Review of “Search Methods Used to Locate Missing Cats and Locations Where Missing Cats Are Found”

This is a review of a research paper published in Animals (2018) on “Search methods used to locate missing cats and locations where missing cats are found,” which was a collaboration between researchers at the University of Queensland (Australia), Missing Pet Partnership, Missing Animal Response Network, and Lost Pet Research & Recovery.

Study Methods

This study was conducted from June through August 2016 using an online questionnaire on Survey Monkey.  Participants were recruited using a convenience sample, including snowballing.  This just means that the survey link was shared online including Facebook and anyone that wanted to participate could fill out the survey.  The survey allowed multiple entries by the same person in case they lost more than one cat or their cat went missing more than once.  The questionnaire included 47 questions relating to 1) basic history of the lost cat, 2) circumstances in which the cat went missing, 3) search methods used to locate the cat, and 4) circumstances in which the cat was found.  Statistics were completed by a hired statistician using Stata (version 14, StataCorp, College Station, TX, USA).

Results and Discussion

There was A LOT of data collected in this study.  View the full article to see summary tables of the results.  I’m including the results below that I thought were most interesting in the study and in some cases grouping the results slightly differently then the final publication.  I’m also including my personal interpretation of the results and a few unpublished results that I found interesting.

Demographics of Cats

A total of 1,210 lost cats were analyzed in this study.  Half of cats in the study had gone missing within the last two years.  Most (59%) were from the US followed by Australia (20%) and Canada (14%), and 77% lived in residential areas consisting primarily of houses with yards.  There were slightly more male cats (57%) than females (43%) and most cats were adults 1-7 years (67%) and spayed/neutered (96%).  About half (46%) of cats had a microchip, but only 19% had a collar with an ID tag.  The paper reports that most cats were acquired from a shelter or rescue (33%) or from a family member or acquaintance (18%).  However, if you combine “found as a stray in a public location” and “appeared as a stray at my home,” then many cats were also found as “strays” (20%). (see Table 2)

In the six months prior to going missing, most cats (46%) were allowed outdoors unsupervised (e.g. “outdoor-access”), followed by 28% strictly indoor-only, 23% primarily indoor (e.g. allowed outside supervised, on-leash or in an enclosure), and 3% outdoor-only.  Of the strictly indoor-only cats, 22% had previously escaped and another 42% had some previous outdoor-experience. (see Table 2)

Circumstances Preceding and Leading to Cats Going Missing

Most (93%) cats went missing from a familiar location while only 7% went missing from an unfamiliar location or while being transported.  About 1/3 each went missing while indoors (37%), outdoors (25%) or were outdoor-access cats that just disappeared (31%) (Table 4).  Most cats that were lost outdoors, went missing while not being supervised (64%).  Not surprisingly, most indoor cats (indoor-only and primarily indoor) went missing while indoors (68%) while 17% went missing while outdoors such as on a leash or while supervised (unpublished data).   Most cats that went missing indoors escaped out an open door or garage (74%) while 22% escaped from windows or balconies.  Very few cats escaped while being transported (2%), and most of these escaped from a cat carrier (52%).  Only 5% of cats were lost from an unfamiliar location with most of these went missing after a move to a new home (51%) or while at a friend’s or pet sitter’s home (34%). (see Table 4)

Probabilities of Being Found Alive by Time Since Lost

This analysis looked at the probability of a lost cat being found alive depending on how long they were missing.

  • 34% were found alive by day 7
  • 50% were found alive by day 30
  • 57% were found alive by day 61
  • 61% were found alive by one year

This suggests that owners of lost cats should search for a minimum of one month and up to two months.  After that time, the chances of the cat being found alive only increase by a very small amount.  Further analysis is needed into how long people searched for their missing cats.  If people that did not find their cat are giving up “too soon,” then they will skew the results towards shorter successful recovery times.  Preliminary analysis shows that people “searching continuously” did so for a median of 21 days, versus 91 days for people “searching on and off” and those no longer searching (unpublished data).

Median time lost for cats found alive was 6 days vs 21 days for cats found deceased.  (Figure 1)

Search Methods Used, Perceived Useful Methods, and Associations with Cat Being Found Alive – Table 5

Survey respondents were offered six possible search methods: 1) physically did a search, 2) advertised, 3) contacted a facility or sought professional help, 4) used a trapping technique, 5) identification device (e.g. microchip), or 6) waited for the cat to come home (this included putting out food or leaving a door open) (Table 5).  Respondents could select all the methods that they used and indicate the ones that helped the most (if they found their cat).

*If you would like an explanation of how I grouped the search methods into different categories of effectiveness, please see the Notes section at the bottom.

Physical Search

A physical search was the most common method used (96%) and there was evidence that a physical search increased the likelihood of finding a lost cat alive (p=0.071; a p value of less than 0.05 is generally considered statistically significant).  Where a physical search was conducted, 59% of cats were found alive and 2% were found deceased.

Most Effective Methods:
  • Spoke with neighbors and asked them to look or assist in the search for my cat
  • Walked around the area at night, using a flashlight or spotlight
  • Asked and received neighbors’ permission to search their property using a slow methodical search
  • Searched my yard or the immediate area
Moderately Effective Methods:
  • Walked around the area during daylight hours
  • When looking for my cat, I searched slowly and methodically
  • Searched indoors
Least Effective Methods:
  • Drove around the area
  • While looking for my cat, I called its name


Advertising was used 74% of the time with 54% of cats found alive and 2% found deceased.  Significantly fewer cats were found alive when advertising was used (p<0.001).  However, this does not mean that advertising decreases the chances of finding a lost cat.  This statistic probably exists because more people start advertising after their cat has been gone for a while and probably try more advertising methods the longer the cat has been missing.

Most Effective Methods:
  • Distributed missing cat fliers
  • Mounted giant (22"x24") neon missing cat posters
  • Mounted small (8.5"x11") white missing cat posters
Moderately Effective Methods:
  • Used social media such as Facebook to spread the word that my cat was missing
  • Mounted small (8.5"x11") neon missing cat posters
  • Used an automated phone call alert system
  • Posted fliers in local businesses
  • Posted a lost pet advertisement in a newspaper
Least Effective Methods:
  • Mailed lost pet postcards
  • Posted an advertisement in online classifieds
  • Searched online for postings of found and adoptable cats
  • Posted on missing pet online database 

Contacted a Facility or Sought Professional Help

About half (57%) of people contacted a facility or sought professional help.  Of these 51% found their cat alive and 2% deceased.  Most of these people (83%) called shelters, rescue groups or a municipal animal facilities while only 53% visited these facilities.  About half contacted veterinarians (61%) or the police or animal control (50%).  Only 24% received assistance from a pet detective or volunteer lost pet recovery group.  Statistically fewer cats were found alive when owners sought professional help (p<0.001).  This is probably due to people not seeking professional help until their cat had already been missing for a longer time, which decreased the likelihood of the cat being found in general.  In fact, getting assistance from a pet detective or volunteer lost pet recovery service/group was one of the most helpful recovery methods (70% of people that hired a pet detective indicated that it was a search method that helped the most in finding their cat).

Most Effective Methods:
  • Received assistance from a pet detective or volunteer lost pet recovery service/group
Moderately Effective Methods:
  • Used an animal communicator or a pet psychic to tell me where my cat was located
Least Effective Methods:
  • Visited shelters, rescue groups, or municipal animal facility
  • Contacted veterinarians
  • Called shelters, rescue groups, or municipal animal facility
  • Contacted animal control or the police department
  • Contacted microchip company such as Home Again or 24PetWatch

Used a Trapping Technique

Only 20% of survey respondents used a trapping technique.  Of these 63% found their cat alive while 2% found them deceased.  Trapping techniques are usually only effective for escaped indoor-only cats and displaced (lost away from home) outdoor-access cats, so it’s not surprising that only a small number of people used a humane trap.  For those that used a humane cat trap, it was the single most helpful search method in the entire study (72% of people that used a humane trap or drop trap indicated that it was a search method that helped the most in finding their cat).

Most Effective Methods:
  • Used a humane trap or drop trap to capture my cat and bring it back home
  • Used a digital wildlife camera, video baby monitor or other surveillance camera to confirm my cat was hiding nearby
Least Effective Methods:
  • Used a “house as trap” method – open door, porch garage, or entry point that was monitored (baby monitor, driveway alarm, sat and watched door) which allowed me to see when my cat came home.

Identification Device

Most (62%) cats had an identification device with a microchip being most common (61%).  Of cats wearing identification, 52% were found alive and 2% found deceased.  Not enough cats were wearing a GPS or radio-tracking device for their effectiveness to be analyzed.

Most Effective Methods:
  • Identification tattoo**
Moderately Effective Methods:
  • Collar with ID tag
  • Microchip
  • In this study, microchipping did not lead to more cats being found.  Since most cats were found outside (83%), not many found cats may have been scanned for microchips.  There is also a known problem that many people do not properly register their microchips or keep their contact information up to date.


    The effectiveness of waiting was compared to other methods but it was not analyzed by itself.  Methods of waiting included:

    • Just waited for the cat to come back home
    • Left a way for my cat to come home such as an open door, porch or garage
    • Left food out to entice my cat
    • Used scent luring (article of clothing, dirty cat litter or scent of another cat) to attract my cat

    Distances to Where Cat was Found

    For cats found alive, the median distance traveled was 50 meters (164 feet) with a maximum of 25 km (15.5 miles). Of these cats, there was a significant difference (p<0.001) between the distance traveled by indoor-only cats versus outdoor-access cats.  Distance traveled by outdoor-only cats was not significantly different.  (See Figure 2 and Figure 3)

    Median (average) distance traveled:

    • Indoor-only cats = 39 m (128 ft)
    • Outdoor-access cats = 300 m (984 ft)
    • Outdoor-only cats = 183 m (600 ft)

    Based on the median and 75%th percentile (i.e. 75% of cats were found at or below this distance), I would suggest the following search areas.

    • Indoor-only cats = at least 39 m and up to 137 m (128-450 ft) radius from location lost
    • Outdoor-access cats = at least 300 m and up to 1600 m (approximately 1,000 feet – 1 mile) radius from location lost
    • Outdoor-only cats = at least 183 m and up to 1600 m (600 ft – 1 mile) radius from location lost

    Only 17 cats found deceased had a recorded distance.  For deceased cats, the median distance found was 200 m (656 ft) with a maximum of 5 km (3.1 miles).  Deceased cats may show a farther distance traveled because cats found deceased close to home may never be considered “missing” and their owners were less likely to participate in this study.  Analysis of deceased cats was limited due to the small sample size.

    Locations Where Cats were Found

    Most cats found alive where found outside (83%).  Of these, 20% were found in someone’s yard, 19% were found waiting outside their own home, 16% were found hiding under vegetation or shrubbery, and 10% were found under a patio, deck or porch.  Only 1% were found up a tree.  Eleven percent of cats were found in someone else’s home while 4% were found somewhere in their own home.  Most cats found in a neighbor’s house were either in the garage (28%), the basement (13%) or hiding behind/under furniture (22%).  Only 2% of cats were found inside a public building.  This would presumably include shelters and rescues, but that specific question was never asked.   (See Table 6)

    Cat owners were asked to rank how strongly their cat matched four cat personalities: 1) curious/clown cat, 2) aloof cat, 3) cautious cat, and 4) very timid/fearful cat.  Cats considered very curious were most likely to be found in someone else’s house (p=0.005).  (See Figure 4)

    Cats’ Demeanor When Found

    Most cats appeared scared (50%) when found, while 30% were quiet but alert and 25% were friendly/relaxed.  Only 10% hissed or acted in the manner of feral cat.  A quarter (25%) of cats were meowing when found and 9% were sick or injured.  These results would be more informative if they were sub-categorized as indoor-only and outdoor-access cats.


    *Categories of Effectiveness for Search Methods

    I seperated search methods into three categories of effectiveness: “Most Effective Methods,” “Moderately Effective Methods,” and “Least Effective Methods.”  These were based on the assigned % values in Table 5 under the far right column: “Where this method was used and the cat was found alive, % of those cats where this method helped the most (No./Denominator).  I assigned them using the following values:

    • Most Effective Methods = 50% or more
    • Moderately Effective Methods = 40% to 49%
    • Least Effective Methods = less than 40%

    Here is an explanation from the research paper of what these values mean: “The relative time taken to find the cat alive due to the particular search method, relative to the time taken to find the cat alive by other methods or waiting, is shown in the right-hand column in Table 5 (‘Where this method was used and the cat was found alive, % of those cats where this method helped the most’). A high percentage indicates that the particular search method was generally more rapid in resulting in the cat being found alive relative to the time that the alternative other methods and types and /or just waiting collectively took to result in the cat being found alive.”

    Limitations and Errors in Study Design

    The study did not differentiate between successful methods for finding Indoor-only versus Outdoor-access Cats

    In my experience, the behavior for an escaped indoor-only cat is quite different from a missing outdoor-access cat.  These differences are also recognized by the Missing Animal Response Network.  Different search strategies are suggested based on the outdoor experience of the cat, the location lost and circumstances of disappearance.  This study did find a difference in the distances traveled for indoor-only versus outdoor-access cats.  However, there was not enough funding to conduct a statistical analysis which subdivided the search strategies used and determine which search methods were most effective for indoor-only versus outdoor-access cats.  In my mind, this is a large limitation in the application of the study results to actual lost cat cases.

    I did an analysis myself of the recovery rates of indoor-only versus outdoor-access cats (unpublished data).  For indoor-only cats (including those that had some outdoor experience such as allowed outdoors supervised or were previously outdoor cats) 71% of cats were found versus only 45% of cats that were allowed outdoor unsupervised.  These results might be biased if people were more likely to complete the survey if they had lost AND found their cat rather those still searching or never found their cat.

    How many cats were found in a Shelter, Rescue Group or Municipal Animal Facility?

    “Found in a shelter/rescue group or municipal animal facility” was not included as an option for a specific type of location found.  This was an oversight in creating the survey.  Only 2% (9) of people selected the option, “found inside a public building,” and after reviewing the study results, I was only able to find 3 entries where a cat was found in a shelter and 1 found at a vet (1% total; unpublished data).

    Effectiveness of Tattoos and Microchips for Finding Lost Cats

    **Only 4 out of 6 people indicated that a tattoo was a primary method in recovering their cat.  This method is listed as a “Most Effective Method” for finding a lost cat, but this outcome may be the result of a very small sample.  Moreover, when I reviewed the results, I only found one case were the tattoo directly related to the cat being recovered AND this cat also had a microchip.

    For 40 out of 86 microchipped cats (47%), participants selected that a microchip was “a primary method or resource that helped you the most” to find your cat.  However, when I reviewed these survey entries, I found that only two (and possibly up to 6) people indicated that their cat was actually found due to a microchip being scanned (unpublished data).  This suggests that people may have indicated what they thought were successful methods for finding a lost cat and not just what helped them find their missing cat.

    Possible Bias in Distances Traveled and Deceased Cats Found

    Only around 58% of lost cats were found (unpublished data).  If cats were closer to home (or location lost), they were probably more likely to be found. Likewise living cats are probably easier to find than deceased cats.   This may biases the results for distances traveled by lost cats and proportion of cats found deceased.  The 42% of cats not found might have traveled farther away or could be deceased both of which would make them harder to find.  The longer a cat is lost, the more likely they are to be adopted by a new family (remember 20% of people adopted their cat as a stray).  Other lost cats might eventually be integrated into the feral population or brought to a shelter or rescue group after their owner has stopped looking.  If these cat don’t have a registered and up-to-date microchip, they will never be reunited with their families.  Interestingly, anecdotal evidence from microchipped cats found months to years after they go missing shows that many lost cats are still within 1 mile of their home when found.

    Bias of Survey Respondents – Mostly Cat-Loving People that Lived in the Suburbs

    The results of this study may be skewed by the characteristics and demographics of the people that completed the study.  Nearly 90% of survey respondents strongly agreed with statements that they were attached to their cat and regarded them as a family member.  People with a stronger human-pet bond might search more thoroughly and longer then the general population.  Most cats (77%) lived in a house, townhouse, or condo with a yard/garden.  Therefore, the results of this study pertain mostly to cats lost by people that currently live in this type of location/dwelling.

    Possible Errors in Recall from Survey Respondents

    While 50% of respondents had lost their cat in the last two years.  The range was 4 days (5th percentile) to 14 years (95th percentile) ago.  This likely led to some recall errors which may have effected the results of the study.

    Errors in Paper Results and Discussion

    Most Successful Search Strategies

    When reviewing the research paper recently, I noticed an apparent error that had been overlooked.  In the results section, it states “Relative to other methods or waiting, the most rapid relative times taken to find the cat alive using a physical search strategy were when the search methods included ‘spoke with neighbors and asked them to look or assist in the search for my cat’, ‘walked around the area at night, using a flashlight (or spotlight)’, ‘asked and received neighbors’ permission to search their property using a slow methodical search’ and ‘searched my yard or the immediate area’.”  However, in the discussion section, it states “More specifically, the most successful physical search strategies were ‘searched my yard and the immediate area’, ‘while I was looking for my cats, I called its name’, ‘walked around the area during daylight hours’ and ‘spoke with neighbors and asked them to look or assist in the search for my cat’.”  Based on Table 5, the latter methods are in fact the most common search methods and not the most successful.  In fact, two of these (italicized above) were among the least successful search strategies.

    Missing Data on Search Dogs

    Table 5 of the published study states that no one used a trained search dog.  However, when I reviewed the unpublished data, I found 41 people used search dogs.  Of those that used search dogs, 54% of cats were found alive, 5% were found dead, and 41% were not found.  This does not mean that the search dogs found 54% of lost cats.  It only means that in 54% of the cases were a search dog was used, the cat was eventually found alive.  So unfortunately (do to this error), the study does not tell us anything about the perceived effectiveness of search dogs. 

    Literature Reviewed

    Liyan Huang, Marcia Coradini, Jacquie Rand, John Morton, Kat Albrecht, Brigid Wasson, and Danielle Robertson.  2018.  Search Methods Used to Locate Missing Cats and Locations Where Missing Cats Are Found Animals 8(1): 5.

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