Finding a Lost Indoor Only Cat

You're a responsible pet owner. You take precautions to ensure doors are never left open. The window screens are secured so they cannot pop out. The outdoor cat habitat they can go into through the window flap or pet door is completely secured. There is absolutely, positively NO way a cat can get out.

And then your indoor only cat - who has never been out in their life, or at least not since you adopted them - accidentally gets out. 

Maybe it's a visitor who's not paying attention.
Maybe you were distracted when the door opened and didn't notice that it didn't close all the way so it latched completely. Maybe even though the screen is secured, you hadn't noticed that the cat had been clawing at it when watching birds or squirrels, weakening the weave and causing a weakness in the integrity of the fabric that allows a "burst through" when lunging at a bird or squirrel, or because 2 of your cats were sumo wrestling (like my Alex and Garth like to do, mainly when Garth decides to leap out at Alex from a high perch or other hidden area!)

However it occurs, it's a sickening feeling because the statistics are that
only 1 in 3 cats ever make it home again despite microchips. Keep a collar and tag on them as well that has your address and 2 phone numbers. The microchip is only scanned if they are picked up by someone and taken to a Veterinarian or Shelter, or Animal Control picks them up. Many indoor only cats are frightened and hide, lash out in fright at someone trying to get close, or run from people so they do not get to a place where they can be scanned until they are injured or dying and are too sick or weak to run. I have held such cats when they came into the shelter dying in their final hours.

I went through having an indoor only cat get out once, and a wonderful, dedicated, unfailingly responsible Vet Tech had it happen to her, and I could mention other equally responsible pet parents it has happened to because, as with all 2 and 4 legged children, accidents can happen in an instant. This should NOT turn you into a paranoid, anxious mess. There are failsafes to prevent a lot of the accidents which I also cover in this article.

There's a lot of information to cover, so I've summarized what worked/didn't work and what to do once the cat is back in your house. Following that summary are the details of exactly what we did, how we did it, and the gear we used. Pictures of everything discussed are at the end of the article.

What did NOT Work

  • Litter trails
  • Dirty laundry
  • Tuna
  • Motion alarms
  • Trail cameras
  • Leaving doors open
  • Pet detectives/trackers 
  • Traps (in this case; they can work. I find HaveAHeart (largest size for raccoons) work best; the other kind the cat can actually force the back open and leave, in my experience).

What DID Work

  • Color Flyers door to door and on intersection light/telephone poles.
  • Infrared Camera $69 (cheaper than trail cameras which DON'T work) with real time view in complete darkness to your iPhone or Android
  • Food trails to giant food bowls filled with "twinkie" food in the garage (and a water bowl)
  • A handheld garage remote in the house
  • Coffee (you'll need to be awake late at night; lost cats come out after dark when it's safer)
  • A pet oriented family member or friend to help you (we had a neighbor who was like an animal angel who helped us)

Thanks to the flyers, we got 2 calls that tipped us off to where he had been hiding. One of them had found his breakaway collar in their backyard. Another caller, next door to the ones who found the collar, saw him hiding under their car but of course he ran when they tried to approach.

This information enabled us to do food trails from their two houses (which were around the corner on the next street over) leading to a massive bowl of food (and water) in our garage where we had the door up about 4 inches, and his favorite cat condo and toy.

Before dusk we had the infrared camera setup under my car, towards the back of the garage, so we had a full view of the entire door gap. This allowed us to see him enter from any side. The food bowls were just slightly less than halfway inside, to ensure he could not run out the door before it closed as the motor makes noise before the door actually goes down.

We sat at the table as dusk turned to dark, with the iPhone and garage remote in front of us, giving us a view as clear as daylight and as crisp as an HDTV (amazing for a $69 camera). Thirty-five minutes later, we saw him come in the garage. We held our breath as we watched him go cautiously in, looking around, and go up to the food bowl. We made ourselves wait until he stopped looking over his should and started to eat, knowing this slight distraction would buy us the time for the garage to close. We hit the button, and he got to the door right as it hit the cement. We put the garage remote where it could not be accidentally triggered by another pet stepping on it (the cats like to jump on the table), and went in to see our baby.

Of course he began to wail in fear, as he had no idea it was his garage. It didn't take long for him to calm down enough to recognize "mama" and his "brother" Alex, who he then immediately followed into the house. Other than being covered in dirt, and a scrape on his side, he was fine. And finally so were we!

A Word About Our Experience with Pet Detectives and Locators. This was a waste of $350 and $90 respectively. Their advice did not take into account the behavior of my cat; most of it was geared towards indoor/outdoor cats, not a cat who had never been outside. It certainly did not take into account my cat's specific behavior and quirks, as neither seemed to have the time to listen to me try to explain that to them, and clearly hadn't read the profile I'd had to fill out as part of the up front payment. Had I followed their advice, I would not have found Silver. 

Essential Tools and How We Used Them to get Silver Home

Silver was gone an awful, anxiety filled 9 days. Fortunately, between the things we had already done (like flyers), setting out food, and a call I made to a wonderful, dedicated woman who has run SpayMart Cat Sanctuary for decades (Lynn Chiche), once I thought to call her (Day 7) less than 48 hours later Silver was safely inside his home. Dirty, but happy (me too)! 

Keep your phone ON at all times, and charged; the call from a sighting due to flyers, or from a veterinary emergency clinic or the microchip company could come anytime, including the middle of the night. Keep it charging anytime you are not on it to avoid  dead battery; get a car charger if you need to - they are useful anyway in everyday life.

Garage Setup, Food Trails, and Infrared Camera
We did not think this would work because the garage was on the opposite side of the house from where he got let out and where he was sighted. Not to mention he'd never been inside the garage or ever seen the outside of our house let alone the neighborhood. 

Food Trails
This is where we counted on food trails (which the Pet Detectives/Trackers said not to do, which was the wrong advice; the food trails DID work).
When I say food trails, here's what I mean:

In our case, since the garage was on the other side of the house, our front courtyard was a more likely place for him to come because his "brother" Alex liked to sit in the front windows and watch the deer at night. However, the courtyard had no door, so no way to enclose him if he showed up. So we put just a minimal amount of food there, and from there I walked, dropping dry food from my hand as I walked around the corner of the house to the garage. Once we got the sighting from the neighbor around the corner who found his collar, I also made a similar trail by walking from their back gate, around the corner to our courtyard. You will need to do this every evening right at dusk. 

Per Lynn, it is essential the food does not run out during the night; if your cat gets there and no food, they will start roaming further away to find food. She suggested huge bowls which I put in the garage. I replenished the smaller bowl in the courtyard and the trail of food to the garage twice more after dusk (usually midnight and 4 or 5am). And, of course water bowls.

Garage Setup 

  • The food inside the garage must be far enough inside that the door can close before they can run back out as the door's motor will make noise before the door actually starts to close. It can't be too far back or they won't go in.
  • I continued the food trail I'd made to the outside of the garage, and continued it inside the garage to the giant food bowl which I put just slightly less than halfway inside, on the side of door nearest to the courtyard.
  • Don't forget a water bowl.
  • The door must only be up a few inches (see the picture; ours was 3.5 inches up). Just enough for the cat to squeeze his head under, but not so much it takes too long to close and they run out first.
  • You must also keep all the lights in the garage out, so the cat will feel safe enough to go in and stay long enough to eat. This is why you will also need a $69 camera from BestBuy (see details below) that streams to your phone in real time (it can also record to a memory card)
  • You will also need a garage remote that you can have in your hand ready to click as soon as you see the cat  through the phone view.

DON'T sit in the garage; in the high adrenaline state they sometimes don't even recognize you as familiar; you're a big predator waiting in the dark. This is something I didn't understand until Lynn talked about how they can go "wild" very quickly when lost outside, and in that state they can react to even you as a danger. Remember, your indoor only cat has NO idea this is your garage and like all things in this strange outside world it could be a dangerous place or a trap.

I also put his favorite kitty condo and toy in the garage next to the food bowl, which had his hair and Alex cat's hair all over it so it smelled like home.

Once your cat realizes there is a food and water supply in a safe space, he will begin to reliably show up, starting right after dusk. We got Silver enclosed in the garage about 35 minutes after full sunset (it had been completely dark for about half an hour).

One last tip - don't use the "good" food. Use "twinkie" or "junk" food that all cats love but you can't feed them all the time or they'd be diabetic! I bought the Kit and Kaboodle dry (see picture below) which mine LOVE as treats occasionally in very small amounts. Buy the 16lb bag (about $10) as you need to keep those large bowls full and make trails, and it could take a couple nights. I did not want to run out of food in middle of night and have him roam far to find food and get lost to the point of not finding his way back, or meeting one of the coyotes or loose aggressive dogs in the area.

$69 Infrared Real Time Streaming Camera, DLink Model DCS-936L and a 128gb storage card
There is a picture of the camera below. The best $69 I ever spent. Trail cameras take a single picture, and by the time that happens and it sends to you, your cat will be gone.
You need REAL TIME. Plus this is cheaper than the trail cameras which are mostly over $100.

Expect to spend about 15 minutes on the phone with tech support to get it working, but considering what it's for, it's worth the 20 minutes. Don't worry about their message that the wait time is 25 minutes; it was only 3 minutes and the tech was great. Their in the box instructions just didn't have all the steps actually required.

Camera Placement

  • Since the garage was 2 car (wide) and we had to keep it dark, the infrared and wide angle were needed in order to view the entire range of the door opening from side to side, and to "see" in the dark garage and not just see a "shape" which could be anyone's indoor/outdoor cat (turned out quite a few of those in my area).
  • I put my car in the middle of the garage; the other car was parked in the driveway so there was plenty of room for him to come in and have his food/water/condo inside to one side of the car (I set it up on the side nearest to the courtyard which was the front of the house). 
  • The camera was placed under the front of my car so it could see the entire garage if he entered at any point along the slightly open door, and also obviously see the food/water/condo area. I used an extension cord so it could reach the only outlet in the garage.

The clarity was amazing; sitting at the table inside watching on my phone, it was like daylight in the garage. The camera puts out no light whatsoever (some do), so nothing to scare the cat off.

When Silver walked in we could tell immediately it was him and not some other cat.

Color Flyer Tips

  • Spend the money on laser printed color flyers on a heavy gauge card stock or glossy paper, at a place like Office Depot to ensure the pictures are crisp, the colors with your phone number bright and clear, and they will not have color run in the rain or high humidity (it rained 2 days after we put ours up; the flyers remained in perfect condition due to using the heavy gauge card stock with professional laser printing)
  • A BIG up to date picture in the middle of the flyer, your phone number and reward amount in big bright letters above. Details can go below the pic if people stop to read. 
  • I got 350 copies so I could give one to every house in a radius around our house. I also stapled or zip tied them to light/hone poles (if you put them on traffic sign poles they will likely be removed).
  • Go door to door to pass out the flyers; talk to people.
  • Offer a reward that will get people up off their couch and checking under their car, in their garage, in their shed in their yard. We did $500.
  • Expect some false starts; a lot of people have indoor/outdoor cats and they don't read or look at the sign closely before calling. But DO plan to follow up every lead because you never know. That first Sunday morning (he went missing on a Friday) I was crawling on my belly under someone's deck with a flashlight at 6:30am after they called. It wasn't Silver but it could have been.

Keep a "rescue kit" packed and in your car or by your front door
If you get a call, you don't want to get there and find you need - but don't have with you:

  • A flashlight, 
  • Gloves,
  • A blanket, 
  • A carrier, and because you may need to go straight to a veterinary emergency hospital, 
  • Vaccination records, Rabies tag, and Microchip certificate.

The Microchip Company and Your Contact Info

  • DO notify them immediately so they can send the blast out to all clinics, hospitals and shelters.
  • There is a myth that they help you look; they don't - that's not their purpose in all fairness.
  • They WILL notify you of all sighting calls as well as if your cat comes into a clinic or shelter. 
  • I called all local clinics and shelters and verified they DO scan immediately for a chip, and animal control said before they take the animal to a shelter they scan right then at the truck and call to avoid having to take the animal to the shelter at all if the owner answers. 
  • Make sure they have not only your mobile number, but a trusted friend's or family members in case your phone goes dead or you can't answer immediately. 
  • Make sure they have several recent pictures of the cat (sitting, face closeup, pictures showing unique markings)
  • Make sure they have the information on any medications (type, dosage) the cat needs in case someone finds the cat and it needs veterinary care immediately until you can get there.

Once the Cat is Safely Inside
You will likely find he's a bit dirty and will no doubt have fleas, so have a Cat Frontline handy and apply after wiping him off or bathing him. Note: do not use the Frontline for dogs; it must be the one for cats. As you pet him, feel along his sides and stomach areas for puncture wounds, scrapes and cuts. Any puncture wounds warrant an immediate veterinary visit; I would recommend going to an emergency clinic. Small scrapes may be able to wait until the next day, provided they are mainly superficial and there is not an open wound or bleeding. Silver had a scrape from going under a fence (they think) that had already scabbed over and looked ok on visual inspection, and seemed to cause him no pain when I touched it.

This is another reason (besides general health) to get vaccinations even for indoor cats. We at least knew if he got bit by something when he was out there lost, his distemper and rabies shots were up to date so that was one less thing to worry about, not only for his sake, but for the safety of our other cats and dogs when he returned home.

Give your cat plenty of good quality food that night. Silver was noticeably thinner after 9 days (so was I from all the anxiety!). He got a can of albacore tuna in addition to our regular cat food.

Additional "Failsafes" to Prevent Future Accidents

In addition to all the usual things we'd always done that I mention at the beginning of this article, we added a few more failsafes after this harrowing incident. As with everything in this article, there are pictures below of what I am describing.

We never allow the door to the garage to be opened (from the house) unless we know the door to outside is shut. 

Window Gates

Despite having "pet" screens and those frames screwed into the side of the house, we added what are actually expanding doorway gates to the inside frame of the window, allowing us to raise the window but putting wood and embedded metal wire in front of the screen so the cats can get a view, fresh air, but can't burst through. These are pressure mounted but we used screws to secure them to the drywall on the interior window frame just to ensure they can never fall out. There is no ability for the cat to get in between the gate and the screen (we got the taller one to ensure this). See pictures below.

Door Gates
We also put up gates, which are really dog exercise pens put in a half circle formation, to block darting from under the table or off the couch out the door. These come in different heights but since we have 2 cats that are Olympic leapers, we went with the 42" height. See pictures below.