Copyright 1993 - 2007 Sarah Hartwell

It has to be a cat owner's worst nightmare - Puss fails to return home. It is even worse for owners of indoor cats; an indoor cat may panic if it escapes into the unfamiliar outdoors. Though outdoor cats are most at risk of becoming lost, e.g. if chased, abducted and dumped, or by climbing into a cat, indoor cats can sometimes escape, especially if your home is broken into by a burglar or a door is left open when a tradesman calls.

Many people don't bother to search for a lost cat, assuming it can take care of itself or has gone wild. Those cats may wander for days, disoriented and frightened. The lucky ones are adopted or rescued, but others cannot fend for themselves and die or are killed as pests. Some join feral cat colonies. Many are accidentally shut inside shed or garages which are opened only now and again. My cat, who looked rather scrawny and unkempt due to a medical condition, was picked up by a well-meaning stranger and ended up at a vet surgery. Unfortunately, this meant she didn't get her medication for 2 days. Luckily the finder put up a "Found Cat" notice as the microchip hadn't yet been registered on the national database.

A neutered (desexed) cat is less likely to stray than an unneutered cat. A collar and ID tag (or a microchip) could swiftly reunite you with your lost pet. Make sure you have clear colour photos of both sides of your cat and its face (a 'portrait' photo). You may need these for 'Lost Cat' posters or to prove ownership if someone has adopted or stolen your pet. Though you may put 'Lost Cat ... answers to name of Gemma' many cats don't answer to their name if it is spoken by a stranger. The benefit of microchips is that your cat can be reunited with you even if it ends up many miles away. Stowaway cats have even been reunited with owners overseas!

If your cat goes missing, first search all parts of your house. Look in boxes, closets, washing machines, under beds etc. Then search the immediate environs - outbuildings, sheds, garages and hedges. You may need to carry wire-cutters to free your cat if you live in an area where snares are likely. Take some photos with you so that you can more easily describe your cat to people you meet. Check the 'Lost and Found' columns of local newspapers and cards placed in shop windows or on community notice-boards.

Let people know that the cat is missing. You could inform the police if you believe the cat has been stolen they may not take it seriously, but under English Law a cat is considered property. Community policemen will be more sympathetic than the town police station. Inform local vets in case the animal is, or has been, injured and is taken to a vet's surgery. Inform local schools since children are very observant of animals that they meet on their way to and from school. Contact local animal shelters and welfare groups.

Local councils (the 'Cleansing Department' or Environmental Health Officer) should keep records of dead animals they have cleared from the roadside (they may also store the body in a freezer for a short period of time before it is incinerated). Unfortunately, in 2006, I saw a cleansing truck sweep up a cat's body in Noak Hill (ner Billericay, Essex), without checking it for a collar, so not all cleansing departments bother to detail dead pets. If you live near to a railway, the nearest station may have records of animals found on the track. Speak to neighbours who may have seen your cat since it disappeared. It's surprising how many cats have a 'den' under a neighbour's shed or have second homes. Have a word with any delivery people or roundsmen (newspaper boys, postmen, milkmen) who have regular rounds in your area. If you have builders working locally, check that your cat hasn't been nosing around and become stuck.

Advertise the fact that a cat has gone missing. These days, thanks to digital photography and colour printers, it is easy to print out good quality colour photos and posters to put up. Put cards on local noticeboards, in shop windows (a small weekly fee will be charged), church noticeboards (a donation to funds may be required), at the local school and local filling station. Posters and notices are more effective if they have a photo of the cat. Put them wherever people congregate, but beware of any local regulations prohibiting unauthorised notices. Put 'Lost Cat' notices through people's doors, asking them to check inside their shed, garage etc. Put your name and address on all notices.

Contact the local newspapers; most have a 'Lost and Found' section or may be able to print a picture and small article about the missing cat (especially if it is valuable or extraordinary in any way). Contact your local radio station and, if you have one, your local TV station. If you believe your cat may have climbed in a car or truck and hitch-hiked to another area, advertise in a national cat publication. Very valuable cats have sometimes had their stories reported on national news and national teletext services.

If your local animal rescue groups have a lost and found section on the internet, supply a photo for that. A donation may be required. Sites for lost cats exist, but they may not cover your area or even your country. They are also difficult to keep up to date.

Offer a reward to motivate people; there is no need to specify the amount. The drawback of this is that you may be presented with a procession of cats (some taken from elsewhere) by people wanting to claim the reward. These people work on the theory that all tabby cats look the same (or all Siamese cats look the same etc) and owners won't be able to tell the difference. Such people will not return the cat to where they found it, leading to another lost cat.

The earlier you report a missing cat, the more likely you are to find it. Be aware of your cat's habits, e.g. what time does it normally return from hunting expeditions or visits to neighbours?

When you are reunited with your cat, inform any authorities who were asked to look out for him. Remove any posters or notices, especially those which offer a reward otherwise you will end up paying out money to everyone who finds your cat sitting on your doorstep.

Don't give up to soon. Cats have been known to return home after long absences, having been adopted as a stray or after hiking long distances home after accidentally riding in a car. I know of one cat which was reunited with its rural owner after being found at a London Railway Station - the cat had decided to explore the guard's van when the train stopped at its local station; luckily it was microchipped and had a collar. I have reunited a Havana with its owner after a separation of 6 months. This indoor-only cat was trapped during a trap-neuter-return campaign at a factory the other side of town. The owner worked at the factory. Somehow it had managed to get into the garage and had travelled to the factory in the engine compartment of its owner's car.



With any luck, you will find your cat. Unfortunately there are also stories with no happy ending. Outdoors can be a dangerous place with cars, dangerous dogs and, in some countries, predators which eat cats. There are also waves of cat theft. It is up to the owner to weigh up the pros and cons of an indoor or indoor-outdoor life. In Britain, cats are traditionally indoor-outdoor pets and most live long and healthy lives. In America most pet cats live indoors only. The way you choose should be appropriate to where you live and readers must respect this fact. This section is mostly applicable to Britain.

Sadly there are cats who vanish due to malicious people. Around Chelmsford, Essex, there were several waves of cat disappearances. These were characterised by the fact that the disappearing cats were all one colour. During one month black cats vanished en masse from a few streets in one suburb. A few months later most of the tabby cats in one housing development vanished. They vanished either late at night or very early in the morning when let out to do their business in the garden.

In one case, an owner saw people attempting to snatch her cat from her garden in Springfield, Chelmsford and she gave chase (the cat was recovered, the thieves were not caught). In another, the owner of a tabby cat saw her cat escape from the front window of a moving van in Galleywood, Chelmsford (though another of her cats vanished without trace). These are not "friend of a friend" tales - I personally spoke to both of these owners.

Why Are Cats Stolen?

In Britain, it is suspected that cats are stolen for laboratory use or for the European fur trade. Over the years, there has also been evidence of cats being stolen and killed by malicious individuals. A major supplier of laboratory cats (Hillgrove Farm) has closed down and cat owners became concerned that cat theft would increase as a result. Most labs emphasise that they only use specially bred cats since may experiments require the cats to have been raised in sterile environments. Unfortunately many other tests only require that the cat be easy to handle and pet cats are appropriate. There is the practice of 'pound seizure' in parts of the USA where unclaimed strays can be appropriated by laboratories. Elsewhere, cats are also used as practice animals for fighting or coursing dogs and for dissection class (especially for the US: Cat Theft for Classroom Dissection Studies). There will always be a few sick sadists in society who enjoy harming animals.

Cats have been used for air rifle or shotgun practice and there have been occasional reports of rural butchers being offered supposed rabbit carcasses which are, in actual fact, skinned cats. One or two butchers who normally buy wild rabbit from rabbit shooters have apparently insisted that the head and paws are left on the carcass so that it can be proven to be rabbit (this information was provided by a rabbit shooter in my own area in 1993).

Pedigree cats may be stolen to order, much as high performance cars are stolen to order. Microchipping goes some way to prevent this, but there will always be a few unscrupulous professionals who will remove the chip. The buyers are people who are unwilling to buy from a breeder. In 2000, a pedigree Turkish Angora stud cat was stolen in the UK, presumably to order since it was one of very few Turkish Angora studs in Europe.

There have also been instances of mass cat poisonings in parts of Britain, some of which have continued over several years and taken the lives of scores, if not hundreds, of pet cats. I was also aware of a cat-hating individual in south Essex who routinely caught and dumped his neighbours' cats in the countryside because the cats were "winding up his birds". The discredited Mammal Society Survey (2001) with its inflated statistics of feline predation increased antipathy, and possibly violence, towards cats (see Domestic Cats - Wildlife Enemy Number One or Convenient Scapegoats?). However, the most likely fate of vanished cats is widely believed to be the fur trade (The Cat Fur Trade). Tales of cats being stolen by ethnic restaurants or ethnic communities are, with only very few exceptions, urban myths aimed at propagating racism (Urban Myths: Moggy on the Menu ).

In the late 1990s/early 2000s it was reported that pet cats were disappearing around Perth, Western Australia. It was believed that these were being taken for their fur. John Wamsley of Earth Sanctuaries, a noted cat-hater (he accuses those who like cats of being peculiar and wildlife haters), was reportedly paying bounties for cat skins and apparently preferred pet and pedigree cat skins for their colour, quality and texture. According to Australian TV show Burke's Backyard,"The sanctuary sells cat skin rugs and cat skin hats. They are in need of cat skin suppliers and will pay $20 each for properly tanned cat skins." Such a statement immediately encourages cat theft and endangers pets.

While the trade in cat fur is perfectly legal in a number of countries, the danger is that some of those cats were stray pets or were stolen specifically for their fur. As well as being used for garments or trinkets, cat pelts are believed to be efficacious against rheumatism and joint pain ("Medicat") and are also used in some regions for traditional musical instruments.

The Cat Fur Trade in Britain

In March 1995, cat owners in Clevedon, Somerset, England were advised to keep their pets indoors following a spate of disappearances. Nearly 100 presumed thefts of cats had been reported during the previous twelve months. Nearly all those reported missing were black. In March, 10 cats disappeared in a single day. One suggested explanation was that the cats were being used in witchcraft rituals but, according to various animal charities, this "vanishing by colours" made it far more likely that they had been stolen for their pelts, which could be sold abroad.

A cat fur trade apparently exists in Britain and supplies foreign markets, especially Germany where cat fur is used for garments. Visitors to Germany have sometimes seen cat pelts for sale from filling station forecourts. The cat fur trade in Europe is on the increase following a ban on pet fur trading in the USA. While many of the pelts come from factory farms in the Far East, it is possible that stolen pets and rounded up strays are used to meet a growing demand for pet fur (The Cat Fur Trade).

Solid colours (black, grey, white) of cat fur are indistinguishable from rabbit fur. Tabby and tortie are considered especially attractive. In 1984, I saw a person in Chelmsford, England wearing a 3/4 length coat of tabby cat fur - the pattern of a domestic classic tabby cat is unmistakable.

The British Fur Trade Association have denied using cat skins. Following a National Petwatch survey in 1985 they then insisted that they only obtain cat skins from legal sources. Conscientious vets and most local cleansing departments arrange for the bodies of dead cats to be incinerated as 'medical waste'. However it is legal for them to sell dead cats to skin merchants, this is more profitable than incineration. People may also breed cats in the home and supply them to furriers (legal, but rarely declared on tax returns) or less scrupulous animal shelters may dispose of euthanized cats to the fur trade as a way of recouping costs. In the 1980s, a British tabloid newspaper carried a story about veterinarians in the UK who passed animals presented for euthanasia to laboratories. This is mercifully rare.

The number of legally obtained pelts is not usually enough to supply overseas markets. Petwatch's research showed that foreign dealers were willing to buy pelts and/or carcasses in tens of thousands (often in bales on a weight basis) on a 'no questions asked' basis. So where do the rest of the pelts come from? Stolen cats probably make up the shortfall if no questions are asked.

According to the researchers, cat skins may be processed by London furriers or the carcasses may be sold directly to foreign buyers. Manufacturers abroad admit that the best suppliers of cat pelts are Scandinavia, Australia (as part of feral cat extermination programs) and Britain. The Fur Trade Association once offered a 3000 reward to anyone who can prove a connection between vanishing cats and the fur trade. It's impossible to prove that a prepared skin used to be your cat since much identifying material will have been removed, including microchips (under skin) and tattoos (on ears). It's like trying to work out whether traded ivory comes from recent poaching or old stockpiles. You need to catch the thieves in action.

By the 21st Century, DNA profiling can be used to identify whether fur is from the species named on the label or is falsely labelled cat or dog fur. This makes it harder to pass off cat fur as being rabbit. It might, one day, prove that a distinctive pelt in a bale is Mr X's stolen Bengal - finally linking the fur trade with stolen/missing cats.

Petwatch stated that documentation at fur auctions testifies to the increasing use of both cat and dog in fashion garments; they are cheap and they are used in place of endangered species covered by CITES restrictions. Patterned cat fur (tabby or spotted) can be used to replace ocelot, leopard etc. Restrictions on seal culling have led to an increased use of cat fur in the manufacture of cuddly toys and ornaments. A German company selling 'Medicat' cat furs claims that the fur prevents arthritis, rheumatism and slipped disks (spinal problems). This is superstition (or the placebo effect); cat fur is no more therapeutic than other furs of similar density or even artifically fur with similar weight and thermal properties.

From time to time, quantities of skinned cat bodies or heads and paws have been discovered. The fact that the carcass is discarded gives a very convincing picture of what is going on (a legally operating taxidermist would keep the paws and facial fur). Yet in 1992, a spokesman for the Fur Education Council said that there had never been any evidence to suggest that animals were being taken for their fur. There is evidence that it occurs, but there is no evidence to link the Fur Trade Association to criminal activities. The pelts can simply be mixed in with legally obtained pelts and any accompanying documents can be falsified so that pelts from stolen cats are 'laundered' like money.

Cat Disappearances Not Taken Seriously

As a cat owner and cat rescue worker, I have found that the problem of missing or stolen cats is not taken seriously in Britain. Since 1983, a charity called Petwatch mounted intensive investigations into the problem of vanishing cats. They found that the patterns of disappearances were strongly indicative of organised cat theft. Certain breeds or colours of cats vanish in considerable numbers from small areas in a short time frame. The numbers are such that coincidence can be discounted.

Tabby cats and black cats are most common in the pet population and therefore will be most common when figures of missing cats are studied. They proportion of lost tabby or black cats should be roughly the same as the proportion of tabby or black cats in the pet population. When a disproportionate number of a particular colour of cat vanishes, it is not simply a case of cats wandering or being run over.

When a large number of cats vanish from a relatively small area in a relatively short time, but neighbouring areas suffer no such losses then it is highly likely that the cats are being taken. In Luton, England, 7 cats vanished from a single street in one afternoon while 21 cats vanished from a nearby village and 200 cats vanished over a 3 month period. Theft black spots were areas well lit at night (where road traffic accidents can be discounted).

Despite the evidence, owners who contacted one major humane society were told (unhelpfully and callously) that cats often stray. This was hurtful to those whose cats were known to stay close to home. Most of the vanished cats were neutered, making them less likely to stray. Many were microchipped or had ID tags, but did not turn up as strays at rescue shelters or as road casualties (injured or deceased). In one area of Chelmsford, a number of cats were found killed and dumped outside houses (the incident has not been repeated) and elsewhere in Britain, lost cats were found decapitated. One individual carried out a campaign of mass poisoning using cyanide and canned fish and in Essex a policeman mentioned finding skinned cat bodies in a dustbin bag. People have been seen enticing cats into vehicles; in Chelmsford, there were once several reports of youngsters collecting cats and taking them to a white van. Although often dismissed as an urban myth, this was taken seriously enough for warning notices to be placed at vets and in pet shops (this was the same year that my friend's cat was seen escaping from the front window of a moving van)./P>

It's Up to Owners to Act

If humane society inspectors themselves cannot find evidence of theft than they will deny that theft or malice is involved in spite of the numbers game. All the tabby cats vanishing from a single street in 48 hours is not considered proof that cat thieves exist. It is thererfore up to cat owners to gather evidence. A mass cat-poisoner was uncovered by a diligent cat-owner and was successfully prosecuted when evidence was found in his home. Videos and photographs provide the best evidence. Tackling a thief in person may prove dangerous and he (or she) may claim that you subjected them to an unprovoked attack. Web-cams provide surveillance equipment, but you may require clearance from the police or the local authorities (unless they are used solely for surveillance of privately owned land) and have genuine cause for concern.