Why Do Cats Leave Home or Run Away and Not Come Back?

Updated on January 4, 2019
Layne Holmes profile image

Layne is an animal lover and grew up in a household full of rescued critters.

Is your cat missing?
Is your cat missing? | Source

Do Cats Come Back When They Run Away?

The answer to this question is not so simple as there are many factors that may have an influence on your cat's disappearance. Cats are naturally driven by three things primarily:

  • hunting
  • territory
  • reproduction

If your cat has disappeared or perhaps your cat frequently disappears and returns 2-3 days later, one of the above-mentioned items might be the reason your cat is missing.

Most cats are within a 1-mile radius of their home when they go "missing."

Cats Are Curious

Oftentimes, cats follow their curiosity. So if your cat is naturally indoor-outdoor, there's a good possibility that he or she has found something that has caught his or her attention or got caught up in the following:

  • reproduction: spaying, neutering, and sterilizing will prevent wandering, especially with male cats seeking out a female in heat.
  • hunting: a nice supply of mice or other prey may have lured your cat to act on its natural instincts.
  • territory: fending off another cat that has entered their territory; neighborhood cat drama is real.
  • food: your neighbor may be feeding your cat.
  • predation: your cat may have been attacked or killed by a coyote, hawk, etc.
  • disease: some cats run away to die or acquire disease (parasites) making it difficult to return.
  • injury or death: your cat may have been hit by a car or may have been injured in some way (some cats ingest rodents that have been poisoned with rodenticide).
  • collection: your cat may have been picked up by animal control or an animal service agency.
  • disruption: new animal or person in the household, remodeling, big changes, unstable environment (abuse, aggressive dogs, lack of care).

How Far Will a Cat Travel?

5 people reported that their cat traveled a long distance to find home: 80 miles in 3 months, 52 miles in 2.5 years, 38 miles in 6 months, 30 miles in 10 days, and 20 miles in 21 days—according to the Lost Pet Research project.

Is your shy cat missing or hiding?
Is your shy cat missing or hiding? | Source

Do Cats Come Back When They Run Away?

Many do and many don't. It depends on why they ran away to begin with, but the good news is that many cats are equipped with two impressive abilities:

Homing Instinct

An experiment in 1954 by German researchers revealed some interesting findings. They placed cats in a large maze. The majority of the cats exited the maze closest to their home location. Some theories suggest that cats use magnetic geolocation (sensitivity to the earth's geomagnetic fields which informs them of distance and direction) and others suggest that they use olfactory cues. When magnets were attached to the cats, their homing abilities were disrupted—thus reinforcing the study's findings.

Psi Trailing

Coined by Dr. Joseph Rhine of Duke University, this phenomenon refers to an animal's ability to locate their owner when they have moved away. Veterinarian Dr. Myrna Milani, introduced the concept of Bell's Theorem which suggests that owners and their pets have a connection on the material level. Bell's Theorem studies the spin and pairing of electrons—when one electron is separated from another, the paired electron alters its direction. Being that mammals (cats and humans) are composed of atoms, this suggests that we sync up in a natural rhythm at the atomic level—so the animal-human bond, indeed, may run much deeper.

Cat Tracker

NEW Loc8tor Pet Handheld Finder Locator Cat
NEW Loc8tor Pet Handheld Finder Locator Cat

This is a tracker that I use for my cat when I take her outside on her leash. Should she escape, I can track her location like a game of "hot and cold." The indicator alerts me to her whereabouts. I keep it near me in the event of an escape. The tag is under 5 grams which is great.

 

Why Do Cats Disappear?

The Lostpetresearch.com project also revealed that most lost cat homing incidents occur when a pet was accidentally transported away from its environment, e.g. crawled into a car at 22%; 19% disappeared while away from home (vacation, vet's office), 8% were lost due to intention (dumping), 5% were last in transit (during travel or moving).

A noticeable 29% of homing incidences occurred when an owner moved and a cat returned to their old home (this includes cats that were adopted).

How to Prevent Your Cat From Running Away

  • Indoor Only: Some owners keep their cats as indoor-only cats (this prolongs their life expectancy greatly). Indoor cats are protected from viruses and disease that can be spread from cat fights and interactions (as can vaccinating!) Don't let your cat outside if you live in a dangerous area (cars—hit by car, aggressive dogs—chasing them off).
  • Spay and Neuter: Spaying and neutering (or sterilizing) is the number one way to prevent roaming! You also help prevent issues like overpopulation.
  • Microchip: If you insist on having an indoor-outdoor cat, microchip your cat and use a safe quick-release collar. Be sure to register your microchip so that shelters and the providing company can easily contact you should your animal get picked up.
  • Be Smart When Moving: If you have to move, make sure to keep your cat indoors for several weeks. Scope out the neighborhood. Only let them out supervised. Be sure to feed them at regular intervals so they will return home.
  • Help Them Adjust: New animals or new baby? Give your cat time to adjust. Make sure they feel safe, appreciated, and have a place to retreat to.
  • Train Them to Return: My neighbor has their cat trained by bell and treat. Every day at dusk (which is a safe time to welcome your cat in), they ring a bell and feed a stinky treat. This does the job like clockwork!
  • Keep Windows and Doors Closed: If you have visitors in your home, consider putting your cat in a safe room until they are gone (people are prone to leaving doors and windows open). If you have an escape-artist, train everyone in your house to be especially aware of leaving doors open (even for a fraction of a second). Put a bell on your cat if they are stealthy.
  • Get a GPS Tracker/App: There are many products on the market. These consist of little tracking devices (often weigh only a few grams) that can be attached to your cat's collar or reside on a collar. A great investment if you worry for your furry friend.
  • Get a Catio Space: Yes, there is a company called Catio Spaces. You can find a nice outdoor enclosure for your indoor cat. This gives them the freedom of outdoor time without facing the risks of cars, dogs, and cat fights. Remember to provide them with shade, warmth, and water.
  • Provide the Necessities: Give them adequate food, water, toys, love, and play time! Consider training them to walk on a leash.

Most cats (90%) were lost for an average of 5 (median) to 7.5 (mean) days. This average jumped to 12.2 (mean) days if you looked at cats missing up to four months.

— Cat Homing Behavior Survey Results
Seniors and kittens have poor homing abilities.
Seniors and kittens have poor homing abilities. | Source

The Missing Cat Profile

Outdoor or Indoor-Outdoor Cats Are Likely to Find Their Way Home

According to Lostpetresearch.com, 67% of outdoor-access cats and 25% of outdoor-only cats demonstrated homing behavior. The percent was much lower for indoor cats at 7%.

Age Plays a Factor

Other factors reveal that age plays a huge role in disappearances: 58% adults and 34% young adults make up the missing. This day suggests that kittens and seniors may not have strong homing abilities.

Shy Cats or Bold Cats?

Recent data suggests that personality plays no role in homing ability, however, it is likely that if your shy cat gets outside, it may be hiding close by but fear to reveal itself, making it harder to find. On the other hand, a bold cat is more likely to approach you when called.

What to Do If Your Cat Is Missing

Indoor-only cats that escape often go into defense mode, especially if they are timid. This means they will hide even when called. They may not want to show themselves. If your cat recently bolted, know that it is likely they are nearby, so don't go heading off in your car for a ground search, instead:

  • Be patient.
  • Put out food.
  • Sit quietly, and call them calmly.
  • Leave a door to your house open.

When It's Normal

Some cats (indoor-outdoor) come and go as they please. This is normal behavior. If your cat is fully vaccinated, microchipped, and has a decent collar, you can allow for a day or so before ramping up your search. Otherwise, call your cat every 5 minutes. Space this out to every half hour and every 2-3 hours. Do your best to retrieve them.

Have a Lost Cat Plan

Know what to do. Have your cat's microchip information available. Let local shelters and animal control know that your cat is missing (give them physical and personality descriptions). Talk to your neighbors (3-5 houses down). Consider posting flyers in your neighborhood (make sure to collect them after the search), and use apps like NextDoor, Craigslist, etc.

Don't Beat Yourself Up

If you have done your best to keep your indoor cat safe (always keeping doors closed) or have provided your outdoor cat with its creature comforts (spayed or neutered, tagged, vaccinated), but your cat has still gone missing, show yourself some compassion. Losing a pet is an extremely emotional event. Sometimes, we never get the answers we are looking for and our cat doesn't come back. Know that you gave them a great life, perhaps they are off living up their wild instincts, and always hope that they will return—because one day they just might!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Layne Holmes

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