How to find a lost cat

Find a Lost Cat

Of the many cats I’ve known over the years, I’ve lost four. Two never returned. I know the heartbreak of looking for and missing a beloved cat. My cat Coco went missing many years ago in Toronto. I canvassed the neighborhood, put up posters, and felt her presence nearby. I kept looking and calling but she was stuck in a tree, so high up I couldn’t see her and she refused to make a sound. Finally, after being stranded up a tree for two days and two nights, someone called me from the flyer who said he’d seen her. A neighbor found the longest ladder I’d ever seen and since the fire department didn’t rescue cats, I put my fear of heights on hold and climbed up. With one hand on the ladder, I dangled Coco by the scruff of her neck from my outstretched arm to avoid being shredded and climbed down. A small crowd had gathered and cheered. Coco was rescued safely.

Cats seem to have a sort of homing instinct which in some cases have guided cats to travel hundreds of miles back to their home. Most indoor-only cats tend not to travel far. While an adventurous indoor/outdoor cat is more likely to roam, a scared cat may not trust their inner compass, get confused, and get lost. Once a cat has wandered out of its comfort zone anything can happen to scare them further: Barking dogs, wildlife, loud traffic noise, teasing school kids, the list is endless.

When I moved to my last home in Canada in 1999, my cat Merlin escaped from the open back door into the woods as soon as the movers left. Exhausted after a long day, I had no choice but to go looking for him. I pounded the street, knocking on every neighbors’ door, and introduced myself. Before long I had an entire posse of neighbors looking for him. Merlin returned on his own at bedtime, nonplussed as ever. “See mom, I wanted you to meet the neighbors and make new friends.” He never got lost again. Not all cats are that lucky.

  • Not all missing cats are lost or want to be found. Cats are notorious for hiding in impossible places. Before you assume kitty is missing, make a thorough search indoors, around the porch, garage, and yards armed with a flashlight and the tastiest, smelliest treats. This is when a cat trained to respond to the “come” command pays off. If a cat is injured, trapped, or hyper-stressed, it may not respond to command but it improves the odds. Yes, some cats leave home for whatever reason and don’t want to be found. Try anyway. The stats for lost cats returning home without intervention are about 2%. The odds are improved by having a microchip and wearing a collar and tag. 
  • Don’t waste time. If you know your cat is missing, grab your cellphone with a photo of your cat uploaded, flashlight, and treats, and head out. Wear comfortable clothes and comfortable soft-soled shoes. Don’t panic. Breathe, try to be calm, and think like a cat. If you were a cat where would you go? Begin around your house and spread out to the immediate neighbors on all sides. Where does your cat normally head? What is the most likely escape route? What are their favorite bushes or hiding spots? Crouch low under porches, scan high on rooflines and tree branches. Could something have recently happened to spook them? Construction or a new neighbor’s cat or dog? Or has anything happened recently in your home to upset them; like the chemicals from getting your carpets cleaned or bringing out suitcases for a trip?
  • GET THE WORD OUT! The more people know you have lost a pet, and that you are upset, worried and desperately trying to find your pet, the more people will call you if they see an animal in the woods or on the road, or in their backyard. Call all your neighbors personally. Ask pedestrians, knock on neighbor’s doors and show the photo. Ask if you can check their garage, sheds, under the porch. I must admit I did, in my desperation trespass in neighbors’ gardens. This is no time to be shy.
  • Call all veterinary clinics, including emergency veterinary hospitals outside your local area. Sometimes people pick up a stray and drive it to a distant clinic. Call all animal shelters and animal control and dog control officers, all local police and state troopers, all local kennels, the highway department, dog training clubs, grooming shops to get the word out.
  • When you return home, leave food and water outside your door. Fearful cats will often slink out after dark. Leaving a baby monitor near the food may detect faint meows. Local TNR rescue rescues will often lend a trap. Using their suggestions, set up a trap. Be prepared, you may trap a raccoon or other cat. Go outside one last time to check and call your cat’s name before bedtime. Try to get some rest.  Leaving no stone unturned to find your cat takes energy. In the quiet darkness, try to communicate with your cat. Imagine their face, call their name, and connect heart to heart. Try to tune into where they might be. It may be a feeling, an image, or sound. Reassure them that you will help get them home.
  • If you haven’t already made a missing cat poster, make one. Keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be fancy but make sure the words “Lost Cat” are large enough to be visible from a passing vehicle or pedestrian. Luckily most of us have a gazillion photos of our cats. Choose or crop a large close-up showing details of the face and another photo showing the entire body, ideally standing up.  If you’re not computer savvy, you can glue a photo on a piece of paper and use a marker to write the text by hand. Color photos are preferable especially if your cat has a unique color or markings. Copies printed on a neon-bright paper show well and use plastic page covers in case of rain. Include your cat’s name (it may make it easier for someone to call your cat over and capture him), description (“Beige, wire-haired terrier ” or “Striped grey and black short-haired cat “. Don’t assume that people will know your particular pure breed), any special identifying marks or collar, when last seen and where (cross street), your phone and e-mail but for security reasons, not your name, address or amount of reward in case you are offering one. I also like adding contact info at the bottom of the page cut into four or five vertical strips that can be easily torn off.
  • Make dozens of index cards with the same information as above, and go to every home, in every direction from the site of where your pet disappeared, and give a card, or stick a card under doors or on windshields. Stop and speak with every person you encounter –the more people know about your lost pet, the more likely the one person who spots him will call you. Your pet may be frightened, ask people to please check their barns and sheds, especially at night.
  • Enlist family and friends to help post flyers and spread the word. Have push pins, tape, and a staple gun depending on the surface. The best posting spots include street intersection poles, local bulletin boards at grocery stores, libraries, laundromats, and community centers.
  • Post missing cats reports online at Tabbytracker Craigslist, local online newspapers like Patch, etc. Use social networking like Facebook and Twitter. Ask everyone to share. Place a “Lost ” ad in your local newspaper the very first morning your pet is gone. These ads are usually free.
  • Visit all your local shelters even if say they don’t have a cat of your description.
  • If you’ve recently moved, extend your search to your old neighborhood.
  • Persevere! Cats have returned weeks and months later. Keep networking, and asking neighbors if they’ve noticed anything. Keep your flyers or posters fresh with a “Still Missing” header.
  • Even the friendliest and the most social pet may quickly become terrified and wild. Your own friendly pet, when lost, may hide from people, run away if he sees a person, he may even run away from you. Don’t chase after a lost pet –they are much faster than we are and you’ll only scare them more. Instead, sit on the ground; talk in normal tones, repeating his name and familiar phrases over and over again. A frightened animal will usually stick around, and after a few minutes or hours, come closer and closer.


I hope you never lose a cat, but just in case, be prepared and make a copy of this list.

When Indoor Cats Get Lost

Determine the escape point.

When an indoor-only cat escapes outside, the best technique to use is to determine the escape point, like perhaps a door found cracked open.

Follow the edge of the house or building.

A panicked cat will typically follow along the side of the house, rather than risk slinking or bolting out into the open. However, this depends on what happens the moment that cat escapes — if the mailman is walking up the sidewalk the cat could bolt and run directly across the street. But most times, indoor cats will either slink left or slink right following the edge of the house.

Look for the closest hiding spots.

Following the edge of the house to the right, look for the first hiding place — deck, access under a house, shed with opening, open garage, etc. — and focus on that area. Then do the same to the left.

Place humane traps, cameras, or food in those spots.

If you don’t see or find the cat, you can put humane traps there, wildlife cameras or even a plate of food at first to see if it vanishes.

The case of a lost cat is an investigation. The investigative question with displaced indoor-only cats that escape outside — or even outdoor-access cats that bolt in panic — is, “where is the cat hiding?”