Lost Cat Behaviour Varies Based On Behavioural Patterns

This article is brought to you by the NZCAR Pet Detective Service.


In 1997, Kat Albrecht, Network Director for the Missing Animal Response network and founder of the Missing Pet Partnership began to study the behavioural patterns of lost cats and dogs. As a former police officer with a background in search-and-rescue (searching for lost people), Kat understood the critical connection between behaviour and the distances that people travel when lost. It made sense to Kat that the behaviour of cats (and dogs) would also influence the distances that they travel. Kat now teaches consultants and pet detectives around the world.

This article is based on work Kat completed looking at the differences that personailty and upbringing can make to a cat's reaction when they are displaced or go missing. We hope that this helps you to recover your missing cat!

Displaced Indoor-Only Cats (i.e. Cats Who’ve Escaped Outdoors)

If your indoor-only cat has escaped and is somewhere outside or in unfamiliar territory there is good news — your cat is probably not “lost” at all!  In most cases, a cat that is unexpectedly transplanted into an unfamiliar area is considered a DISPLACED CAT. Most cases of displacement involve indoor-only cats that escape outside. However, outdoor-access cats can become displaced as well.

When cats are displaced into an unfamiliar area, the cat is most likely hiding in silence, often not far from the escape point, and they will not meow! This is because cats are territorial and their primary protective measure from predators is to hide in silence. Cats that are afraid (and cats that are injured) will seek areas of concealment such as under a deck, under a house, under a porch, or in heavy brush and they will not meow! Meowing would give up their location to a predator. Their behaviour has nothing to do with whether the cat loves you, whether it recognises your voice, or whether it can smell you – it has everything to do with the fact that a frightened cat will hide in silence!

While you can inform your neigbours your cat is missing and ask them to keep an eye out, this is a passive approach to finding your pet. We  recommend a very thorough search of the immediate area, including neighbours properties, sheds, garages and under houses. You can even ask neighbours to search their house too. A recent NZCAR call was with a chap who while we were on the phone, noticed his cat in the window of the property next door.

If searching fails to find your cat it does not necessarily mean your cat is not there - it can just mean the cat is hiding very well. However all cats will get hungry and at this point they may venture out at night or when quiet. In these cases another method developed by Kat Albrecht and her network is the same method used to capture feral cats – the use of a humane trap. This is known as “trap-and-reunite” or “TAR.” Humane wire cages are often available for rental at many locations and also through the NZCAR. Humane traps have a trip mechanism that when triggered by a cat (or other small animal), will shut the door and contain a cat inside.

In 2017, a study of 1,232 cat owners who had lost their pets by the University of Queensland, Australia* found the median distance for how far a displaced indoor cats traveled when they escaped outdoors was only 50 metres, which is roughly a 2 ½ house radius from their owner’s home.

Displaced Outdoor-Access Cats

Displacement for outdoor-access cats happens when the cat is chased out of their known territory (i.e. attacked by another cat, chased by a dog, or even panicked by fireworks where the cat bolts in fear and ends up in a yard they have never been in before). Displacement of outdoor cats can also happen when an outdoor-access cat is being transported to another location and accidentally escapes—like when involved in a roll over car accident, escaping their carrier at a vet’s office, or escaping a vehicle while moving house. Over the years, MAR have discovered that many outdoor-access cats end up hiding in a neighbour’s yard within a ten property radius. They are often too disoriented and afraid to come home! In these cases, even though the cat is technically an “outdoor-access cat,” it is a DISPLACED CAT and you should follow the instructions for displaced cats above.

In one of the investigations that Kat Albrecht solved, her cat-detection dog located a missing cat named Gizmo who was missing for 3 days. Gizmo was hiding inside an abandoned bathtub in a yard just two houses away. While some cats have the remarkable ability to use the homing instinct to work their way back to their territory, other cats that are displaced either don’t possess this skill or they’re too frightened to use it. In cases of displacement, even though the cat is technically an “outdoor-access cat,” it is a DISPLACED CAT when it ends up in an area that is unfamiliar.

A cat’s individual temperament can range anywhere from a bold “clown-like” cat to the other end of the spectrum which is a catatonic “feral-like” cat. This temperament will also influence how far he/she will travel and whether or not he/she will respond to human contact. Recovery techniques should be geared around a missing cat’s unique, individual temperament. If he or she is skittish, he/she will more likely be nearby hiding in fear and you’ll need to use a humane trap to recover him/her. For information on where to source Humane Animal Cages and where to set them, please talk to a member of the NZCAR Pet Detective team.

If he or she is gregarious, he/she could easily travel several blocks (even a mile or two) and you’ll need to knock on doors and may want to post posters at major intersections or shopping centres in the area.

Lost Outdoor-Access Cats

By “Outdoor-Access Cat” we mean that you are the caretaker of a cat that is routinely allowed to go outdoors, even for brief periods of time. One of the most profound discoveries that Kat Albrecht discovered early on is that the methods that should be used to search for a lost outdoor-access cat are much different than those used to search for a missing indoor-only (or a displaced) cat. When an outdoor-access cat disappears, it means that something has happened to the cat to interrupt its behaviour of coming home. Cats are territorial and they do not just run away from home (like dogs do). Thus the tactics and techniques used to search for a missing cat should be different than those used to search for a missing dog.

Lost cat posters will not always help find your cat if it has crawled under your neighbour’s deck and is injured and silent but they can still help to remind neighbours to keep an eye out for your cat. Large, neon lost cat posters (see LostPet.co.nz resource for a template) should ideally be used, and social media posts through Neighbourly  are also recommended. (A free lost cat listing on LostPet.co.nz not only places your lost pet on our lost and found pet map, but also notifies Neighbourly users in your area). However, social media posts and posters should only be part of a wider lost pet recovery plan that includes a targeted search in the immediate area of where the cat disappeared. Most often this involves a physical search of a cat’s territory. And yes, that means looking under and in every conceivable hiding place in your property and in your neighbours’ property!

In the same 2017 University of Queensland study mentioned above the median distance travelled for missing outdoor-access cats was 315 metres. This is roughly a 17-house radius from their owner’s home. The results of this study confirm that the physical search for a missing cat needs to focus within your immediate neighbourhood!

How Can NZCAR Help?

If you would like more help discussing your cat type and how they are likely to react, you can book time with an NZCAR Pet Detective for a one-on-one personalised service. Click here to email your request.

* MDPI, Search Methods Used to Locate Missing Cats and Locations Where Missing Cats Are Found, by Liyan Huang, Marcia Coradini, Jacquie Rand, John Morton, Kat Albrecht, Brigid Wasson and Danielle Robertson. Published: 2 January 2018 - to view online click here

This page has been created by the NZCAR team based on advice written by Kat Albrecht, Network Director for the Missing Animal Response network and founder of the Missing Pet Partnership. Her website is missinganimalresponse.com. This article is one of a series of articles designed to help your lost pets get home.