Why Does My Cat Run Away from Me?

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  • You’ve seen the meme. The owner leaves the room for two minutes, and when they come back, the dog is jumping up and down, licking their face, and whimpering. In the next frame, the owner is gone for two weeks, and when they return, the cat is snoozing comfortably on their pillow. When the kitty finally does lift its head, it’s only to indicate that they would like to be fed.

    Top reasons cats run away from you

    By nature, cats are fiercely independent. They avoid chaos at all costs and often seem aloof. At times, they may even run from their owners. Is there a reason for it? Or are they just being cats?

    1. Your cat is scared – the scaredy cat

    Many of the reasons for a cat to bolt can be attributed to one underlying trigger—it’s most likely due to stress or fear. A change in the cat’s environment has put them on high alert. It could be anything from a new home to an unfamiliar smell. Like most mammals, felines have the fight-or-flight instinct, and fleeing from an enemy can be a life saver in the wild.

    A cat that feels threatened will experience mental and physiological changes that include both an increased heart rate and respiration. What you’ll see is dilated pupils and hair that stands on end. Obviously, there is more to worry about with an outdoor cat, as they have unlimited space available and can sometimes run far enough to find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

    Most cats who go missing don’t really run away from home, but rather wander away. And whether they are indoor or outdoor, once they find themselves in strange surroundings, their inclination is to hide in a small space that offers safety, comfort and warmth. Outdoor cats may slip into your (or a neighbor’s) open garage or shed. If it’s cold, they might hide in a wheel well or under the hood of a car. That’s why it’s important to give a knock on the hood before starting a vehicle in winter. On warmer days, kitties may prefer a patch of tall grass or crouch among the garden plants. Decks and porches can provide shelter from rain.

    Indoor cats will hide in baskets or bins, and sometimes even burrow into a laundry basket. You can look for them in closets, cabinets, laundry appliances, under furniture and near furnaces or water heaters. If a space seems too small, check it anyway. Treats, toys and catnip can lure a cat out of hiding.

    According to Kat Albrecht-Thiessen, Director of the Missing Animal Response Network (MARN), “The number one method that was the most successful in recovering a missing cat was conducting a physical search of the area.” The best solution, however, is to prevent the cat from running away in the first place by providing for your cat’s natural preferences of quiet and calm.

    2. Quiet please: your cat wants some quiet time

    Considering that a cat can hear sounds not only lower but also more than an octave higher than the upper range of human hearing, it’s no wonder loud noises can scare them. Your kitty’s 30 ear muscles can rotate up to 180 degrees, not unlike a satellite dish, to collect sounds up to a half mile away. They can also pinpoint the tiniest squeak within three feet in less than a second. They know exactly where that mouse is!

    Because of their extreme sensitivity to sound, a loud noise or an unfamiliar sound may cause them to sprint. A lot depends on their personality and past experiences, some of which are learned behaviors. They see you headed toward the closet where the vacuum is kept, and they are gone before you even open the door.

    Like their canine counterparts, cats can be frightened by thunder, fireworks and gunshots. But, cats can also react to loud televisions, radios, video games, phones, and the bell on their collar. Being that the bell is right near those ultra-sensitive ears, the sound and frequency can actually stress your cat out.

    In order to protect those delicate ears, and give your cat one less reason to run off, take the necessary measures to rid your home of noise pollution. If you have a rowdy event coming up, remove your kitty to a quiet, private room away from any commotion.

    3. Your cat wants a safe zone

    Regardless of what causes the cat’s fear, their instincts drive them to hide. One of the best things the owner of a skittish feline can do is to create a hiding place for them.

    Is there a place they already retreat to? If not, provide something small and cozy like a bed, a cat cave, or a hammock. Cats like to be up high, so a cat tree is also a good choice. Even a tunnel or carrier will do. The point is for the cat to have a positive association with the safe zone. Ideally, the area will also be warm and contain the cat’s own scent. Leaving some treats for them to find can only enrich the experience. By providing a hideaway for your cat, they will learn to run there rather than someplace you can’t find them. Do all you can to make your cat’s hiding place their own private sanctuary.

    4. Your cat is sometimes anti-social

    Another common reason for a cat to run away is that it hasn’t been properly socialized as a kitten. Keep in mind that although a cat is domesticated (tame), it does not mean that they are socialized (they enjoy being around people). A true feral cat is neither socialized nor domesticated, whereas a stray is most likely domesticated but may or may not be not socialized. Are you confused yet?

    Domestic cats can live among people, like some barn cats do. Their job is to catch mice and their reward is shelter, food, and water. Unless they are socialized, however, these “mousers” will not interact with humans because they have not had enough (or any) positive experiences with people. With time and patience, a domesticated cat can be socialized, while chances are, you will not even get near a feral cat.

    The best (and easiest) time to socialize a cat is when they are between two and eight weeks old. Since this is usually the age at which most kittens are adopted out, you won’t know how much human interaction they’ve had unless you spend some time with them.  Do they approach you? Is their tail flying high? Do they rub against you and purr? Play? These are all signs that a kitten has been given the time and attention needed in order to make them a good pet. Continue to build on whatever bond is already there.

    There is no way to predict how cuddly a cat may be when they are a kitten. Love them as best you can, and if you truly want a specific personality, it’s best to wait until the cat is a bit older and their unique character traits are more obvious.

    Negative Socialization


    Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Any animal that has been abused or neglected will develop unfavorably toward humans. It’s easy to understand why a cat in this situation would run away. Regrettably, they may never forget these past experiences and remain standoffish at best toward humans (or other animals).

    Should you attempt rehabilitation of a mistreated cat, the most important thing is to allow them to go at their own pace. You’ll need to make them feel loved by unconditionally providing for their needs, protecting them, building their confidence, and perhaps do some desensitization training.

    5. The Grass is Greener

    Be it fear, insufficient attention, or just curiosity, some cats will wander to another home. The homeowner may think they are a stray and begin feeding them. One thing leads to another, and soon your kitty has two homes!  Are they gaining weight despite skipping dinner at home? Do they disappear for a couple days and return with an unfamiliar scent (someone else’s perfume or laundry detergent)? It might not occur to you that they’re two-timing until a friend mentions that your neighbor on the next street over has a cat that looks exactly like yours.

    If you do find your kitty in the arms of another cat lover, you will have some questions to answer. Does your cat feel safe at home? Are you giving them the love and affection they need? Do your kids or other pets bother them when they’re eating?

    6. One of a kind: your cat is bold

    One cat is fearful; his sibling is bold. One cat likes to romp and play with his littermates; the other is a loner. Although cat personalities can be as diverse as humans are, they usually fit into two very broad groupings: sociable, confident and easy going, or timid, shy and unfriendly. Their tendency to be homebodies or drifters is, for the most part, inherited. A cat in either group might leave home, but for totally different reasons.

    Mood: Body language is a good indicator of both a cat’s personality and mood. Paying close attention to their eyes, ears, tail and stance can alert you to the feelings of anger or unhappiness that can cause them to retreat. Don’t take it personally, but rather give your cat the space they need to resolve whatever is bothering them.

    A Little Space Please: Cats are no exception to the rule that we all need some space occasionally. The average housecat needs a minimum of 18 square feet of living space, and that doesn’t mean empty space. The area needs to include hiding places as well as both vertical and horizontal perches. A wide open room will likely send your cat running in search of that safe zone.

    7. Your cat wants to stake a claim

    Your cat is a modern-day pioneer. They will explore and stake their claim to a territory, an area of your home or yard where they reign as king (or queen!).  The center of their chosen area is their den and extends outward to their hunting grounds. They will scratch or rub objects along the boundaries to deposit their own unique scent. They will also sometimes spray or urinate on the border, and this can be a problem with an indoor cat. An outdoor cat’s territory can extend to 150 acres! Anything infringing on the cat’s territory will cause them to either defend it or run away from it.

    Has a neighbor’s cat been coming around? Did a loud dog move in next door? You might be able to take measures to put your kitty back on the throne in their kingdom, but you also need to consider other options like fencing or keeping them indoors.

    8. Your cat is in heat

    Once the hormones kick in, a fertile cat may coerce their owner to let them out due to their incessant yowling. If they do, they are almost certain to produce a litter. There is no medical justification for allowing a female to have one litter. Less than half of them will be adopted into good homes. Spaying or neutering a cat at approximately 5 months of age should prevent a female from going into heat and a male from developing the urge to mate, giving you one less worry!

    How to figure out why your cat is running away from you

    Patience required

    If you pay close attention to your cat’s behavior, you may be able to identify whatever it is that causes a panic and condition them to it. Conditioning involves intentionally exposing your cat to a particular stressor at an extremely low level so as not to cause anxiety. For instance, if your cat runs when you use a blender, they are most likely reacting to the loud, sharp noise. Try covering the appliance with a towel or pillow to muffle the sound, and blend in short bursts. Talk to your cat calmly and offer some treats. Once the kitty gets used to that level of noise, you can increase the sound and length slowly over a period of time until your cat does what cats do best—ignore it!

    Keep in mind that in addition to running away, your cat might also react to anxiety by spraying or urinating outside the litterbox, grooming or vocalizing excessively, or refusing to eat. Since these can also be symptoms of an illness, check in with your vet.

    Inside the cat brain

    Survival instincts from the past prevent our felines from exhibiting any form of weakness (including stress), so it’s difficult to know what a cat is thinking. They do interact with humans in the same way they interact with other cats, mostly with body language. Their vocalizations are typically reserved only for humans.

    As highly intelligent creatures, cats learn through observation (as with the vacuum in the closet), reinforcement and sensitization. They can be trained by using some of the same methods we use for dogs.

    How to help your cat stay close

    Reinforce the good

    Reinforcement can be positive or negative. There is a huge difference between discipline (teaching) and punishment (penalizing). Forcing a cat to do anything will send them running in the other direction. Clapping, yelling, and shaking noisy cans are loud noises. Spraying with a water bottle will shock them.

    If you hope to achieve any success, it’s imperative that training be as positive and stress-free as possible. The elusive nature of cats makes this method especially effective, and you won’t get far without it. Your cat needs to trust you.

    Trust me!

    Building trust takes time in any relationship. Since a cat’s natural inclination is to distrust, you’ll have to work extra hard. It all goes back to providing for the cat’s needs of peace, quiet, comfort, and safety. Once your cat is confident that you know and respect their preferences, let the training begin! Your ultimate goal, a mutual trust, can lower stress, diminish loneliness, and improve the cardiovascular system—for both of you!  You’ll know you’ve accomplished it when your kitty talks to you with chirps and purrs. And by showing you their belly, they are making themselves totally vulnerable. They also might take to “grooming” you, but the best indication is when they bring you a gift. Now, even though you are appalled, you need to accept it with grace and thankfulness. You can stop smiling and express your “ews” once your kitty has left the room!

    Tiger training 101

    To a certain extent, you need to let your cat take the lead (or at least think they are taking the lead!). Let them come to you, and always be predictable (no sudden movements or noises). Allow them to set the boundaries on when and where they can be touched and respect their choices.

    Remember that your objective is to encourage preferred behaviors, so you will have to learn how to turn a negative into a positive–perhaps coaxing your cat with catnip to scratch on a designated post rather than the furniture.

    Most people are familiar with clicker training for dogs, but it can also be used with cats. The sound of the clicker combined with a treat or desired attention lets your kitty know they have done something right, and they will  want to repeat it. You can also use a target stick to point them away from something they shouldn’t be doing and direct them to something more appropriate. For example, if your cat is on the countertop, guide them with the target stick to jump down. When they cooperate, click and reward.

    Outdoor training

    As would be expected, outdoor training is more complicated. Although some cats won’t stray from the front porch, many have wanderlust. Try to anticipate their needs (safety, comfort, food, and water) to make your yard the most appealing place for them to be. They’ll find it hard to leave a catnip garden! Other systems that have worked successfully include a high (or underground) fence, overhead netting, an Oscillot system, or a catio.

    The tail end

    Cats have always been shrouded with mystery. The instincts that have kept them alive have been misunderstood. With patience and devotion, you have the chance to  witness the love, joy, compassion, and comedy that hide within. Who knows? You may even coin a new definition of man’s best friend!

    FAQ

    Why is my cat suddenly running away from me?

    A sudden sprint is almost always due to a scare. Did you make a sudden movement? A loud noise? Try to be more aware of these things and see them from your cat’s perspective.

    Can cats be trained to stay in the yard?

    If given enough time, most cats will wander. Do they have something to keep them occupied in the yard? Are you available to play with them? Try to give your cat no reason to roam.

    How do you train a cat to come back home?

    Cats will wander according to what they crave at that moment. Do you have a routine for feeding? Do they have access to fresh water and treats inside? Some cats will come to simply calling their name; others need to be bribed. If all else fails, leave the garage or porch door open.

    Why does my cat run away from me sometimes?

    A change in behavior signals a change in your cat’s environment. Did you bring a new pet into the home? Have guests? Cats are creatures of habit, and changes in their routine may cause them stress.

    Why does my cat run away from me, but nobody else?

    Cats will treat members of the household differently depending on the trust that has been established by each individual. Did you do something unintentionally to stress your cat? Has another cat claimed you as their territory? Are you the one who medicates the cat? Some situations are temporary or out of our control. Examine your interactions with your cat and try to pinpoint their distress. Try to spend more positive time with them.

    Author

    • Sue Murray owes her love of cats to two little domestic shorthairs named Scooter and Buttons who showed her that curtains are for climbing, litter is to scatter, nights are for running wildly through the house, and dogs are to hiss at. Sue has rescued or fostered more than 50 felines and enjoys writing about her experiences.