Using a Search Dog to Track a Lost Outdoor-Access Cat

Many people with a lost pet think that a search dog is the best method for finding their pet.  However, most people tend to have unrealistic expectations and a lack of understanding of how a search dog works.  I previously wrote an article on considerations for Using a Search Dog, and in this series of articles, I plan to go more in-depth on how search dogs are used to search for different types of lost pets starting with lost outdoor-access cats, specifically those lost from their home.  An outdoor-access cat is defined as a cat that is allowed outside and unsupervised.  These are the most difficult type of lost pets to find because of the number of possible scenarios for their disappearance and due to the nature of their scent trails.

A Brief Overview of Scent & Types of Search Dogs

Scent being deposited on the ground as a cat walks and upwards through body air currents.
Scent being deposited on the ground as a cat walks and into the air through body air currents.

Our cats are constantly depositing scent wherever they go.  Scent theory describes scent as small rafts of skin (i.e. clusters of skin cells) that are constantly being shed from the body and that are then being broken down by bacteria (Syrotuck 2000).  Some scent is deposited with direct contact with the ground while additional scent flows off the top of the body through air currents and travels through the air before being deposited on the ground.  Scent will be stronger in areas where a cat repeatedly walks such as on preferred travel routes throughout their territory or where they rest.  Large concentrations of scent can also collect (i.e. scent pools) where a cat spends a period of time such as a sleeping spot or refuge such as under a porch.

There are several different types of search dogs that may be called by many different names: tracking dogs, trailing dogs, area detection dogs, air-scenting dogs, cat detection dogs or remains detection dogs to name a few.  Scent-specific dogs (generally tracking or trailing dogs) are trained to follow the individual odor of a missing person or animal.  This individual odor is composed of the skins rafts and personal bacteria of the individual and is catalyzed by body secretions of that individual (Syrotuck 2000).  Tracking dogs are trained to follow the scent left by the actual tracks of the missing animal, while trailing dogs are trained to follow the greatest concentration of scent on the ground.  Since scent is also deposited in air currents from the animal, this scent may travel several feet to over 100 feet from where the animal actually walked.  Although there is technically a difference between tracking and trailing dogs, they are often both referred to as “tracking dogs” by the general public.  For simplicity, I will also refer to tracks or trails interchangeably, but if you were to study scent theory, you would find that there can be a lot of variation between the two.  

Area detection dogs (e.g. air-scenting or cat detection dogs) are trained to search an area and locate the concentrated scent of any cat.  Ideally this scent is “air scent” coming off of the actual lost cat, but the dogs may also indicate on a scent pool such as under a deck where the cat hid for a while.  Both tracking/trailing dogs and area detection dogs are usually also trained to indicate on the scent of a deceased cat though some dogs are trained to specialize in just this task.  Most people tend to assume that a tracking/trailing dog is superior to an area detection dog, but once you understand the challenges of tracking a lost outdoor-access cat, you may find that this is not always the case.

Challenges of Tracking a Lost Outdoor-Access Cat that Disappears from His Home Range

Outdoor-access cats usually have a home range where they regularly travel and rest.  This may also be referred to as the cat’s territory or home range though technically it is only truly a territory if the cat defends it from other non-resident cats.  For more information on cat home range size, read this article.  The following illustrations show a very simplified version of a cat’s home range and movements.  The first series of pictures (Tracks 1-6) show a cat regularly traveling around his home range culminating in Track 7, which shows all his travels for that week.

An example of a series of cat tracks throughout his home territory.
An example of a series of cat tracks throughout his home territory.
An example of a cat traveling around his home range for a full week.
An example of a cat traveling around his home range for a full week.  Older scent trails are light while newer ones are a darker blue.

If the cat then goes missing, you can now imagine how difficult it would be for a tracking or trailing dog to follow the scent trail of the missing cat.  A well trained dog can differentiate between an older and newer trail and direction of travel, but this is made more difficult with the many regularly traveled trails that will have an accumulation of scent and trails going in both directions.  

The difficulty of locating the lost cat is made more difficult if there isn’t an uncontaminated scent article.  The scent article is an item that smells like the missing cat that will be presented to the search dog.  This tells the search dog what scent trail to follow.  Many cat owners have more than one cat or dogs in the home, and it can be very difficult to find an item that is unique to the missing cat (i.e. uncontaminated from other pet scents).  If the scent article also contains scents of other cats/dogs that go outside, then the search dog may also follow the numerous additional trails left by these pets.  A well trained search dog will be trained in “missing member searches.”  This is where the search dog is presented with a contaminated scent article and is then allowed to smell all the other pets in the house, and determine which pet is missing.

How Different Probabilities Influence the Effectiveness of the Search Dog

When an outdoor-access cat goes missing from their home, there are different probability categories (or scenarios) for what might have happened to the lost cat.  These include: 1) Theft, 2) “Rescue” (i.e. when someone takes your cat because they think it is a stray), 3) Intentional Transport (e.g. a cat hating neighbor or angry ex-boyfriend kidnaps your cat and dumps him somewhere), 4) Unintentional Transport (e.g. your cat gets into the plumbers van), 5) Trapped (e.g. stuck in the neighbor’s shed), 6) Injury, Illness or Death (e.g. hiding because sick or injured or deceased due to illness or hit by car), 7) Wildlife Kill (i.e. victim of a predator attack), and 8) Displacement (e.g. chased out of their home range or otherwise leaves their home range). When an outdoor-access cat is lost away from home, this is a very different scenario and will be discussed in a future article.  In some search probabilities, specifically theft, rescue, or any type of transport, the tracking/trailing dog has no chance of successfully finding the lost cat because the cat has been removed by a person and there isn’t a scent trail to follow.  A search dog will also be unable to locate a cat outside if the cat is actually hiding or trapped inside the home, and this happens more frequently than people assume.

A tracking or trailing dog might be able to locate a missing cat within their home range (or just outside of it) if the cat is trapped somewhere outside, hiding and injured (such as from a severe cat fight or hit by a car) or deceased (such as hit by a car or killed by a predator).  An area detection dog can also be used to successfully locate a cat under most of these circumstances.  The picture below shows examples of where a cat might be located in each scenario.

Locations where a lost cat might be found within his own home range.
Locations where a lost cat might be found within his own home range.

Keep in mind that this is a very simplified scenario, and most cats will have a larger home range (usually 3 yards or more in each direction) which contains many more scent trails for the tracking/trailing dog to work through.  In neighborhoods where the houses are close together and fenced, a tracking/trailing dog will have a much more difficult time because he will be unable to follow the trails made by the cat since cats frequently climb under or over fences from yard to yard.  In these cases, an area search dog may be more effective to quickly check each yard for any sign of your cat.

Additional Challenges of Locating the Displaced Cat

One of the more common scenarios for a lost outdoor-access cat is that the cat has become displaced from his home range.  This may occur if he is new to the area and becomes lost or if he is scared out of his territory (such as by fireworks, construction, a loose dog, or another cat) and either becomes lost or is afraid to come back.  As much as we cat lover’s want to deny it, some “lost” cats will also choose to leave their homes when there is a significant change in the household such as a new baby, puppy or roommate.  Some cats are more sensitive than others and may leave due to a change in routine (such as a prolonged injury or illness of their owner) or even a small change in circumstances (such as a remodeled living room or change in brand of cat food).  In either case, the lost cat has left his home range and there may only be one scent trail leading to his new location.  The photo below shows an example of this scenario where the lost cat traveled to the neighbor’s home and got in a fight with their new cat and was chased across the busy road.

Map showing trails of a cat throughout their home range and a single trail leading away.
Map showing trails of a cat throughout their home range and a single trail leading away.

When a lost cat is displaced from their home range, it can be challenging for a tracking/trailing dog to work through all the scent trails and scent pools to find the one most recent track that leads away from their home.  This is made more difficult the longer the cat has been missing because the scent deposited throughout the home range might be an accumulation of years of scent while the trail leading out of the home range is only a single scent trail.  How long scent survives is a whole other discussion that I will blog about in a future article.  There has been some research that accumulated scent pools/trails may be viable for up to six months (Phillips 2006) while there is considerable debate on whether a single scent trail lasts for only 12 hours, a week or two, or even a month or more.  Personally I am skeptical of those who proclaim to track scents more than a month old.

If the search dog does successfully find the displaced cat’s scent trail, it is unlikely that they will actually locate the lost cat during the search.  These are referred to as “walk-up” finds and they usually only occur in less than 20% of searches and rates of only 5% or less are not uncommon.  Unless the lost cat is stationary (e.g. hiding, trapped, severely sick or injured or deceased), it is unlikely that the search dog will be able to find the exact location of the cat.  A cat that is being searched for by a dog will likely feel hunted and will evade the search dog team.  In fact, a well trained search dog team will likely stop the track for your lost cat if the search dog indicates that the scent is very fresh and the cat is likely nearby.  Using a search dog in this situation can provide some very useful information including where your cat went after leaving their home range and the area that they are currently hiding out.  This information can help you determine where to put up additional posters, distribute flyers, and perhaps set up a wildlife camera and/or humane trap.  Sadly, many people put all their hope (and often money) into hiring a tracking/trailing dog and then do not follow-up with the necessary search tactics after the search dog leaves.

Literature Cited

Jones, Phillip.  2006.  Scents and Sense-Ability.  Forensic Magazine (online edition).  April/May 2006.

Syrotuck, William G.  Scent and the Scenting Dog.  2000.  Barkleigh Productions, Inc.  Mechanicsville, PA.

15 thoughts on “Using a Search Dog to Track a Lost Outdoor-Access Cat”

  1. Danielle:

    What is your conclusion on this?

    Based on the last line, it sound like a bottom-line whoa up of Tracking/trailing dogs are good/useful for outdoor access cat cases if the owner follows up with posters/flyers/camera.

    Very good points, and interesting observation that the most recent trail being the one with the least scent repetition.

    Do you have any numbers for actual walk-up finds on outdoor cats using a search dogs? I am finding that nearly every call I get through MPP wants and expects a search dog to track right up to their missing cat!

    Since I do not have a search dog, I rely more on my tools and observation. Maybe this is why I find cats that could be pushed away by a search dog?

    Thanks for the great research and report! BTW Are those actual cat trails in your examples?

    1. Hi Kim,

      Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. I believe that a tracking dog can be useful in searching the lost cat’s territory to help determine whether the cat is trapped or deceased. They can also be useful IF they are able to find a track leading out of the territory, but this may not be possible depending on how extensive the cat’s territory is and how long before the search dog is brought out. However, they are probably most useful if the owner starts out with posters and then uses the search dog to check and verify several potential sightings that are outside of the cat’s normal territory. In the latter two cases, the owner would still likely need to do more posters/flyers and cameras and/or traps to actually find their cat.

      I don’t have actual numbers for walk-up finds of outdoor-access cats, but I have only heard of them infrequently. I don’t have a tracking dog, but using my area search dog I have only found a few deceased cats (definitely less than 5% of searches) and no live outdoor-access cats. I have seen tracking dogs used on maybe a dozen or more searches and I can only think of one that resulted in a walk-up find of a live cat (and this was a check of a potential sighting). I may try posting to the pet detective email list to see if anyone else is willing to share their walk-up find rates.

      The trails on the map are example trails that I made up. However, I have an idea for an experiment that would be very interesting to see how a tracking dog would actually work through the territory of a lost outdoor-access cat. A gps collar would be put on the cat for at least a week before the search dog was brought out. Then the cat would either be hidden (in a carrier) in his own territory or walked out of the territory (on leash if you had an amazingly cooperative cat). Then a tracking dog would be brought in and fitted with a gps collar. This way we could see how the dog worked through all the scent trails in the territory and if the dog were able to locate the cat. This is one of my many research ideas that I’ll hopefully find some volunteers for one day.

  2. I live in a rural farm area in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. My cousin less than a mile away has lost 4 cats in the last 8 weeks. I have lost two. Other neighbors have also lost smaller pets that again just disappear.

    1) Lots of fur around the area of dissappearance.
    2) No Blood at all, no where.
    3) No Body, or remains.
    4) Pieces of removed fur actually look like they were cleanly cut in half and not pulled from body “Teeth?”.

    Any idea what preditor does this? The MO is always the same…no blood, no body, just lots of fur.

    1. It sounds like it could be a coyote. Sometimes they leave remains (maybe head, feet or tail), but other times they will consume just about everything on a small animal. Initially they will pull out a lot of the fur so you may find a large area of just fur. I’m not as sure about the cut fur. This can be caused by a carnivore (either coyote or bobcat are most likely) using its side teeth to shear through the fur. Both coyotes and bobcats will also sometimes cache the remains of their prey usually by burying them nearby so these might not be found. It is not unusual to find no blood at a predator kill site as it will quickly darken (oxidize) and/or soak into the ground and not be visible. You might be able to find the presence of blood at these locations by using luminol. If you want to learn more about the MO of different types of predators, there is a book called Solving Coyote Problems by John Trout that has some good descriptions (not just about coyotes but other predators as well).

  3. My cat got loose outside. Do you know any companies who have the search dogs I can use?
    I live in Northport NY.
    Thank you,

  4. What a very interesting and informative article. Thanks for giving this subject such a detailed treatment, since it goes without saying that anyone who has ever lost a dearly loved cat values every word that may better equip the search or searcher(s). Much appreciated.

  5. Pingback: Can My Dog Find My Missing Cat? The 14 Detailed Answer -

  6. Very interesting article, thank you! We lost our cat, that came out of nowhere to our house in summer. she stayed in and out for three weeks then one morning she wasn’t anywhere and did not come back. 2 search dogs searched after aprox 36 hours (next evening). One walked a lot around and stopped at one point. The other walked straight to that same point. I kept wondering what that means and how is it even possible. Their trainer explained to me that (the point was near children’s playground, in the middle of a small green area, surrounded by a few very tall trees and buildings) that someone took her. That at that point her trail on the ground ends. I still don’t understand that – how could one dog walk straight line to that point? I never got any info from multiple posters, letters and promised award and am still wondering what could have happened to her 🙁

  7. Hello, appreciate the article.
    I have a question, this article specifies “outdoor access cat.”

    What about for an indoor cat that escaped? Is it the same or different?

    To give more specifics, this is an indoor cat that’s about 5 mos old but was an outdoor cat for the first 4mos. He was a stray born by a momma stray/feral that took up residence under my shed. After the momma was done rearing the 2 kittens she took off & they stayed and I took to feeding them & they never really left my yard. Very friendly, always ran up & cake inside for an hr or 2. I was gonna bring them in by winter, then last month the unthinkable happened & the sister got hit by a car right out front. I immediately took the brother in & gave love & took to vet etc…. Now a month later, (13 hrs ago,) he got out & I’m stressed. Especially after just losing his sister. He doesn’t seem to be anywhere around the yard like he used to, I think becuz the momma came back & just gave birth to 2 more babies who aren’t even 4wks old yet & they’re hanging around…. (The way he got out was when I was putting food out cuz I can’t let newborns & their mom starve..)

    Anyway so he’s an “indoor cat,” technically. Hasn’t been outside for over a month. Til today. Searched everywhere I can. So much on internet says they’ll come home on their own but with the other cats out there he seems to have gone. idk what to do. Sorry this was so long I just wanted to give background on why I said he’s an indoor cat, (despite first 4mos being outdoor.)

    So is it different for indoor cats? Thx for any help, it’s appreciated.

    1. Apologies for taking so long to reply. I would label your cat a former outdoor-access cat, but whether or not a search dog would be effective would really depend on the dog’s training. Many search dogs only work relatively fresh scent of a week or less, so they would not be distracted by the month old scent trails. However, some trackers do train their dogs on very old scent trails. These dogs should still focus on the fresher scent trail, but might also alert to older scent trails especially in areas that your cat spent a lot of time in the past. So I would recommend discussing your particular situation with any tracking dog teams that you contact.

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