“But my Ellie loves being an indoor cat and would never try to leave.” These are the famous last words of every cat owner....before The First Great Escape. Whether it’s a true animal instinct or just sincere curiosity, nearly every cat - well-loved or not - will try to escape through a door left ajar or a cracked window. As veterinarians, our hearts sink that much more every time we see a “Lost Cat” flyer in our neighborhoods, so we’d like to take this opportunity during National Lost Pet Prevention Month to share some tips on what to do if your indoor cat escapes, and also how to prevent this tragedy in the first place.

look close to home for lost cats

1. Keep Your Initial Search Close to Home

Unlike some dogs - who can cover serious ground when they make their great escapes - most cats are likely to be around the perimeter of your home, possibly in the bushes or under the porch or patio. The act of leaving might seem courageous but your indoor cat will soon realize the perils of being outdoors for the first time (or close to the first time) and will have tried to find safety in the closest place.

If you don’t find your cat during the day, try your search at night. Cats are very nocturnal animals and are also likely to be a bit more anxious at nigh, leading them to be out and about and possibly trying to find their way back to you. Use a flashlight or headlamp, as you might catch a glimpse of their eyes while using these.

use flyers to find missing cats

2. Spread the Word

If the initial search of your area close to your home comes up empty, it’s time to spread the word as quickly as possible. While all social media can be helpful when searching for missing cats, the NextDoor app is ideal for this, as your neighbors have likely posted or helped with similar posts in the past. They’ll not only have good tips for you but now you’ll have extra eyes out in the area, particularly if you include a pic (highly recommended!). Of course, flyers with a photo of your missing cat and your phone number on it and good old-fashioned walking from home to home can be beneficial and also make you feel less helpless as you search.

use food and scents to find cats

3. Spread Familiar and Food Scents

Cats navigate their environment through their sense of smell, so consider placing blankets, pillows, and other items your cat regularly smells outside your place. And while this might sound crazy, many people swear by placing their litter box outside. As you’ve probably gathered, cats can be persnickety about where they go, and, as they can’t hold it forever, this could be the ideal way to lure them back.

We’ve all seen the cat food commercials where the pet parent barely opens the can and the sound alone draws the kitties to the kitchen. The sound might be the Pavlovian response, so to speak, but it’s the smell kitties love. Shake the dry dog food bag and/or put out their favorite (and likely fishiest!) wet food and this just might do the trick, especially if they have, indeed, found a secret hiding spot close to home. Just know your cat might not be the only one you attract!

look for missing cats at shelter

4. Visit the Shelters

We know this is a depressing step to take in the pursuit of finding your precious pet but if your initial search around the home isn’t fruitful, heading to the shelters is a necessary one. And you’ll notice we didn’t say to simply call the shelters. That’s because those of us in this field know that the sheer numbers of pets turned into shelters can be overwhelming, particularly the day after loud holidays like the 4th of July (the noises often scare pets enough to flee). That’s why it’s better to go in person and go every day for the first few days. Most shelters will only hold onto lost pets for a few days before they go up for adoption.

set humane trap for missing cats

5. Set a Humane Trap

Much like shelters, hearing the word “trap” in reference to your kitty companion is unpleasant to be sure, but it can be what finally gets them back home. Humane traps are used often for getting feral cats spayed and neutered, and you can typically rent one at humane societies to help bring Kitty home. Easy to use and entirely safe, the food in these traps could be the tool you need for what is sure to be an emotional reunion.

Now, About Prevention

As we all know, prevention is the ideal route when it comes to lost pets and, although accidents do happen, there are steps you can take to prevent them from happening again in the future.

Some of the steps you can take to ensure your cat doesn’t get outside the house and gets returned safely if they do are as follows:

  • Make sure all doors and screen doors are in working order and shut quickly. All it takes is a second from a lagging door for the cat to dart outside.
  • Make sure all your windows have screens and that these screens are in working order.
  • Gently discourage curious cats or kittens that like to linger around the front or back door.
  • Make sure your cat has an ID and collar on at all times.
  • Talk to your vet about getting your cat microchipped, as this simple and efficient technology is one of the ways that many pets are safely returned home after getting lost.