If you are a cat owner, it’s likely you’ve experienced that feeling of concern that comes with the realization that your cat is late for dinner.
You also probably know the subsequent rising panic and despair when they miss the next few meals as well.
But then they arrive home, usually unscathed, and you are left to wonder where they went and why.
There are many reasons why cats go missing for days. Intact cats go looking for mates. Cats establish territories and patrol and hunt in these areas. Cats can get locked into garages or sheds. They may hide out when hunted or frightened. Some cats may have multiple homes, and others may genuinely be lost.
We give our cats love, good food, and enough empty boxes to make our homes look a little homeless-y. So, why do they go missing? This is a good question and one with many possible answers.
Male Vs Female Cats
The instinct to wander is equally strong in both male cats and female cats, so choosing one gender over the other won’t ensure that your cat stays home.
The tendency that a cat has to go off wandering depends more on personality and whether or not they are spayed or neutered.
If your cat, male or female, has not been sterilized, you can expect them to disappear for a while, especially during breeding seasons.
Male cats will go off to find that good-smelling female in heat, heedless of how far away she is.
If he finds her locked up in a house (as responsible owners of intact females will make sure to do), he may decide to wait around for a few days to see if she can get out or he can get in.
He may also be gone for a while because there is more than one female in his territory that he goes to visit.
Female cats can come into season multiple times a year, so you may want to think seriously about spaying her if you don’t want to play prison warden to a yowling molly throughout the year.
If they are allowed outside while in season (not recommended), or if they come into season unexpectedly and you aren’t able to lock them up from the start, a female cat will wander around trying to find a mate and can stay out days at a time.
Sterilizing your cat is not a guarantee that they won’t wander off, but it will definitely mitigate their drive to do so.
Defending Their Territory
Cats are territorial creatures. They establish a territory and then faithfully protect it. Depending on your cat’s personality and sterilization status, this territory can be quite extensive.
It almost certainly extends beyond your own yard, although this is usually the central point. Intact cats tend to have larger territories than their sterilized counterparts.
Your cat may go missing for a few days while they patrol their domain. They are not lost, just busy. If they have a larger area to patrol, it might take them a few days to cover all the ground.
If there is a new cat in the neighborhood, they may stay out longer to ensure that the new cat knows what’s what and who’s whose.
Other cats may be contesting your cat’s territory, so your cat has to defend their kingdom. It’s all quite medieval in a way.
This is also why your cat sometimes comes home, all bloodied and swollen, telling you that you should see the other cat.
A cat’s drive to hunt is innate, as natural to them as breathing. They will chase anything that grabs their eye. They will also purposefully go out looking for something to hunt.
If their prey leaves your yard, your cat will follow until successful, bored, or thwarted. In their broader territory (outside of your property), they may have designated hunting grounds where they will spend their time.
Cats hunt birds, rodents, rabbits, lizards, and bugs. They don’t always catch and kill their prey outright. Instead, cats are known to spend a couple of hours ‘playing’ with their quarry.
It seems cruel to us, but it’s simply their nature, and it has a more practical purpose than we think. This ‘play’ weakens the prey and makes it easier to kill.
Although cats might not kill their prey immediately, they do still consider this prey to be a food source, and they will eat what they catch.
The result of this is that your cat has no immediate need to return home for food, and so they will continue with their excursion.
Cats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active in the hours just before sunrise and just after sunset.
You might think your cat is missing, but it’s actually just that you don’t see them come home because they return when you are out during the day or sleeping at night.
Keep an eye on their food bowl as they may have come back for a quick meal but are gone again when you look for them.
Also, remember that cats are independent and often contrary. They may hear you calling for them, but they are too busy or comfortable to come and see what you want.
While your cat may be a predator of smaller animals, they are also the prey of larger animals. This thought is distressing, particularly when your cat has been missing for a few days.
Cats are preyed on by different types of animals. The type of animal that poses a danger to your cat depends on where you live and how urbanized your area is.
A common problem in the USA is coyotes, which will target your cat if they cross paths.
If your cat finds themself being hunted, they will try to evade their pursuer by taking a more complex, and therefore longer, route home.
They may also hide out in a safe place for a day or so to make sure their hunter has given up.
Another reason why your cat will hide for a few days is if they get frightened.
If something scares your cat, such as a strange dog, a violent storm, or a loud noise, your cat will run without thought of their destination.
Once they perceive themselves to be far enough away from the threat, they will find a place to hide away and stay there until they feel safe again.
Most cats dislike getting wet. A cat that is out hunting or just wandering around when it starts raining will find the nearest dry spot and wait until the storm passes.
They may even wait until the ground dries out slightly before venturing home.
Curiosity And Memory
Cats are inquisitive. There is a reason why the idiom used to caution against curiosity refers to a cat.
Cats can get trapped in someone else’s garage or shed because they went to have a look at something and were locked inside.
Such buildings may be used infrequently, and so it could be a few days before someone opens the doors again, allowing your cat to get out.
While following an enticing smell or sound, your cat can accidentally wander into another cat’s territory.
Once they have realized their blunder, they may choose to go around the other cat’s territory in order to get back home, rather than face a fight.
Depending on the size of the territory, this can significantly extend the duration of the return journey.
Cats have remarkable memories and are known to wander back to a previous home. This is more common if you have moved houses recently.
If your cat goes missing shortly after your move, it may be worthwhile for you to search for them on the route back to your old house.
You may be sharing your cat with someone else. Your cat may choose to spend a portion of its time with a different family. They don’t stop loving you; they just start loving other people as well.
Alternatively, it may not be the other people that attract your cat, but rather the food that they provide.
People sometimes begin to feed a stray cat that mills around their house, and then a few months later, they adopt it into the family.
They attribute the cat’s long absences to their time as a stray, when in reality, it’s your cat that is missing when it’s staying with them.
If you adopted a stray cat that was hanging around your house, then you may be ‘the other owner.’
A significant change in your home, such as getting a dog, a new cat, or having a baby, can upset your cat. If your cat already visits other homes, they may start to extend their stays there and spend less time with you.
So, if you are planning a change that might upset your cat, give them lots of attention and bribe them with their favorite treats.
Lost Or Injured
Studies have shown that cats don’t typically wander further than a few blocks away. As discussed in previous sections, this can differ for intact cats, and there are several reasons why a cat will stray off further than this.
If your cat is used to staying within a certain radius of your property and something causes them to leave the places they know, they can get lost.
It may take them a few days of wandering around to find their way home, or they may get picked up by a shelter and returned to you (if chipped or tagged).
Of course, there is the heart-breaking possibility that they never come home.
If your cat has bolted because they got a fright, they are more likely to become genuinely lost than if they have wandered off following a scent.
A frightened cat is not considering where they are running and will usually cover large distances quickly and will tend to take circuitous routes.
If your cat has been injured but is still able to move, it might take a while to get home.
How Worried Should We Be?
If your cat is frequently away from home, you might start to worry less than you did when they first started disappearing for a few consecutive days.
Keep track of when they disappeared and act appropriately if there was any change in their behavior or any incidents that could indicate a more alarming reason for their absence.
Regardless of how often your cat is away from home, always put food out for them and make a point of calling for them and shaking their box of treats throughout the day.
Also, walk around your property looking for them. An injured cat may be able to get themselves home but will need your help once back in the safety of your yard.
If they are weak and tired, they might not be able to call for help.
If you are really worried or just curious, you can investigate GPS collars. These allow you to track your cat’s movements. Scientists have even used GPS collars to obtain data for research on cat behavior.
Can We Stop Them From Leaving?
The short answer is: no, we can’t. Unless you make them indoor cats, you can do little to stop them from getting out if they want to get out.
If you are considering transitioning them to an indoor-only lifestyle, you need to research the best ways to do this.
You must also understand that your particular cat may not be able to make the transition happily.
You can try to lock your cat up at night. This may be effective at first, but if you continuously interrupt your cat while they are having fun, they may start to ignore you whenever you call them, which can be counterproductive.
What you can do is make home an attractive place to be. Provide them with toys and treats and lots of affection.
Reward them if they come when called and pamper them when they come home from longer excursions. As mentioned before, sterilizing your cat will also help.
You should take your cat to be microchipped by a veterinarian. A cat is taken to a veterinary practice or animal shelter when discovered wandering around or injured, and these places scan for microchips.
Tagging your cat will ensure that you are notified if they are picked up and taken to one of these places.
Collars with tags are also a good idea, but you should get the quick release collars that come off when snagged.
You may go through a few collars over your cat’s lifetime, but at least you know they are not going to strangle themselves if their collar gets caught in fences or trees.
On the whole, cats don’t disappear because they don’t love us or because they feel ignored.
More often, they are simply following their instincts to breed, patrol their territory, hunt, investigate, and if frightened, run and hide.
When cats are exploring or hunting, they may stay out for long periods of time, returning home only when they are exhausted or hungry. If they wander far, they can take a while to get back home.
If they are frightened or find themselves being hunted or caught in a storm, cats will hide until they feel it’s safe to return. If genuinely lost or injured, it can take them longer to get home as well.
Your cat may even have other homes that they visit for a few days, enjoying the people and the food provided by these other homes.
There is little you can do to constrain your cat’s instincts to wander, but neutering and spaying them will have more influence on this behavior than anything else you do.
You can also purchase a GPS collar for your cat to allay your worries and quench your curiosity.