Should You Put a Litterbox Outside for a Lost Cat?

When a pet goes missing, pet owners are naturally searching for suggestions to help them find the cat. While the Internet can be a great source of information, there’s a lot of misinformation out there too. One such suggestion which is regularly shared is that if a cat goes missing, putting his or her litterbox outside can help the cat find their way home.

Can cats smell their own litterbox from a mile (1.6 km) away?

There is no evidence that a cat can smell a litterbox from a mile away, and no website claiming this has backed up this claim with actual research. There is no doubt that cats have a far superior sense of smell to humans, but it is unlikely they can smell a dirty tray from 1 mile away.

Should you leave a dirty litterbox outside for a lost cat?

No, leaving a dirty litter tray outside for a missing cat is not recommended.

A dirty litter tray may not attract your missing cat, but it can attract larger predators such as foxes, bobcats and coyotes. One study found that foxes are attracted to the scent of cat urine due to an overlap in the species both animals hunt. Ie; if cats are in the area, there must be a source of food.

Nearby neighbourhood cats, stray or feral cats may also be attracted to the scent of dirty litter. Cats, especially entire tomcats, are territorial and can be aggressive. If they detect the scent of another cat on their turf, they will be attracted to the area to spray or defecate over the scent to re-claim their turf. If your cat is hiding nearby, the territorial cat will challenge it which runs the risk of injury (lacerations, abscess) and infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus or feline leukemia virus, or drive the cat out of the area.

What should you do if your cat goes missing?

The good news is that most cats are found close to home. One retrospective study of 1210 cats who had gone missing found 75% of cats who were found were within 500m of the point of their escape. Cats considered to be highly curious were often found inside other people’s houses and indoor/outdoor cats tend to travel further distances than indoor-only cats who have escaped.

Leave the litterbox inside.

Look inside cupboards and wardrobes, under beds, behind curtains and furniture, inside beds (under the covers), in the linen cupboard (a favourite sleeping spot for my cats).

As strange as it may seem, if you have had recent visitors, ask them to check their car. We had friends over for lunch one day, and they returned to our home five minutes after leaving to bring out cat back. He’d climbed into their van and they’d driven off with him.

Print out flyers with your cat’s name, description and a contact number. Leave out a key piece of information (the cat’s eye colour, colour of its collar, number of white socks, if or where it has a white locket etc), so that if somebody does claim to have your cat and they are genuine, they will be able to answer the question. Place the flyers on lampposts, community notice boards and ask local veterinary practices if you can put a flyer in their window.

Information for the flyer should include the following:

  • Your name and contact number
  • Pet’s name
  • Breed (if purebred)
  • Colour
  • Brief description of the cat
  • Where he or she was last seen

Get on social media and ask people in the area to check sheds, garages, under porches and hedges and keep a look out for your cat. Don’t forget to door knock too, as not everybody is on social media.

Notify veterinary practices and animal shelters in the area. When one of our cats went missing, he was located in a garden a street away. The homeowner was not on social media but had contacted our local vet with a description of the cat. When we called, they were able to provide her phone number and address. Thankfully, he was still hiding in her garden.

The best time to search for a cat is during the evening when there is less traffic noise and fewer people on the streets. Bring along a torch and shine the light under hedges, porches, cars, trees and roofs (many a cat has got stuck up a tree or on a roof). The eyes will glow when the light hits them. Carry a container with cat treats to shake. It goes without saying that you should always knock on the doors of your neighbours and speak to them, show them a photo of the cat and seek their permission before searching their garden.

Leave a dirty t-shirt or some old shoes outside, this is a safer way to attract the cat using scent. It won’t attract wildlife or neighbourhood cats but can be enticing enough to flush out your cat.

Put food outside and watch from a distance. Don’t leave food out 24/7 as this may attract wildlife.

Leave a cardboard box outside (under shelter) with a soft blanket, for the cat to hide in if he or she returns when you are not home.

If there are sightings of the cat locally, try to borrow a trap from a local rescue or council) to trap the cat.

Microchipping

A microchip is a small chip the size of a grain of rice that is inserted under the skin on the back of the neck. The microchip contains information on the cat including its address and a contact number. Microchips are compulsory in Australia and are highly recommended for all cats, even those who are indoors only. If a cat is handed into a veterinarian or an animal shelter, the first thing they do is scan the cat for a microchip. This is the fastest and most reliable method of identification for cats. But, it is only useful if your contact details are up to date.