One of the worst feelings in the world is the moment we realize our indoor cat got out, and we can’t find them. Before we fly into a panic, know that the odds are on our side, but only if we know how and where to look. It’s more than posting flyers and hoping for the best. Let’s dive in.
Start to Finish Directions Summary For the Best Chances
Check the house first. Cats love finding new and exciting places to hide, so look everywhere. Check the immediate area. Cats really only travel 300-500 feet from their home, on average. Bring a flashlight to check absolutely every nook, corner, shrub, and dark, shady spot. Look up, down, and around. Be thorough and use a grid pattern if need be, to make sure every square foot is covered. Cats have a great sense of smell. Leave food, water, their litter box, a favorite indoor toy, and your most pungent workout clothes by the back and front doors. All of these have a scent kitty can follow. Do your heaviest, most intensive search at sunrise and sunset. This is when cats are most active. Call their name. Shake their favorite treat container. Don’t just walk around looking for them. Stand in one spot while calling them for about 10 minutes. This will help them find you, instead of making them try to find you as well as follow you. Ask for help. Neighbors, neighborhood kids, and friends can all jump in. Use flyers. Notify local shelters, vet offices, and pet supply stores. Use online tools like lost cat networks, neighborhood groups on Facebook and Nextdoor, and other online communities such as classifieds. Offer a small reward if you are able. Don’t give up. Keep the search going for a minimum of three months. Longer is better.
A starting place to find a lost cat
There are so many reasons a cat can go missing. A house guest inadvertently leaves a window or door open. Kitty scoots past us while we’re trying to carry a million things and can’t get the door closed quickly enough. There’s a power outage, or a neighbor ends up with the same garage opener key code as ours, and accidentally opens our garage door. The first thing to do is set aside shaming, blaming, and panic. They don’t have a role here. The most important job right now is to find Mr. Fuzzy Boots, so focus on that task.
First thing, check the entire house. Unless we actually see kitty escape, every nook and cranny should be checked. For those who think they checked everywhere, check again. Cats are crafty, quiet, and they love new hiding places. Every once in a while, they might even get stuck. And some cats will actually hide if they aren’t feeling well. Look under beds and behind doors with a flashlight. Now is not the time to suddenly think we have night vision. Check all the windows and screen doors for a place where kitty may have pushed his way through to get to a squirrel or bird.
A famous cat in Kentucky once climbed onto the top shelf of her guardian’s closet and then pushed the ceiling tile out of place and hopped into the crawlspace between the ceiling and the floor of the second level. He had a nice long nap up there while the family went nuts looking for him. When it was dinner time, he made his way down to the kitchen and was met by a very surprised family.
Look for openings that may have never been considered before. A general rule is to make a fist because that is typically the size of a cat’s head. If the fist fits, so would a cat. In a New Jersey apartment building, a boy who loved to practice his soccer skills indoors kicked a tiny hole in the wall of his room while getting ready for school. He was too scared to tell his parents, so he just pushed a box against it. Eventually, the box was moved slightly, creating an interesting place for kitty to try and explore. The only problem was, once he crawled into the wall, kitty fell to a lower level. He was eventually found because at night the boy heard the cat crying, and his parents listened to him and tracked the sound. They rescued him two nights later.
Check inside all the cabinets of every bathroom, kitchen, closet, and office. And be sure to check drawers, too. That’s right. Some cats can open cabinets and then hide in their new found spaces. And cats are known for climbing into drawers because they are dark and feel a lot like those coveted boxes cats love so much. It would not be the first time an unsuspecting human closed a drawer without looking. For those with kids, we might even check shoeboxes, storage boxes, and toy boxes. Kids have been known, on occasion, to play hide and seek with a kitty and then lose interest and forget where they put them. Of course, we always hope guardians teach proper play with pets, but there is always a learning curve. Assume nothing! Look under blankets, in the laundry, in rooms that typically have closed doors where kitty isn’t allowed, such as garage areas, and all the other seemingly impossible places our cat would fit.
Step two, because kitty just isn’t in the house
Okay, we’re sure kitty is not in the house, and it’s time to look outside. Let the initial search begin. The good news? At this point, kitty is not likely to have gone far. We can keep our search limited to a fairly small area.
Rule number one, bring flashlights even if it’s the middle of the day. We’re going to be checking under decks and patios, in crawl spaces, under and around bushes, in garden sheds, and along fence lines. For those of us who can manage it, gather a few people to help. Don’t just search where nobody else has searched. Get together and have everybody work in pairs so that absolutely every square inch of the yard and the surrounding area has had at least two pairs of eyes on it.
Rule number two, bring cat treats. If cat treats are kept in a box or bag that typically rustles and brings kitty running, bring the bag or box, too. Familiar sounds are something a scared indoor cat will be listening for. Even if she doesn’t come out right away, the sound of her favorite treats will help entice her out when she is finally ready to make a move.
EcoTreats are premium, all-natural sockeye salmon treats made with only 100% USA-sourced, wild-caught salmon — straight from the waters of the Pacific Northwest. And because we always like to add a little extra to everything we do, Vet Organics has left the skin right on the filet of these salmon chunks. They are also low-calorie, so they are a guilt-free, healthy treat every cat will love! When looking for a lost cat, they can be a great treat to leave out because they have an alluring scent. They are also stored in an airtight bag that we can carry with us while we look for our kitty.
Begin with the back and front yards of kitty’s residence. Then check each of the neighbor's front and backyards who share a fence line with kitty’s home. Even though the fence may seem cat proof, cats can climb, they can dig, and they can fit through small holes in the fence. Check every structure, and we should plan on actually getting on our bellies to check under bushes, under structures, and under vehicles. Look up into trees and tall shrubs or hedges. And check along fence lines, along gutters, and on rooftops. Inside and behind wood piles are also common hiding spots, for those who have those structures in their area.
Expand the search
Okay, We haven’t found kitty and it’s been several hours. We are sure she isn’t in the house, and the localized outdoor search hasn’t come up with anything. Now it’s time to expand the search. This doesn’t mean going down the street, although that’s okay too. It means making flyers and placing them in key locations.
Use a recent photo and create a flyer that is easy to read from a passing car. That means make the picture of kitty the largest part of the flyer. It it’s in the budget, make it a color photo. Put “LOST CAT” in big bold letters at the top. Then we need to remember to add our contact info at the bottom. A phone number is the best item. If there’s a reward, just put the word reward on there, unless offering a big reward is in the budget. That’s all a flyer really needs.
Now place that flyer everywhere within a 700 foot radius of home. Be aggressive. We can add it to every light post. We should definitely place it at every street corner. Ask neighbors first, but mailboxes are a great place to tape a flyer for pedestrians to see. And we should pay special attention to street corners with stop signs and lights. That way when traffic stops, they’ll be able to see the flyer and take a good look at the picture. Think about the flow of traffic and be sure to get a flyer on every corner. Keep in mind that more flyers will be annoying to some people, but it also shows people just how important kitty is to us, and ensures people will pay attention and remember what she looks like and that she is still out there. Lastly, use packing tape, not duct tape or wrapping paper tape. Packing tape is meant to survive mailed boxes that are left in the rain. Wrapping paper, or smaller office tape won’t have any holding power if the wind kicks up. And duct tape, while powerful, does have one weakness - the adhesive dissolves in water, even a light morning dew.
Once the signs are up, head to local businesses to leave them with flyers and let them know kitty is missing. This is an important step. Seeing our face and how much we care is much more impactful than simply calling them and emailing a digital flyer. Bring several flyers and ask them to hang a flyer as well as place a few at the register for people to take if they think they may have seen our cat and want to have our number on their fridge. Then ask if we can place one in the window and on any cork board they may have for flyers and business cards. They worst that happens is they say no, or tell us about all the options that are available to us. We should do this throughout our zip code. Head to all the vet offices, the shelter, all the pet boarding centers, and all the pet supply stores. Don’t just got to the big box stores, head to the small, family owned pet supply stores. They often have a great network they can inform and who will be on the lookout. If so, ask them to post the flyer to their social media sites, too. Then head to common places people gather or run errands. That means all the local coffee shops, grocery stores, diners, and other local, family-owned businesses who pride themselves on being part of the community. They all have places where flyers can be left.
Finally, take the search online. Beginning with personal social media can be a great start, but don’t stop there. Facebook typically has several groups for every city. We can post our flyer in all of them. We can also rely on social networking sites like Nextdoor where neighborhoods come together. A common rule about the human psyche is that we remember things much better after seeing it six times. So, by posting several flyers on the street, in places they frequent, like the grocery store, online, we optimize the likelihood that someone will see the flyer at least six times, and will therefore have our cat on their minds. That means when they do see cats on the street or wandering through their backyard, they’ll remember to check on whether it’s our lost kitty. For those who want personalized coaching, there are even professional lost cat detectives who can ask specific questions about kitty’s living space, the neighborhood, and other details to coach us through the cat-finding process, with statistically impressive success rates.
A note on cat behavior and pro tips. Don’t skip this section!
Here’s what we all really need to know about cats, and why this info is absolutely critical to finding a lost indoor cat.
Cat Fact: Indoor cats typically don’t wander very far. We hear stories about cats who leave an adopted home to hike long distances to reach the family that gave them up, but these hit the headlines because they are rare occurrences. Cats often move a few feet, then sit and look around. Then they’ll move a few feet to another safe place, sit, and look around. On average, most lost cats never venture beyond 300-500 feet from their home.
Pro Tip: Keep the search radius limited to 300-500 feet at first. Be as thorough as possible. Have other people be as exhaustive’[ as possible in the same area to ensure every spot is checked at least twice by different eyes. Check a spot more than once. Just because kitty wasn’t there yesterday, doesn't mean he will not have moved there later that same day.
Cat Fact: Indoor cats who suddenly find themselves outdoors will often be scared and won’t come when called, even though they recognize their guardian. Many will remain completely quiet and won’t call for help because they fear a predator might also find them. That may not align with human logic, but scared cats will fall back on primal instincts to remain quiet and out of site.
Pro Tip: Don’t give up. Just because kitty hasn’t answered our call or wandered home doesn’t mean they don’t want to be found or are gone forever. When an indoor cat is outside, it takes them time to figure out the best hiding places while they wait to be discovered.
Cat Fact: Cats will often fast for three days. Sometimes they do this when they don’t like their food, when they aren’t feeling well, or when there isn’t much food available, such as when they are lost. They don’t just suddenly become great hunters, no matter how many flies and indoor mice they’ve cornered.
Pro Tip: We can leave a little food out and shake the treat box while we are looking for them. If we bring it with us every time, we’ll have the best chances of enticing kitty to come out. It may be three or more days before kitty is convinced that food is the best motivator to come out of their hiding place.
Cat Fact: Cats have an excellent sense of smell. They know what we smell like, what their home smells like, and what they smell like. It’s the sense they rely on to find mates, detect territories, and discover food.
Pro Tip: Leave kitty’s litter box outside. She’ll be able to smell it and find her way home. We can also leave some of our smelly workout clothes outside our door. She’ll recognize our scent.
Cat Fact: Cats are most active at dusk and sunrise. That means we should concentrate our search around those times. We want kitty to work up the courage to come out when we are calling for her, so the best practice is to stand in one place for at least ten minutes while we loudly call her name and shake the treat container. This also prevents us from trying to not only make kitty find us, but also have to try and follow us as we walk around looking for her.
The best and most important pro tip is don’t give up. Even a kitty that has been declawed may find ways to survive. A neighborhood cat lover who doesn’t know they have our cat could take her in. She may escape weeks later to try and find home. Give it a minimum of ten minutes, standing in one place, calling for kitty, twice per day, every day, for at least three months, preferably much longer. Cats have been known to return home after many months. Not all cats make it home, but many cats do come back, even when the odds are against them.
- “Top Ten Tips For Finding Lost Cats,” Petfinder
- “Seven Effective Search Tips For Finding Your Lost Cat,” PawBoost
- “Finding Your Lost Cat,” Zimmer Feline Foundation