How to Find Your Cat – a practical Guide

Cats are living beings that like to roam and explore and are, by nature, curious. As a result, cats can cause the biggest nightmare to a cat owner—they disappear or become displaced.

We would like to share some tips based on common practices of rescues and known cat behaviour to help you find your cat.

Reasons for the cat to become Houdini

Here are some common scenarios that might lead to a cat going missing:

  • Moving to a New Home: If a cat is moved into a new home and finds a way out too early, it can get lost. It is advised to keep your cat indoors for 4-6 weeks to help it adjust to the new environment and establish it as its safe zone.
  • Inexperienced Young Cats: A cat should be at least 6 months old before being allowed outside. Before being allowed outside, the cat should be fully vaccinated, dewormed, treated for fleas, and de-sexed.
  • Scared Away in Familiar Territory: Dogs, other cats, or kids can scare a cat away from its usual home environment.
  • Transport Issues: Cats can escape if their carrier is insufficient or broken during transport to a vet, new home, or cattery.
  • Pet Sitter Situation: A shy cat might feel more comfortable staying outside when a pet sitter is taking care of it.
  • Escape from a Cattery or Vet: Although rare, a cat can escape even from a cattery or vet, despite the best efforts by the Operator.

In unknown environments, cats go into survival mode, which triggers certain behaviors. Understanding these behaviors can help in finding your lost cat.

Do not underestimate what cats can do. Cats are smart creatures and are able to open even locked doors and cats can get outside help to leave their designed space.

Understanding the Difference Between a cat at home and a cat displaced

It’s important to recognize that a cat’s behavior and instincts can change dramatically when it moves from the familiar environment of your home to the outside world. At home, your cat feels safe, secure, and provided for. This environment allows the playful, kitten-like behavior to surface. For instance, when your cat brings you a caught mouse, it isn’t offering you a gift; rather, it sees you as its dependent kitten. Since your cat never sees you hunting, it worries that you might starve without its help.

However, the moment your cat steps outside, it reverts to its natural instincts as an adult cat and hunter. The outside world is full of potential threats and unknowns, prompting your cat to go into survival mode. Here are some key differences between a cat at home and a cat outside:

Safety and Security:

At Home: Your cat feels secure, knowing it has a consistent source of food, water, and shelter. This sense of safety allows for relaxed and playful behavior.

Outside: The cat perceives potential dangers everywhere, from predators to unfamiliar environments. This triggers heightened alertness and cautious behavior.

Territorial Instincts:

At Home: The home is a known territory where the cat feels dominant and in control. It marks its space with scent glands and feels no need to defend it aggressively.

Outside: The cat encounters new territories that might be claimed by other animals. It becomes more territorial and may engage in marking, fighting, or hiding to establish its presence.

Hunting and Survival:

At Home: With regular meals provided, hunting is more of a play activity. Cats might chase toys or insects, showing their natural hunting instincts in a safe way.

Outside: Hunting becomes a necessity. The cat must find food to survive, leading to more aggressive and focused hunting behavior. It might also hide more to avoid becoming prey itself.

Behaviour Towards Humans:

At Home: Your cat sees you as part of its social group, often seeking affection and interaction. It might follow you around, sit on your lap, or rub against you for attention.

Outside: In survival mode, a cat is less likely to seek human interaction and might even avoid people, including its owner. It relies on its instincts to stay hidden and safe, often ignoring calls or familiar sounds.

Activity Patterns:

At Home: Cats tend to follow a routine, sleeping during the day and being more active in the early morning and evening.

Outside: The cat adapts to a nocturnal lifestyle, becoming active at night when it feels safer from predators and humans. It uses the cover of darkness to explore, hunt, and move around.

Understanding these differences is crucial for cat owners. Recognizing that your indoor cat and outdoor cat are essentially the same animal responding to very different environments can help you better predict and manage your cat’s behavior if it goes missing. It also emphasises the importance of creating a safe, secure, and enriching environment at home to reduce the likelihood of your cat wandering off in search of adventure.

The Search Area

When your cat is seen outside your home’s radius, follow these steps based on their behavior timeline:

  • First 1-2 Days: Cats will stay close within 50-100 meters in a safe spot, coming out only at night. It can be a little bit more in rural areas and less in urban areas.
  • 48 Hours to 7-10 Days: The roaming radius expands to 150-200 meters, but the cat still hides during the day.
  • 10 Days to Several Weeks: The cat might stay within the area or slightly increase its range, becoming more visible during the day.
  • Several Weeks to Months: The cat establishes a radius similar to its home range.

What to Do When Your Cat Does Not Return Home

A cat has an extended territory outside of your home and backyard, which varies based on factors like gender and de-sex status. Here are the average ranges:

  • Neutered Male Cats: 0.5 to 1 km.
  • Intact Male Cats: 3 to 5 km.
  • Spayed Female Cats: 0.5 to 1 km.
  • Intact Female Cats: Up to 1-2 km when in heat.

These are average ranges; actual distances may vary depending on the cat’s history, age, and experience.

Please keep in mind: Cats that are not de-sexed should not be allowed outside. Their territory is larger, making them more likely to fight and be driven away.

When your cat does not return at the usual time, it is most likely trapped in a garage, home, or shed nearby. Please ask the neighbors to give your cat the possibility and space to leave, and it will return home.

If the cat does not return within a day, do the following:

  • Leaflets: Distribute leaflets in your immediate neighbourhood (1-2 houses around your home) and ask neighbours to check garages and sheds.
  • Use Services like LostPetFinder: The Service LostPetFinder.co.nz inform registered cat lovers specific to your area, have a centralized website for someone who found a cat, and send texts and faxes to vets in your area.
  • Food Stations and Familiar Scents: Set up food stations near the point where the cat got lost.
  • Check Hiding Spots: Thoroughly check nearby hiding spots, such as under porches, in dense bushes, or inside garages. Cats often hide close to their escape point, especially in the first few days.
  • Companion Animal Register: Report your microchipped cat as lost with the Companion Animal Register, what allow Rescues and Vets to identify the cat as missing.

How to create a Leaflet

When creating a leaflet to help find your lost cat, include the following information:

  • Clear Photos: Include multiple photos that clearly show the specific look of your cat, including the body, tail, legs, and face. This helps prevent mix-ups with similar-looking cats.
  • Where last seeing, give an approximate place where you cat was last seen (eG. Mid of Main St).
  • Cat’s Name and Age: Provide the cat’s name and age to make it easier for people to identify if they have seen your cat.
  • Color and Distinctive Markings: Describe the color and any distinctive markings, such as stripes, spots, or unique features. This helps in accurate identification.
  • Contact Information: Provide your contact details so that people can reach you if they spot your cat.
  • Ask to Check Sheds and Garages: Request that neighbours check their sheds, garages, and other possible hiding spots. Emphasize that they should not try to catch or approach the cat but give it space to leave.

You should not include:

  • Cat’s Usual Behaviour at Home: Do not describe your cat’s usual behaviour at home, as it is likely to be in survival mode and will behave differently. Providing this information might lead to misunderstandings about how the cat will react.
  • Detailed Personal Information: Avoid including excessive personal information or full addresses for safety and privacy reasons. When possible use not your primary Phone Number or E-Mail-Address.

Repeat distributing leaflets after a week in the very close neighborhood, emphasizing that the cat is still missing and maybe now seen during the day.

By including the right information using the right timeline and distribution area and omitting unnecessary details, you can increase the chances of accurately identifying and safely recovering your lost cat.

The Challenges of the Search

Do not spread leaflets and social media posts beyond the anticipated search area, depending on the timeline described. Also, it prevents false positive sightings, which may spread your resources thin to follow up on cats that look similar to yours. In the worst case, you set up and maintain food stations or traps in less likely locations and miss the chance to retrieve your cat.

The most problematic side-effect of a search area that is too wide is that too many people know about the escaped cat. While many people will be supportive and empathetic to your situation, unfortunately, not everyone is well-intentioned. Scams are unusual in New Zealand, but they are starting to occur more often in recent years, and pet owners should be aware of the potential for people to exploit the emotional distress of a lost pet.

Here are some tips to verify if a sighting is legitimate and protect yourself from scams:

  • Ask Detailed Questions: Inquire about specific, identifying features of your pet that are not widely known or visible in photos, such as unique markings or behaviours. This will help you verify the legitimacy of the caller and prevent mix-ups with similar-looking cats.
  • Request Immediate Proof: Ask the caller to send a photo of the pet they have found. Scammers usually claim to have the cat in their home and might refuse to provide a photo. A legitimate finder will be able to provide this quickly.
  • Verify Location and Circumstances: Ask about the exact location and circumstances under which the pet was found. Inconsistent or vague answers can be a red flag. Be cautious if the location is far outside the expected range since the displacement.
  • Involve Authorities: If a caller becomes aggressive, threatens to harm the cat, and demands money, involve the police. Do not agree to meet alone or hand over cash. Scammers might use arguments like the cat making a mess or scratching someone to ask for money as compensation. They may become aggressive or threaten to harm your cat if you do not comply.

By being vigilant and asking the right questions, you can protect yourself from scams and focus your efforts on legitimate leads. It can be hard, as you may want to take any chance to get your cat. For this reason, consider having another person as the contact on your leaflets who can be more objective in asking the right questions and following up on sightings.

Understanding Feline Behaviour

Cats have unique behaviours that become apparent when they are displaced from their familiar surroundings:

  • They often hunker down close to their escape point.
  • They become nocturnal and extremely cautious.
  • They did not react on calls and run away when they see large subjects moving towards them in such situations.
  • Cats have excellent night vision and can detect movement and details at short distances. However, their vision becomes blurry beyond 6-7 meters. This means that while they might recognise a familiar shape or hear a known voice, they cannot clearly see faces or detailed objects from afar.

This behaviour explains why cats, although nearby, might not immediately respond to your calls.

How to setup Food Stations

Set up food stations near the point where the cat got lost. Remove food during the day and monitor to avoid attracting unwanted wildlife. Use worn clothes and familiar sounds to attract your cat.

The food station should not be too close to buildings, but it could be within their view if there are security cameras.

Outside lights should be on to deter feral cats and help cats see surroundings that they may be familiar with.

Also, houses without lights blend in with the surroundings. In a rural area, for example, the home blends into the contour of the surrounding landscape, like hills. Pet cats will look to stay close to human settlements, as they know humans provide them with food.

Open sheds or a door into a room—as long as it does not jeopardize safety—can be helpful as well, as the cat may enter a room. Provide hiding spots in the room like boxes, small amounts of food, and water. Prevent entering the room from the inside, as your cat will run out. When possible, enter the room from the outside in the morning and close the door behind you before looking for the cat in hiding spots in the room.

Trapping: The Best Approach

In most cases, setting up humane traps is the best method of recovering a displaced cat. Traps can effectively capture a cat without causing harm, and the cat will usually remember who freed it rather than who set the trap. You can ask cat rescues for traps; most have them and can show you how they work.

Do not worry that the cat will become untrustworthy to humans because of the trapping. A cat does not know how to set up the trap but will remember that a human freed it from the trap.

The Best Trapping Strategy

It is crucial to set up traps in the right way to be successful. You usually have only one chance to trap the cat. Afterwards, the cat will use its experience and no longer go into a trap.

  • Set up traps close to the food stations and remove the food stations after the first night.
  • Use the same food as in the food stations and add strong-smelling food like fresh tuna, salmon, or liverwurst. Do not use prepared, smoked, or seasoned fish or meat. Only use a small amount of food. Do not add water.
  • Place the traps strategically based on your understanding of your cat’s expected roaming path and radius. Cats tend to move cautiously, expanding their range slowly, especially at night.
  • Cover the traps with a large blanket that, when possible, has a home smell. The cover should provide shelter and give a cave-like impression, but you will also need it if a cat is trapped. The cover should be placed so that it does not interfere with the operation of the trap.
  • Call your cat while standing close to the place of sighting and the first trap. Make such calls at nightfall and stay in this fixed location. Do not move around. This allows the cat to determine a location and not be confused that the call comes from different directions.
  • Be aware that it is unlikely that your cat will appear based on such calls, but it should notice the direction of the calls and investigate later at night.

Handling Trapped Cats

If you trap a cat, follow these detailed steps to ensure the cat’s safety and avoid common mistakes:

  • Approach Calmly: When you approach the trap, the cat will likely panic. Approach slowly and calmly to avoid further stress.
  • Cover the Trap: Immediately use a cover to enclose the entire trap. Making the environment dark will help calm the cat down and prevent it from panicking and potentially injuring itself.
  • Avoid Immediate Identification: Do not try to identify the cat immediately even if it looks similar to yours. Transport the trap with the cover onto a safe, quiet location. Your instinct tells you otherwise, for this reason, you may contact a rescue to retrieve the cat instead of doing it yourself.
  • Transport to a Safe Location: Work with a rescue organization as they can identify the cat, most likely while still in the trap, by checking for a microchip.
  • Do Not Remove from the Area: Do not take the trapped cat into another area, like your home, especially if you are unsure of its identity. If it is not your cat, it may escape again, creating another challenge for the rightful owner to find it.
  • Release or Care: If the cat is a stray, the rescue organization may conduct a health check and de-sexing before releasing it. If it is an owned cat, it will be returned to its owner.

Reunion and Aftercare

A trapped cat might be dehydrated and have lost weight but is likely to be in good overall health. Provide water but no food initially. Consult a vet for refeeding guidance to avoid refeeding syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by sudden large food intake after a period of starvation.

Refeeding Syndrome

Refeeding syndrome can occur when a cat that has been deprived of food for an extended period is suddenly given large amounts of food. The body, having adapted to a state of starvation, can experience severe metabolic disturbances when food intake rapidly increases. This can lead to serious complications, including electrolyte imbalances, organ failure, and even death.

Consult a vet to tailor the feeding strategy based on the cat’s specific condition. The vet will likely recommend limiting food to high-protein food in very small amounts, increasing slowly over days. Keep the cat in a room to ensure it does not have access to other food in the house.

Managing Emotions and Actions

It’s understandable that customers are upset and distressed when a cat escapes. In such situations, it’s natural to look for someone to blame—whether it’s the neighbor’s dog, the pet sitter, the vet, or the cattery owner. However, it’s important to remember that no one in this business would be here if they didn’t love pets. Blaming, threatening, and using abusive language is not the right way to handle the situation. Such behavior can spread negativity and may lead to mental health issues or legal trouble.

Public shaming and slander are also inappropriate and unhelpful. If there are concerns about meeting standards or handling the situation properly, the right course of action is to contact the appropriate authorities such as MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries), the Veterinary Association, AsureQuality, the Animal Management Team of the local Council, or the SPCA. These organisations are equipped to address and resolve issues in a professional and constructive manner.


  • Inform and Involve the Community: Engage your neighbours and use services like Lost Pet Finders to effectively widen the search net. When the cat is microchipped, report it to NZCAR.
  • Think Like a Cat: Understand their behaviour and physiology to plan your search strategy effectively.
  • Act Quickly and Strategically: Set up food stations and humane traps in areas with sightings and around the place of displacement. Adapt your approach based on new information and determine the search radius based on the timeline from the day of the last sighting.
  • Stay Hopeful and Vigilant: Most lost cats are found if the search is handled calmly and methodically. Avoid panic and, if needed, seek help from local rescue organisations.
  • Be Aware of Scams: Sadly, there are people who may try to take advantage of the situation. Always verify any claims thoroughly.
  • Do Not Panic: Letting fear take over the decision-making process can be detrimental. If you find it impossible to stay calm, hand over the search operation to someone with experience. Local rescues are usually happy to help, have live traps, and have the knowledge to increase the chances of getting your cat back quickly.
  • Provide the Right Aftercare: The wrong actions can pose a greater danger to your cat than the time away from you itself. Ensure proper aftercare, especially when dealing with refeeding syndrome, by consulting a vet immediately.
  • Keep Your and Others’ Mental Health and Wellbeing in Mind: Remember that everyone involved in the care of your cat loves animals and is doing their best. Avoid blaming, threatening, or using abusive language. Such behavior can lead to mental health issues or legal trouble. If you have concerns, contact the appropriate organisations.