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Lost Pet Behavior: Lost Dogs vs Lost Cats

Much of the research we encountered in the creation of this article comes from the Missing Animal Response Network. Check them out!

Losing a pet is upsetting enough! Now you have to be an expert in animal behavior to get them back?

Not on our watch. We’ve reviewed all the info we could get our paws on about lost pet behavior, so you can learn what you need to know without a degree in Pet Psychology.

How Lost Dogs Behave

animal-blur-canine-551628If dogs’ noses are as amazing as science says, why do they get lost at all? It may surprise you, but a dog’s ability to smell can decrease significantly if they’re scared. This is something that happens to humans as well: When we’re in crisis, our hearing and vision can become impaired by as much as 33%. It’s the result of ancient, fight-or-flight survival urges, and while it’s understandable, it can be a real headache when all you want is to find your pooch.

If your dog is the social butterfly type, there’s another obstacle to her finding her way home: well-meaning strangers. Friendly dogs are prone to “self-adoption,” meaning they wiggle up to whoever and get picked up. This may mean that rather than looking for a lost dog, you’re looking for the person who’s found her.

There’s good news! Once a dog has calmed down, they can be quite adept at finding their way back to you via scent trails. Research indicates that dogs can even track overlapping familiar scents in a sort of mesh network of smells. Huh! Sounds like a certain pet tracker we’ve heard of …

How Lost Cats Behave


Cats are prey animals, which means that when they feel threatened, they find a nice safe place to hide until things blow over. The good news is that in all likelihood, a lost cat is very close to home. An indoor cat is likely just a house or two away, while an outdoor cat or indoor-outdoor cat is often found just slightly beyond his normal territory.

He could be under your porch, in a neighbor’s tree, or secreted in an attic corner.

The bad news is that despite how close he may be, a terrified cat will hide in silence, and is unlikely to respond to even your voice or food until he feels confident. And that could take awhile: cats can stay holed up for as long as three weeks.

If your furball is a dedicated hider, you’ll need to be patient and not give up! You may eventually need to lure him out with a humane trap.

Factors That Influence Lost Pet Behavior

Since every pet is unique, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to lost pet behavior. Here are a few factors that may influence how your own pet could behave while lost.

  • Age/disability. If your pet is elderly or has mobility issues, the distance they can travel is limited. Focus on hidey-holes and secluded spots near the area where they were last seen.
  • Personality. Arguably, personality makes the single biggest difference when it comes to a lost pet’s behavior. Friendly pets may bound into the arms of whoever’s nearby. Meanwhile, skittish pets might exhibit behaviors that well-meaning rescuers interpret as signs of “abuse,” making them less likely to look for the pet’s owners or turn them in to a shelter.
  • Indoor vs. outdoor pet. This is especially true for cats. A study conducted by the University of Queensland found that although most lost cats tend to stay close to their point of escape, those with outdoor access often traveled up to a mile further than their indoor-only counterparts.


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