The Science of Finding Lost Pets

Written by Kat Albrecht

If you were to ask me to spend the day searching a remote, wilderness area like the Cascade Mountains for a missing person, but you gave me no details about why they were out there, I would have a very difficult time knowing just what tools to use and where I should search. If instead you asked me to spend the day searching that same wilderness area for a “missing backpacker,” then I would immediately know that I should focus my search efforts on all of the hiking trails, knowing that statistics show that many hikers fall and are injured (or have medical emergencies) close to a trail. I would send ground teams on horses or in ATVs, and use fixed-wing aircraft to cover as many trails as possible in my search.

Kat AlbrechtOn the other hand, if you asked me to spend the day searching that same wilderness area for a “missing berry picker” I would immediately know that I should focus my search efforts in the acreage within the immediate area of where the berry picker parked their car. I would deploy ground searches with air-scenting search dogs to conduct a grid search of the woods in the area, as well as swab the steering wheel and collect the berry picker’s scent so that a bloodhound or other trailing or tracking dog could attempt to track the scent trail from the parked car to where the berry picker was, knowing that berry pickers typically don’t travel that far and they are often found in dense brush and berries. This is how an understanding of lost person behaviors helps to tailor the search for missing people.

Finding missing hikers and lost people with Alzheimer’s disease is considered a science because there have been numerous studies into the behavioral patterns of missing people, which are used to help predict how and where to find them. To this day, research data about lost-person behavior is routinely used to help search-and-rescue managers determine the strategies, tactics, and areas to physically search for various classifications of missing people.

My background in search-and-rescue work began in 1989 when I set out to train my dog to find lost people. I had worked search dogs for years when in 1996, my police bloodhound A.J. dug out from my yard and was lost in the woods. After using another search-and-rescue dog to follow his scent trail (and find him), I realized there was a need for community-based lost pet services. I “moonlighted” as a “pet detective” after training one of my search dogs to find lost pets, and ultimately formed Missing Pet Partnership (MPP) in 2001.

It was natural for me to apply the same search methods and use the same equipment I had used to find lost people and use them to solve missing cat cases. My cat detection dog Rachel and I were consistently finding “missing” cats very close to home, concealed and hiding somewhere (under a deck, under a porch, under a house, concealed in bushes, etc.) and the majority were either on the owner’s property or in the yard next door.

In those early years I discovered that no one had ever studied lost pet behaviors, and there was no data available on the typical distances that lost dogs or lost cats travel. It wasn’t until 2013 when MPP finally compiled statistics on lost cat behaviors and found that 84% of 128 lost outdoor-access cats were found within a five-house radius of their home, and that 92% of 158 cases of displaced, indoor-only cats who’d escaped outside were also found within a five-house radius of their home.

I remember sharing this data with people on the Internet and I was blasted by someone who said that my data amounted to an “unscientific” study and that my sample size was too small to claim it was good data. That was the day that I knew that someone needed to conduct a study on lost cats to determine the typical distances that they travel. I tried to get the word out about the need for a study, but met with little success, so I just kept building Missing Pet Partnership, finding pets and training other detectives.

Last year, seventeen years after I first saw the need to study lost cat behavior, I was contacted by Emeritus Professor Jacquie Rand from the University of Queensland after she heard about some preliminary “lost cat behavior” statistics that I had presented at a conference. Professor Rand felt that this data was so critical to disseminate into the animal welfare, sheltering, and veterinary industry that she suggested we collaborate to conduct the Missing Cat Study.

The Study

As Liyin Huang, one of the researchers working with Professor Rand on the study, puts it:

“To date, there is little information published to inform the search for a lost cat, particularly regarding the likely location of the cat and effective search methods.

The aim of our study is to address these gaps in the literature by firstly assessing the efficacy of different search methods in locating missing cats, secondly, by identifying the location missing cats are most often found, and lastly, determining the distance missing cats that are subsequently found are likely to travel.”

The data will be gathered through an online survey that asks cat owners about times when their cats were lost, and what they did to find them.  Anyone who has ever lost a cat is invited to participate, regardless of how long ago it was, or where in the world.

The data that is collected will add to the data that already exists about the ways owners try to find missing cats. We worked hard to develop specific questions that will be used to answer some basic questions such as:

  • How far are cats typically found from their home when they become lost?
  • How far from the escape point are displaced cats typically found?
  • What percentage of missing cats that are trapped actually meow when they are found?
  • How long do cat owners typically search for their missing cat before they give up?
  • What were the most effective methods used to recover missing cats?
  • What percentage of cat owners conducted an aggressive physical search of their neighbor’s property when searching for their missing cat?

We are certain there will be many other questions that can be answered by the data, but these will be crucial for Missing Pet Partnership to use in our training program as we work to educate both boots-on-the-ground lost cat searchers and animal shelter staff.

What I’ve Learned as a Pet Detective

Understanding cat behavior, alongside search-and-rescue tools and strategies, helps me be successful in my work with Missing Pet Partnership.

For example, If you were to ask me to search for a missing cat, the first thing I would determine was whether the cat was an indoor-only cat who had escaped outside, or an outdoor-access cat who had vanished from his territory. These are two entirely different scenarios that require two very different investigations!

When an outdoor-access cat vanishes from his territory, it means that something has happened to the cat. It could be one of eight “probability” categories that Missing Pet Partnership has identified. Either the cat has been:

  1.  Trapped and unable to come home.
  2. Displaced or chased from home.
  3. Unintentionally transported (for example, he may have crawled into a van that then drives away).
  4. Intentionally transported (humanely trapped, for example by a neighbor).
  5. Injured, or is sick, or deceased.
  6. Rescued, for example in a trap-neuter-release (TNR) program.
  7. Stolen.
  8. Killed by a predator.

The search for an outdoor-access cat that does not come home is an emergency because it could be that the cat is sick or injured and needs to be taken to the vet!

We’ve also discovered that the specific temperament of a cat will also influence how it will behave when lost. One of the first questions I ask a cat owner who tells me that their indoor-only cat has escaped outside is, “What does your cat typically do when a stranger comes into your house?” If they tell me that the cat is unaffected, even curious about a stranger who comes into the home then I know that this cat has a bold temperament and he might initially hide when displaced, but he then might travel.

But if they tell me that the cat panics when a stranger comes into the home; that it runs and hides under a bed and won’t come out until the company has left, I immediately know that this cat has more of a cautious, or what we call “xenophobic,” temperament, and that it will most likely be hiding in silence, close to the escape point (provided there are sufficient hiding places). From experience, I also know that the best way to recover these cats is by using a baited humane trap and/or a digital wildlife camera.

While cat owners are busy printing and tacking up lost cat flyers, many sick and injured cats die within their owner territory (hiding in silence on the owner’s property or in a neighbor’s yard) because their owners have not been properly educated in how and where to search.

At Missing Pet Partnership, we’ve seen case after case where educating a cat owner about lost cat behavior has made all of the difference in the world. What people think and believe shapes their behavior, and thus their actions. If cat owners were educated about “The Silence Factor”—that sick, injured, and panicked cats will hide in silence within their territory and not meow even when they are called— more cat lives would be saved!

I recall a case back in 1999, shortly after I discovered The Silence Factor. My neighbor’s black-and-white outdoor-access cat Rocky had vanished from his home. During my search I noticed a set of skid marks on the roadway near Rocky’s home. My cat detection dog also gave a “decomposition alert” at the skid marks and a closer examination showed a chalk-like streak in the roadway with small tufts of black-and-white fur. Immediately we knew that Rocky had been hit by a car and that he hadn’t been taken by a predator, rescued, or transported out of the area.

Since I knew that injured cats will hide in silence in their territory, I advised Rocky’s owner to search her property more thoroughly. She did, and found Rocky hiding under the deck of her cabin, his leg hanging by a thread. He was rushed to the vet and had to have his leg amputated, but he survived because our physical search produced physical evidence that indicated we could expect a specific behavior—hiding in a familiar location.

We’ve since worked many other cases where our Missing Pet Partnership–trained pet detectives (or their search dogs) have recovered cats that were deceased within their own territory. In all of these cases, the cat owners had yelled and called for their cats, expecting to see or hear the cat meow. Sadly, they had never gotten down on their belly to truly look for an immobile, silent cat.

Hiring a pet detective can help with all aspects of the search, from strategy to the practical act of looking for the cat. For example, Kim Freeman of Lost Cat Finder in Austin, Texas, who was trained by MPP, specializes in highly detailed physical searches of the location, combined with knowledge of the best way to implement other strategies like distributing lost cat flyers. You can see one of Kim’s success stories that highlights the importance of physical search in this video.

Getting more data on where cats have been found from the results of the Missing Cat Study will help pet detectives further refine where and how they help owners search for their missing companions. We are hopeful that the data will also help other organizations (such as shelters) that interact with people who’ve lost a cat.

How the study will help shelters

A 2007 study by Lord et al showed that cats are 13 times more likely to return to owners by means other than being reclaimed from the shelter, and preliminary data suggests many are frequently in hiding close to home. However, shelters do have a role to play.

Dr. Emily Weiss of the ASPCA has researched the frequency of missing pets and how often lost pets are reunited with their owners. Dr. Weiss believes that the primary importance for shelters of gathering data on lost pet behavior is “to get a handle on the pets that come into the shelter as ‘stray’ that likely do not have anyone looking for them. Certainly that is what our study pointed to—while lots of pets get lost, most are found—and most are not found at the shelter.”

Shelters need to know whether the cats they are taking in are likely to be feral, stray, or lost, because it informs their decisions about what happens to them next.

Liyin Huang says the Missing Cat Study could also inform trap-neuter-release strategies:

“For example, if missing cats are frequently found within a radius of three to five houses from their escape point, it is quite likely that [a TNR] policy that returns cats to their original found location will more often result in re-unification with their owners than if the cat was held in the shelter.”

We believe that the Missing Cat Study will ultimately help Missing Pet Partnership to expand our ability to train more shelter staff and rescue group volunteers across North America and beyond. Right now, we are preparing to launch a “Mission Reunite” training program where we educate shelter staff and volunteers in how to coach and encourage people who’ve lost a pet. Although the national “return to owner” (RTO) rates for cats that are reclaimed in animal shelters is a dismal 2%, we’ve actually seen shelters double, and in one case quadruple, their RTO rates for lost cats!

What can behavior consultants do?

 What owners believe about cats and cat behavior has been shown to be important in lots of way. Owner beliefs determine how likely they are to search for their lost cat, how and where they search, and even whether they do things like put collars on their cats.

Misinformation and misunderstanding about cat behavior is a significant reason why there is such a big difference in the rates of finding missing cats compared with missing dogs. For example, coyotes are overestimated as cat killers—we ran a program in the Seattle, Washington, area for three years where there are plenty of coyotes, and discovered that although there were certain areas of the community where coyotes were routinely killing cats, there were other areas where coyotes were seen but there were never any cat killings, and plenty of displaced and outdoor cats survived without coyote interactions. How this thought pattern affects the shelter cat population is that if a cat owner falsely believes that their missing cat was “killed by a coyote” then that owner will not go down to the local shelter to search for their cat. Sadly, many “stray” cats sitting in shelter cages are unclaimed (and ultimately euthanized) because their owner’s falsely believe that their cat is already dead.

Education is critically important, and behavior consultants can be a part of that. Missing Pet Partnership encourages animal industry professionals, animal sheltering organizations, and animal welfare volunteers to support our vision to develop community-based lost cat recovery services in all communities. We are in the process of launching a “partnership” program where those who join MPP will receive benefits that include an opportunity for certification, networking, regional Missing Animal Response dog training events, and monthly training webinars on various topics related to lost pet recovery.

If every pet sitter, dog trainer, behaviorist, groomer, and shelter worker were trained in the science of finding missing cats and dogs, many more people and pets could be helped!

Kat Albrecht is a former police detective, author, and founder of Missing Pet Partnership, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to reuniting lost companion animals with their families. For more info on Kat’s books and her seminars visit her website.

With thanks to Emeritus Professor Jacquie Rand, The University of Queensland & Australian Pet Welfare Foundation, Liyin Huang, Bachelor of Veterinary Science student, The University of Queensland and Dr. Emily Weiss, CAAB, Vice President of Research and Development, ASPCA for their generous personal correspondence.