What if my outdoor cat doesn’t come home?

My outdoor cat Charlie didn't come home last week. If only I know a cat behaviorist who could help me find my cat! If only I hadn't spent five days exploring the black hole of sheer terror and despair! If only there was a web application that finds lost cats and tells you exactly what to do!
Outdoor cat comes home


 I lost my cat.  My beloved Charlie who always answers when I call him, who has never spent a night away from home.  Doesn’t matter if he’s hurt, or he’s scared, or he’s just checking on me.  When I call his name, he comes galloping in from wherever he is, skidding into my house and leaping on the counter for his “good boys”.  Charlie has never kept me waiting, not one time.

What do you do when your outdoor cat doesn’t come home?

Start with your cat’s profile.  Did I use the CatFinder App?  No, I did not.  I trusted my brain, which means I let my emotions rule the search for my lost cat.  Terror and helplessness overrule logic every single time.  This makes you far too quick to believe the worst case scenario and disregard common sense.  When it comes to finding my own lost cat, I am THE WORST pet detective.  I had this SO FREAKING WRONG.

Charlie’s profile?  He’s a stray who walked in from the wild one spring morning in 2019 and decided he wasn’t leaving.  My greenbelt trash gentleman is an interesting combination of super social and still pretty wild.  He’s skittish when he hears noises he can’t identify.  Humans are immediately trusted, so much so that he happily jumps in cars for rides.  Luckily he doesn’t get the chance to get in many cars, as we live at the bottom of a four-house cul-de-sac that backs up to the wild greenbelts he came from.

A cat's tinder picture
Charlie is super social.

My “Good Time Charlie,” is the most social and extroverted cat I’ve ever known.  I’ve always suspected he’s got a little Bengal in his ancestry:  he’s got vibrant green eyes, a full, thick tail, and he’s covered with spots.  He’s strong and capable, with crazy balance, energy, and athletic prowess.  He’s clever, understands English, and performs tricks he doesn’t find too degrading.

Charlie has human friends at every house within three blocks.  He goes by a different name at every hearth.  Charlie loves to make the rounds, and he gets lonely without company.  He argues about “feline rights,” “freedom,” and “false imprisonment”.  But what about “coyotes,” “cars,” and “dogs”?

Our compromise:  he goes out to visit his friends during the day.  By 4:30 pm, his orange tail had better be inside safe or he’s not getting his Fancy Feast.  He’s ALWAYS made it for curfew.  Until a week ago.  My heart shattered into pieces, and I spent the days searching and the nights on my hands and knees, ugly-crying, putting a lone whisker and the crumbs of his last meal into my treasure box.

Building your lost cat’s profile:

Trusts strangers, friendly.  Never meows.  Too confident in his environment, regularly gets himself into foolhardy situations that most strays never would (cars, strange people’s houses).  Territory is dangerous at night.  Everyone knows and loves him.  No neighbor has complained about him.  If Charlie walks out his cat door at 3:30 and doesn’t come when he’s called an hour later, where do you think he is?  What would you do?

I last saw Charlie during last week’s freeze, the same one that shut down Austin power.  Charlie went out briefly that morning, decided it was too cold to go visiting, and he came back inside after about five minutes.  He spent the day tucked into bed, stretching out on top of a fur throw.

Lost cat
Charlie’s fur throw.

Our power didn’t go out, so I spent most of the day working at my desk.  The neighborhood was a like dead zone:  where I could usually hear foot traffic on my street and the greenbelt behind my house, there was none.  Construction on the house across the street was minimal; I only heard a single truck come and go, as opposed to the background noise I’d become used to: the busy conversation of a team of workers.

At 4:30 I went to check on him.  Charlie was gone.  He didn’t answer when I called.  Nothing answered.  Nothing was out there.  My heart stopped beating.

What to do when your social, trusting, friendly outdoor cat doesn’t come home:

  1. Open every cabinet and inside door inside your own house. Don’t assume your cat will meow to you if they’re locked in the pantry.  OPEN IT ALL UP.
  2. Post on Nextdoor with plenty of recent, well-lit photos that show any unusual markings (his spots, his green eyes, his goofy expression when he smells Temptation catnip-flavored treats).
  3. Post on Facebook to your neighborhood group. Same photos.
  4. Keep tending both threads. Answer every person who comments.  A well-tended thread gets more views!
  5. KNOCK ON EVERY DOOR. Have a picture ready!  Do you know how far your outdoor cat goes?  FIND OUT.  It’s time to introduce yourself to any neighbors you don’t know!  Be friendly, be careful.
    1. Ask them to OPEN THEIR GARAGES, a foot will do!
    2. Ask them to OPEN THEIR SHEDS a crack!
  6. Talk to EVERY DOG WALKER you see!
  7. Stop every car in the street and talk to that person!
  8. Concentrate on any workmen who come and go! Talk to ALL OF THEM.
  9. Call your neighborhood management company/HOA.
  10. Call your cat! Listen carefully for meows and banging.  The more skittish a cat is, the less likely they are to meow when they’re in trouble.  This means that doing it once is NOT ENOUGH.  Repeat this step daily or until you go insane.

Charlie swaggered his way into my life four years ago.  I went away for the weekend, and when I came back on Sunday, there he was, sitting on Houdini’s chair on the porch.  Houdini was a steady, patient cat, but seriously, what the fluff?  Taking his chair?

Outside cat
Would you trust Charlie to go outside?

My house is in an old neighborhood, with large yards and wild greenbelts that run behind all the homes.  Ever since I’ve lived here, cats turn up.  I don’t know where they come from, but they come in off the greenbelt, starving, stinky, on the edge of feral and stray, all needing square meals and medical care.  I get them fed, cleaned up, neutered or spayed, and give them any medical care they need.

Then I try to find them homes.  This part I’m not always successful at:  this is how Houdini came to live with me.  And Bailey.  And the new guy, the Good Time Charlie.  I put his photo on Nextdoor and Facebook, FOUND CAT!  And found out that he already had at least five “homes,” with families who loved him and called him five different names, including “Mr. Orange Fluffypants”.

No wonder he showed up at my house.  That wasn’t even accurate; his pants aren’t fluffy.  I neutered him (not personally; that’s the kind of job you hire out), got him shots, etc.  When he was healed up, I showed him the door.  Wish you the best, Charlie.  But you absolutely can’t stay.  You’re officially on my neighborhood’s Cat Share Program.  Well, that was four years ago, and what can I say?  He never left.

How long do I look for my outdoor cat?

On the first night I opened all the inside doors and did the social media posts. On the first day I walked the neighborhood in the rain when it was 29 degrees.  On the second day I had tracked down all the workers and searched the construction site across the street.  I tended my social media threads.  On the third day I posted again, expanding the search radius to reach more neighborhoods.

By Day 4, I couldn’t get out of bed.  He was gone.  A freak coyote attack in the middle of the afternoon.  I should never have agreed to our compromise.  Who cares about Charlie’s “quality of life” argument?  I couldn’t be trusted to have a cat.  I was a horrible human being who deserved to die alone.  Unwanted.  Unloved.  Sleepless nights without his weight curled around my feet.  My pillow wet with tears and the fur he had left behind (he liked to share it with me, whiskers and cat breath in my face).

My cat sitter offered to help and I turned her down, telling her that there was no use.  Charlie was gone.  A kind neighbor drove around the streets late at night, keeping watch for him.  No point.  He’s gone.  I would have done anything, anything to get him back, only I had to stop looking because that might give me hope, and hope is torture.  Much easier to accept that it’s over.

If I had USED MY OWN WEB APPLICATION I would have found him so much faster than I did, which was on Day 5.  The sun came out, the freeze was over, and someone opened whatever shed/garage door he’d been shut behind.  He popped up on my deck, skinny, starving, thirsty, and spotlessly clean.  He blew right past me to gobble at the food dish and inhaling from his water bowl while I crumpled to my knees and sobbed.

#Reunited and it feels so good.  

Excuse me, I have to go hug my cat.  And apologize.  Again.

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