The lost-cat conundrum

December 15, 2016

For decades, one of the important functions of shelters has been to reunite lost animals with their owners. After all, we want to preserve the human-animal bond whenever we can, and what better way to do that than to simply return a lost pet to its loving family?

Many shelter operations have been designed with this goal in mind. Field officers pick up animals found wandering, citizens are encouraged to bring found animals in, and stray holding periods are put in place to give owners time to notice their pet has gone missing and make their way to the shelter.

We already know this system works better for dogs than for cats. One study showed that over 70 percent of lost dogs were recovered by their owners, most commonly by a call or visit to an animal shelter [1].

A companion study by the same authors found that only around 50 percent of cats were recovered – and only 6 percent of these by a call or visit to the shelter [2]. The vast majority of cats either returned home on their own or were found in the neighborhood where they were lost.

Interestingly, in this study the low rate of reunification with cats at animal shelters doesn’t seem to have been for lack of trying. Nearly 90 percent of owners who did not end up finding their cats visited an animal shelter at least once.

This is interesting information. More often than not, even when owners went to an animal shelter looking for their cats, they didn’t find them there. Why?

Part of this may be a mismatch in timing. In this pair of studies, the median time for owners of a lost dog to contact an animal agency was only one day, while cat owners waited a median of three days. At some shelters, the cat might already be gone by the time the owner comes looking.

More commonly, however, I suspect the timing mismatch has more to do with cat and finder behavior than owner behavior.

Think about it. If you notice a strange dog wandering through your yard or ambling down the side of a busy road, you’d probably call him over, check for tags, and give the owner a call if you could. If there were no identification, you might well post the dog on the web and file a found report. Maybe you’d even give the dog a ride over to the shelter, knowing the owner could be frantically searching.

On the other hand, how many times have you pulled over because you saw a cat strolling along unattended? We often assume that cats are out and about on their own business, or perhaps that they have no owners at all (more on that in a future blog). Even if a new cat shows up in the yard, many of us would probably wait at least a few days before checking around to see if she might be a lost pet.

Cat behavior also plays a role. We know from experience that lost cats will often hide out for prolonged periods if something has startled them or they find themselves in unfamiliar terrain. Stories abound of cats recovered weeks or even months after being lost. If they do happen to end up in a shelter after they’ve emerged, the owner may have long since stopped searching.

This could all be taken as discouraging news. Owner, finder, and – most importantly – cat behavior all conspire against the success of reuniting lost cats with their families by bringing the cat to a shelter. In some cases, by removing the cat from the neighborhood where it was found, we eliminate its chances of ever getting back home.

Luckily, knowledge is power. And putting down a tool that doesn’t work frees our hands to pick up a better one. With this in mind, some shelters have reoriented their approach to getting lost cats back to their owners.

Does this mean the shelter staff throw up their hands and give up on lost cats? Absolutely not. It means engaging community members as partners and field agents to help cats get home.

Instead of sending the message that the shelter should be the first stop for a found cat, even open-door, public shelters have realized that cats and people are better served when there’s a phone call first. If the cat really needs to come in, a same-day appointment can always be made, but with just a little breathing room a better alternative might be found.

The time it might have taken to admit and care for a cat, can instead be invested in helping the finder track down the cat’s family, knowing they are most likely nearby. The opportunity for this has never been better: web-based options and apps to help reunite pets and owners are plentiful.

Some are even pretty fun to use. I notice in my local neighborhood online discussion group nothing gets people chatting like a found pet listing – and I’ve seen a good handful of happy reunions reported even in the few months I’ve been part of the group.

We can also help by guiding owner search efforts. While we should still encourage owners to look diligently at area shelters, they also need to know that cats might well be hiding out somewhere in the neighborhood where they were lost.

Posting signs, knocking on doors, and even placing a trap in their own back yard might just do the trick. Websites like Missing Pet Partnership provide detailed guidance for those looking for a lost pet. Pointing worried owners to a trusted resource along these lines can be both quick and effective.

Finally, we can do what we like best: Invest in prevention. A pair of studies documented that ID tags and collars placed on cats are likely to be retained and used, in spite of owner misgivings about their cat’s tolerating such adornments [3, 4].

With every adoption, spay/neuter clinic appointment, and veterinary visit, we have a simple, quick, low-cost opportunity to place a collar and ID tag on the cat and provide a fast track home should she or he ever become lost. And that’s the kind of math we love here at the Million Cat Challenge! –Dr. Kate Hurley


1. Lord, L.K., et al., Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost dog. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 2007. 230(2): p. 211-6.

2. Lord, L.K., et al., Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost cat. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 2007. 230(2): p. 217-20.

3. Lord, L.K., et al., Evaluation of collars and microchips for visual and permanent identification of pet cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 2010. 237(4): p. 387-94.

4. Weiss, E., M.R. Slater, and L.K. Lord, Retention of provided identification for dogs and cats seen in veterinary clinics and adopted from shelters in Oklahoma City, OK, USA. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 2011. 101(3-4): p. 265-269.


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1 Comment »

  1. Great post! People really do treat missing cats differently than dogs – we often don’t get a call at our shelter until the cat has been gone many days, or even several weeks.

    You’ve missed, though, that sometimes cats go lost BECAUSE someone is trying to help them, when the cat doesn’t need any help at all. That cat who is outside wandering around? She in fact might just be an owned, indoor/outdoor cat who is on her daily patrol around her territory.

    In September, a cat came into the shelter I work at. She’d been found as a stray in the person’s back yard back in April, and had been kept indoors since then. She only came in because the finder couldn’t get her to get along with the existing cats. Scanned at intake, we found a microchip – she’d been adopted from us years before, as a kitten. We called her family, who’d searched for Cindy Lou for months after she went missing…in April…from a house half a block away. They were so excited to hear she was okay they started crying when we called, and jumped in the car immediately to come get her. Actually, the yards are closer than the street addresses suggest – there’s only an empty lot between the two back yards. She’s an indoor/outdoor kitty who had been stolen off her home territory by a well meaning person who felt that cats outside need to be helped. If she had gotten along with the other cats at the “finder’s” (you could say “catnapper’s”) home, she’d never have gotten back to her real family.

    Most of the few cats our shelter successfully reunites are found in similar circumstances – they are stolen off their own territory by well meaning cat lovers.

    There are some really neat studies that have been done where GPS units were put on indoor/outdoor cats, and their routine travels put on Google maps of the neighborhood. When someone says they “talked to all the neighbors and the cat doesn’t live with any of them”, I guarantee they have not covered all the houses within a normal indoor/outdoor cat’s territory. It’s bigger than we think it is, and they work with cat territory, not human territory – straight distance from the home, not along streets, which is how humans perceive space. You probably are familiar with the houses which are four houses to the left and to the right of your house on your street. How about the houses that are four houses away behind your house, or to the front of your house? In a suburban or urban neighborhood, those houses are all the same distance to a cat. To a person, it’s not the same at all.

    The question we need to start asking is “how do you know if this cat needs help?” And “she comes to eat every day” doesn’t mean she’s homeless; offer free people meals every day, and I just might start showing up regularly too.

    We’re moving to a system where we assume that cats outside who are in good shape are living at home with their family, and we probably will stop taking them in as “strays” unless the finder has left them outside with a collar and a tag that says “if this is your cat call (finder’s phone number)” for 1-2 weeks, with no response. Cat injured or not doing well, or never leaves the finder’s yard? That’s different, for sure. But shows up every afternoon? That’s very likely your neighbor’s cat. Don’t steal her.

    Comment by Karina — December 17, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

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