Lost Indoor-Only Cat Behavior

What You Need to Know About Lost Indoor Cat Behavior

When their cat goes missing, people often make wrong assumptions about what might have happened and how their cat will behave when lost.  This problem is exacerbated by the often-inaccurate information on the internet and suggestions of well-meaning friends and neighbors.  Even Animal Control Officers and Shelter/Rescue workers will sometimes provide inaccurate information.  This all leads to many people looking in all the wrong places, using unhelpful search techniques, and ultimately giving up way too soon.

How your cat behaviors when lost will depend a lot on their personality, circumstances of their disappearance and the environment where they went missing.  However, the biggest factor determining lost cat behavior is their experience with being outdoors.  A strictly indoor cat will act very differently from a cat that is regularly allowed outdoors unsupervised (i.e. an outdoor-access cat).

Your cat is most likely hiding somewhere nearby.  Whether they slip out an open door, fall out of a window or escape from a car, indoor-only cats display characteristic behaviors when lost.  If your cat is indoor-only, then the outdoors is a scary place.  Even cats that intentionally slip out the door to explore, often become frightened by all the new sights, sounds and activities outside.  Other indoor cats seem curious yet comfortable outdoors until something (new and scary) happens; their owner attempts to catch them, a loud car drives by, or a person or dog walks down the street.  Unlike dogs, which tend to run when scared, the natural behavior of a frightened cat is to find a safe place to hide.  Some cats will attempt to run back inside the house, but others will bolt in fear in another direction.  Unless chased, most cats will not run very far.  The majority of escaped indoor-only cats will hide within 500 feet from their location lost with an average distance of only 160 feet.

Your cat will probably not respond to you or come out of hiding when you search.  Once outdoors and hiding, an indoor cat will enter what is known as “survival mode.”  Once in this state, they are not likely to respond to you calling their name or shaking a bag of treats.  The cat’s instinct is to stay silent in order to remain safe.  In fact, even if they see you, they may not immediately recognize you.  It is quite common for an escaped indoor-only cat to run in fear from their owner when approached.  (Refer to “If You See Your Cat” in the Search Plan).

Just because you can’t find your cat, and nobody has seen them, doesn’t mean that they’re not there.  Even if you do a very thorough search of the area, you may not find your cat even if they are nearby.  A lost cat in survival mode is very like a small wild animal.  Just think, in many places we know that there are raccoons, skunks and opossums living nearby, but you probably didn’t find any of these animals during your search either.  Most indoor-only cats are incredibly good at hiding and will often only come out at night.  Due to these behaviors, it is not unusual to have zero sightings of a lost indoor cat for a week or more.

Exceptions to Typical Indoor-Only Cat Behavior

Not all indoor-only cats are strictly indoor such as 1) cats adopted as former feral or stray cats, 2) former outdoor-access cats that are now indoor cats, or 3) indoor cats allowed outdoors under supervision, in an enclosure or on-leash.  It has been my experience, that many of these cats still behave like typical indoor-only cats. However, if your cat has prior outdoor experience, especially former feral or stay cats, they may be more comfortable outdoors and travel farther.  Indoor cats with very bold, out-going personalities may hide less, be more likely to approach people and possibly travel farther distances.

Important: if your indoor-only cat was intentionally outside unsupervised (and not in an enclosure) at the time that they went missing, you should also review the information on finding an outdoor-access cat.