pretty quickly, and I think if the neighbor cat had been the kitty noise the entire time, he would have just gone for the food when I first lowered it down. He's not a shy cat. I really think the initial noise and interested party was Oreo. I'm really just going on the couple of sneezes and squeaks I heard last Sunday, plus the fact that whatever was down there on Saturday/Sunday was following us around the house. I'm worried that the more I tinker, the more I attract the neighbor cat, and Oreo is going to move deeper into the crawl space and maybe be too scared to come out. But the cat is not coming out on his own, and he won't come out when I go down there for hours, and he won't come out when I sit outside for hours, so I'm at a complete and total loss right now.

If I pull the bathroom vent back far enough, he might be able to squeeze through, so I'm going to leave it open with a towel snaked down there. I also left a light rock propped against the small hole.

Thanks for all the responses and suggestions! You are all wonderful.
posted by coast99 at 6:48 PM on December 9, 2016

Can you go to your local home improvement store and rent an "inspection camera" or "drain camera" and snake it down there to see what you can see?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:26 AM on December 10, 2016

A final update, unless the cat returns. Because, yeah, he's still nowhere to be found.

It will be four weeks tomorrow, and we've not heard anything from/of the cat since around the time I posted this question. A wildlife camera (and more commonly my cell phone camera stuck down an open floor vent hole) has only showed a different cat that has taken up permanent residence underneath my house, and I worry that he's the cat we've been hearing since November. Or he kicked my cat out of his spot a while ago.

When I call my cat's name on the porch and have food out, I regularly get visited by neighbor's cat (this cat now actively responds to my cat's name). We've received no phone calls from the flyers, and we've continued to check the county shelter. We'll keep setting the humane trap as it remains humane to do so (being winter and all), but the only animal that's tried to get in there since the first few days is my dog.

It got down into the brutal negatives for a good solid week last week, and it snowed. My last sliver of hope is that my cat found a warm spot during the cold spell and will come back tomorrow or Tuesday, as it's been gradually warming up into the 40's and 50's. Temperatures will plunge again later this week.

Thanks for all the tips.
posted by coast99 at 6:29 PM on December 25, 2016

« Older What should my 2nd meal of the day be?   |   Seeking easy Danish language media Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.