What are the chances my cat will come home?
What to do if my cat goes missing
While it’s normal for your cat to return a little later than usual from time to time, if your cat has been missing for 12 hours or overnight, especially if this is very unusual for them, there are six things you should do.
First, try not to panic. There may be a perfectly good reason why your cat didn’t come home at their usual time, and there are a few things you can do to help the situation and keep busy.
It’s helpful at this point to think about any past behaviour that might be relevant – did your cat do the same sort of thing this time last year? Some cats like to wander a little further and hunt for longer in the spring or summer months, for example, so this may just be connected to that.
Has your cat been keeping strict routines recently or have you noticed a gradual increase in the time they have been spending outside? This may just reflect a new ‘normal’ for your cat as they expand their territory and find different sheltered places to spend time outdoors.
If your cat has been missing overnight and is not home the following morning, check the house from top to bottom. They may have come in when you were not looking, or they might have found a new secret place to hide. It’s possible that they aren’t feeling well or may have been hurt.
Once you have established that your cat is definitely nowhere in the house, the next thing to consider is that they may have been shut in your garage or shed. Check everything; inside dustbins, water butts, compost bins, outside storage boxes and under hedges. While you’re searching, take time to stop and listen for the sound of scratching or faint meows.
If you still cannot find them, ask your immediate neighbours to check their garages, sheds, and greenhouses. Visit neighbours either side of you, across the road and in properties behind your garden or outside space. If you can remember seeing your cat in a particular garden, or a neighbour has ever mentioned that your cat has been in their garden or outside space, make sure to speak to them.
Once you have established that your cat is not nearby, you should start notifying the appropriate people and organisations.
If your missing cat is microchipped, then first contact the microchip database (such as www.petlog.org.uk) and register them as missing. If you have their microchip number but can’t remember the name of the microchip database, then you can search for the relevant company using their unique microchip number on www.check-a-chip.co.uk.
Next, find recent and clear photographs that show your cat from several different angles, and any distinguishing coat patterns and marks so that they can be more easily identified.
Make a note of all the details that may be required, for example, their name, age and colour. If they do have any distinguishing features (e.g. a spot of colour that is heart-shaped), then mention them specifically, along with the photos. If they were wearing a collar, then note this down too (but bear in mind that this may have been lost).
Once you have this information about your missing cat, get in contact with:
- Local vets in your area
- Your local Police Station
- All local animal rehoming charities
- Your local newspaper (to put an ad in the ‘lost and found’ section of the classified adverts)
- Boarding catteries in the area
- Lost and found pet websites, for example www.petslocated.com and www.animalsearchuk.co.uk
- Your local council’s Street Cleansing Department who will have a record of any cats found in your area recently
- Battersea Dogs and Cats Home
If you can, then get out and about around your local area. It’s a good idea to take someone with you to help, especially if you’re planning to be out after dark.
Don’t forget to take a torch to check any dark corners as well as your cat’s favourite pack of treats. Many cats will respond to the shake of a treat packet or biscuit box even if they don’t recognise their name.
Pay particular attention to empty properties where a cat could go unnoticed. Stop regularly to shake the packet or box, call out your cat’s name and then wait quietly to see if you can hear anything.
Get the message out to your local community. Make an A4-sized poster or flyer to inform people that your cat is missing and include a large, clear photograph and one or two smaller ones showing them from different angles. Encourage people to look out for your cat and to check their sheds and garages. Make sure you include your telephone number as a contact, but don’t give out too much personal information. You could try putting posters up around your local area or putting flyers through letterboxes.
Social media is an extremely effective way to reach as many people as possible. Try posting a photo on your own Facebook or Twitter pages with a description of when and where they were last seen. You could also share information on pages set up specifically for this purpose:
- Animal Search UK (www.facebook.com/AnimalSearchUK and twitter.com/animalsearchuk)
- Cat Aware (www.facebook.com/CatAwareFriends)
- Missing Pets GB (twitter.com/MissingPetsGB)
If you’ve recently moved to a new house within a couple of miles of your previous home, then you should extend the search to that area too.
You could ask your previous neighbours to look out for your cat and let the new people living in your old house know that your cat may be on their way back. Ask people not to feed your cat, but to notify you immediately if they are seen.
If your cat is easy to handle, you could ask one of your previous neighbours to pick them up and secure them somewhere safe before you get there.
If someone gets in touch to say they have found your cat, don’t forget to ask all the important questions about the cat’s distinguishing features to make sure they can confirm it really is them.
Arrange for you and a friend or family member to meet them. Remember to take your cat’s carrier with you. If it is your cat, then make sure you get in touch with all the different places you listed them as lost and inform them that they have been found. It’s also a good idea to remove any posters that you may have put up in the area.
Some well-meaning people may get in touch about cats that are not yours but try not to get disheartened. It is better to check out leads that don’t amount to anything than have no possible sightings at all.
When your cat returns home
When you get your cat home, give them a little of their favourite food and a quick check to see if there are any obvious signs of injury. If they seem fine, give them a chance to settle and readjust, and enjoy having them back! If you have any doubts about their health, or something changes, then it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your vet just to be safe.
Download the advice on this page as a handy advice sheet and to use as a reminder:
Information on how to prevent and cope with cat fighting
Can Cats Find Their Way Home if They’re Lost?
When my cat, Winston, went missing, one of the first things I did was call some local animal shelters to let them know in case anyone brought him in.
“Have you moved recently?” one shelter employee asked me. I had — just two weeks earlier. She told me Winston had likely tried to go back to our old home, the territory he was familiar with. I drove over there and sure enough, within just a few minutes of standing in our old house’s front yard and calling his name, a smug-looking Winston came trotting around the side of the house.
But how? Our new apartment was almost three miles from our old house, separated by several major roads and a river. How on Earth did Winston find his way back there?
Clearly he wasn’t the only cat in the world with a super sense of direction — after all, the shelter employee knew to ask if we had recently moved, which told me that this was something that happens with more than a few cats.
So do cat owners need to worry about their cats getting lost? It turns out, there are more questions than answers about cats’ seemingly innate sense of direction. Here’s what all cat owners need to know.
Can Cats Find Their Way Home When They’re Lost?
This question is one that researchers, animal behaviorists, and veterinarians have been trying to answer for a long time.
Science has shown us that cats are definitely better than many other animals at finding their way home. In 1922, Professor Frances Herrick published a study called “Homing Powers of the Cat.” In that study, Herrick separated a mother cat from her kittens, and found that she was able to find her way back to them seven times from distances that varied from one to four miles.
In 1954, a team of researchers in Germany conducted a similar experiment. They tested a number of cats by placing them, one at a time, in a large maze that had six evenly spaced exits. They found that the cats didn’t spend time wandering around the maze, but very quickly located an exit. What’s more is that 60 percent of the time, the cats chose an exit that faced in the direction of their home, even if it was miles away.
These experiments confirm what we’ve already seen through anecdotal evidence: In a lot of cases, cats seem to have an innate ability to find their way home. But what these studies don’t tell us is why cats seem to be able to find their way home so easily if they get lost. That’s the part that scientists still aren’t sure about, but they do have a lot of theories.
We Don’t Know What Gives Cats Their Sense of Direction
At the end of the day, we don’t know exactly why cats are so good at finding their way home.
Theories vary. One of the most popular and widely supported theories is that it has to do with smell markers, because cats have an extremely well-developed sense of smell. With more than 19 million scent receptors, cats use smells to mark their territory, so it’s possible that’s also how they orient themselves toward their homes.
Another theory is based on research that includes homing pigeons. Scientists think these birds are so good at finding their way home because of an “unusual sensitivity to the geo-magnetic field of the earth which enables them to keep a compass fix on their home region regardless of distance and direction traveled,” according to a 1977 book on different animals’ ability to find their way home.
But because there’s so much we don’t understand about cats’ homing abilities, we can’t count on our cats to always be able to find their way home. If we could, cats would never get lost, or they’d always make it back to us, whenever they did go missing. We know that’s not the case — one 2017 study showed that around two-thirds of missing cats are never found by their owners.
Don’t Count on Cats to Find Their Own Way Home
Because of that, it’s very important for cat owners to realize their beloved pets aren’t safe just because the species on the whole seems to have a good sense of direction.
In fact, the research that proves cats have homing abilities also shows that we can’t always depend on them. In the 1954 study, for example, researchers found that young cats who had been raised in a lab had no homing abilities at all. If your cat is young or used to living indoors, it may not be able to find its way home if it gets lost. And if being outside makes your cat scared, confused, or overwhelmed, that could also negatively impact its sense of direction.
Research also shows that the average outdoor housecat only travels within around 500 feet of its home on any given day. Though cats in scientific experiments have found their way home from far greater distances than that, any cat more than about a third of a mile from its home will likely be in unfamiliar territory, which may affect its ability to determine which way to go to get home.
But in addition to all the things that can throw off your cat’s sense of direction, there are also just a lot of dangers it can encounter if it’s outside — whether your cat is used to being outdoors, or it’s lost.
Things like cold or rainy weather, dogs and other predators, cars, and even humans who aren’t kind to cats can pose serious risks to your kitty’s health and safety — this is why indoor cats have an average life expectancy more than 12 years longer than outdoor cats. Even if your cat does have a good sense of direction and does head toward home when it’s lost, there are a lot of obstacles that a lost cat just may not be able to overcome.