It's an awful feeling when your indoor cat dashes past you out the door. But it's even more distressing to realize that you've just made matters worse by giving chase.
That's what happened to some clients of pet detective Laura Totis in Clarksburg, Md. She helps find lost pets via phone consultations and a trained search dog.
"They saw the cat 20 feet away, and they went after it," she says. "It went another 20 feet away and they did it again, and it disappeared."
When your cat gets out, the first thing to remember is not to panic. Even if you can normally pick your cat up, don't expect it to behave the same as when it's in the house.
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"If you walk directly toward it, it will run away," she says. Instead of running after it, she advises, "Leave the door open, circle around and herd it in."
In many cases, that simple step is all you'll need. But if your cat has vanished, try these strategies:
* First, be positive the cat's not in the house. Totis once helped search a friend's one-bedroom apartment for several hours. Just when they were convinced the cat must have gotten out, they found that it had crawled up into the draperies and gone to sleep.
* If you think you know the cat's exit point, start there, and think like a cat. It's not going to walk along the sidewalk like a dog, so you shouldn't either.
If your cat may have bolted in panic, Totis said, think of its path in straight lines "like a pool ball — they run till they hit something, then run till they hit something." The other likely alternative, says Kat Albrecht, founder of the nonprofit Missing Pet Partnership, is that the cat will slink along a wall or fence.
* Follow the likely paths and look for a hiding place. Albrecht says the critical thing to remember about cats is "their primary protection from predators is to hide in silence."
* Look close before far. Albrecht's years of experience show that the majority of missing cats are found close to the owner's house, but many owners hesitate to ask permission to search nearby properties.
"It's more comfortable for a cat owner to drive 20 miles to the shelter than it is to knock on the neighbor's door and ask to search in the yard," she says. But it's crucial to do so.
* Look down, underneath things, behind things. "Get down on your hands and knees," says Totis. Otherwise you won't see the hiding places that were obvious to the cat. "Look under bushes, behind things, under porches, in sheds."
* Use a flashlight even in daytime. "The markings on cats are designed for camouflage," says Totis. "The light will reflect the eyes. Otherwise you look and it looks like a pile of leaves."
* If you do find your cat's hiding place, remember not to give chase. "The goal is to have the cat come to you," says Totis. "Just sit there and talk to it." One client who finally saw his cat after six weeks had to sit and talk to it for 45 minutes. "Be patient. It's a cat. They do things on their own time," she says.
If you have sightings but can't get the cat to come to you, set up a humane trap. For advice, try your local animal control or shelter.
The most important thing, say experts, is not to give up. There are cases where cats were found after going missing for weeks or even months.
Says Totis: "The biggest mistake people make is that they give up too soon."
Tips for finding lost pets
When searching for a lost pet, looking close by is the first priority. And the sooner the better. If you're not successful, try one or all of these:
* Put up posters. They should be brightly colored and large enough to be read by passing drivers.
* Hand out fliers to neighbors and others who may have seen your pet, even those that don't live nearby.
* Lost cats sometimes end up in shelters, but you need to visit a shelter personally. Don't expect staff to be able to identify your cat from a description over the phone.
* Post your lost pet and look for those others have found at www.wichitapetfinder.com.
* The nonprofit group Missing Pet Partnership can help you locate a pet detective with trained search dogs in your area. It also has detailed instructions on its Web site — http://tinyurl.com/oevbg9 — on how to create effective fliers and posters.