cat chatter head


By Kathy “Kat” Albrecht

Professional trained searchers don’t wander aimlessly in the woods when searching for a missing hiker. Instead, an organized search plan is implemented based on the knowledge of the behavioral patterns of lost people. For example, backpackers behave differently when lost than do hunters, berry pickers, and Alzheimer’s patients. And because search-and-rescue managers are so familiar with these patterns of behavior, they can accurately predict where a lost person will be found. Backpackers are typically found on or near an established trail, hunters are typically found deep in the woods, and Alzheimer’s patients are typically found within ¼ mile radius of where they became lost.
So what do we know about the behavior of lost pets? Thanks to Missing Pet Partnership, a grassroots nonprofit organization, we know that the three most common lost pet recovery tips that we give (place a classified ad in the paper, post flyers in your neighborhood, and visit the local animal shelter every day) are not always the best pieces of advice! That’s because dogs are much different than cats. The methods that should be used to search for a lost dog, an outdoor-access cat that has vanished from its territory, and an indoor-only cat that has escaped outside are all entirely different methods.
Dogs travel and are picked up by rescuers who determine their fate, the disappearance of an outdoor-access cat means that something has happened to interrupt that cat’s behavior of coming home, and indoor-only cats that escape outdoors hide in silence near their escape point. And it is not only the behaviors of lost dogs and cats that have been overlooked – the behaviors of the people who lose their pets and the behaviors of the people who find those lost pets impact the chances that a lost pet will be returned home. Understanding these human and animal behaviors will increase the likelihood that lost pets will be found. Here is what we know so far:

Outdoor-Access Cats. Cats are territorial. When an outdoor-access cat suddenly vanishes, it means that something has happened to that cat to interrupt its normal behavior of returning home. The disappearance could mean that the cat is injured, trapped, or deceased within its territory. It could also mean that the cat was transported out of the area – either intentionally (by an irate neighbor who trapped the cat) or unintentionally (by the cat climbing into an opened parked van). It could also mean that the cat was displaced into unfamiliar territory – something as simple as being chased by a dog causing the cat to hide under a deck a block from home.
When this happens, the temperament of the cat will influence how it behaves. When displaced into unfamiliar territory, some cats will be so panicked and afraid they will remain in the same hiding place for weeks and they will never return home while others will break cover within hours and return home. The investigative question to solve when an outdoor-access cat disappears is: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CAT?

Indoor-Only Cats. The territory for an indoor-only cat is the inside of the home where it lives. When an indoor-only cat escapes outdoors, it is “displaced” into unfamiliar territory. Usually they will look for the first place that will offer concealment and protection. Their instinctive response is to HIDE IN SILENCE because that is their primary protection from predators. How long they remain in that hiding place and what they do from there is dependent upon their temperament. Using baited humane traps as a recovery tool is a highly effective method for recovering displaced, panicked cats that are hiding. The investigative question to solve when an indoor-only cat escapes outdoors is: WHERE IS THE CAT HIDING?

Temperament influences actions. How a cat behaves when in its normal territory will influence how it behaves when it becomes “lost” or displaced into unfamiliar territory. Encourage cat-owners to develop a search strategy based on the specific behavior of their cat. Here are guidelines to use:

Curious/Clown Cat. These are gregarious cats that get into trouble easily, run to the door to greet a stranger, and are not easily afraid of anything. When displaced, these cats might initially hide but then they will most likely TRAVEL. Strategy for recovery should be to place fluorescent posters within at least a five block radius. Also, interview neighbors in a door-to-door search, thoroughly searching possible hiding places in yards of houses and other areas within a close proximity to the escape point. Do not assume that the cat will come when you call!

Care-Less Cat. These aloof cats don’t seem to care much about people. When a stranger comes in, they stand back and watch. When displaced, they will likely initially hide, but eventually they will break cover and come back to the door, meow, or possibly travel. Strategy should be to search hiding places nearby, interview neighbors door-to-door and search their yards. If these efforts do not produce results, consider setting a baited humane trap.

Cautious Cat. These cats generally are stable but they show occasional shyness. They like people, but when a stranger comes to the door, they dart and hide. Some of these cats peek around the corner and eventually come out to investigate. When displaced, they will likely immediately hide in fear. If not pushed (scared off) from their hiding place, they will typically return to the point where they escaped from or they will meow when the owner comes to look for them. This behavior typically is observed either within the first two days (after the cat has built up confidence) or not until seven to ten days later when their hunger or thirst has reached a point where they will respond. Strategy would be to conduct a tightly focused search in neighbors’ yards and to set baited humane traps.

Catatonic/Xenophobic Cat. Xenophobia means “fear or hatred of things strange or foreign.” Xenophobic cats are afraid of EVERYTHING that is new or unfamiliar. Their fearful behavior is hard-wired into their character; it is caused by genetics and/or kittenhood experiences (nature or nurture). These cats will hide when a stranger comes into their home, and they typically will not come out until well after the company has left. They do not do well with human contact (being held, petted, etc.) and they are easily disturbed by any change in their environment. When displaced, they bolt and then HIDE IN SILENCE. They tend to remain in the same hiding place and become almost catatonic, immobilized with fear. If they are found by someone other than their owners, they are typically mistaken as being untamed or “feral.” The primary strategy to recover these cats would be to set baited humane traps. Xenophobic cats that become “lost” are routinely absorbed into the feral cat population.

Guardian Behaviors. Guardians often behave in ways that actually inhibit their chances of recovering their lost pets. Some develop a “wait and see” approach (believing their pet will return home like Lassie) and by the time they start actively looking, the vital first few hours to locate their pet (or witnesses who saw the pet) are gone. Others develop “tunnel vision” and fail to find their dog or cat because they focus on wrong theories. They assume their dog was “stolen and sold to research” when in fact their dog might have been rescued and put up for adoption through a local adoption event. They experience “grief avoidance” and quickly give up their search effort because they really believe they will never see their cat again. They feel helpless and alone, often discouraged by others who rebuke them and tell them “it was just a dog” and “you’ll never find your cat.” In addition, the level of human animal bond (HAB) will influence the recovery efforts of a lost pet. People with a strong HAB will go to extremes to find their lost pet. They will accomplish the “impossible” task of visiting all shelters, posting flyers, and contacting rescue groups while maintaining full-time jobs and other family commitments.
One of the primary reasons why so many lost cats are never found is that cat guardians focus their entire search efforts by posting lost cat flyers and by searching the cages at the local shelter. Although these techniques are important and should not be overlooked, the primary technique to recover a missing cat should be to obtain permission from all neighbors to enter their yards and conduct an aggressive physical search for the missing cat (and to set baited humane traps there when necessary). Simply asking a neighbor to “look” for the cat is not sufficient! Neighbors are not going to crawl around on their bellies under their decks or houses to search for someone else’s lost cat! It is up to the guardians to do this!

Rescuer Behaviors. The behaviors of people who find stray dogs differ from the behaviors of people who find stray cats. . . . When people find stray cats, they also misinterpret behaviors. When rescuers observe a cat with a xenophobic temperament they assume, based on the cowering and skittish behavior, that the cat is an untamed “feral.” While it is true that feral, untamed cats that are unaccustomed to human contact will hiss, spit, twirl, lunge, and urinate when humanely trapped, this “wild animal” behavior is also common in cats who have xenophobic temperaments! We know this because we have talked to owners of lost xenophobic cats that had to be humanely trapped in order to be recovered; the owners verified that their cats exhibited wild behavior while in the humane trap. These behaviors are a reflection of a fearful TEMPERAMENT, not a lack of TAMENESS. Shelter and TNR workers should scan all “feral” cats for microchips and conduct research (check classifieds, lost cat reports, etc.) to determine if the new “feral” actually is someone’s xenophobic pet cat that has escaped outdoors, perhaps several weeks or months before it was found.

Missing Pet Partnership’s website ( lists lost pet recovery tips based on the analysis of lost pet behavior. With the knowledge of these human and animal behaviors and new suggested methods on how to recover a lost pet, we can better guide guardians and increase the probability that they will bring the lost animal that they love back home.

(Kat Albrecht is a former police detective-turned-pet-detective and author of The Lost Pet Chronicles: Adventures of a K-9 Cop Turned Pet Detective. She also is the founder of Missing Pet Partnership and CEO of Pet Hunters International (, the first-ever pet detective academy that trains and certifies technicians and search dogs to track lost pets.)
(From Summer 2005 Paws to Think, magazine for Pet Savers Foundation)



Curious Cats



Live Catch Trap


wild cats

Wild cats on their own


cat lying in the dirt

Cat sleeping in the dirt (D. Scrani photo)




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