That darn cat!
Some cat wanderers wind up in the most surprising places – what can you do to protect your adventurous feline?
If your cat is a homebody, then you don’t have the worry of wondering where they’ve wandered off to and what they’re getting up to. However, if your feline friend enjoys regular walkabouts, you’ve no doubt spent many anxious moments waiting for their safe return.
But why, with a comfortable home and food on tap, do our beloved pet cats want to seek out new adventures and boldly go where they’ve never been before?
Roaming comes naturally to curious cats
Whether we humans like it or not, feline experts agree that roaming is a completely natural cat behaviour. Nicky Trevorrow, Behaviour Manager at Cats Protection, says: “Roaming is a completely normal behaviour because, quite simply, cats are curious! They love to keep themselves up to date with their environment and are always on the lookout for anything new. That way, they can make predictions about their safety and territory, and know where to hide if threatened by another cat.”
There’s even legislation that allows intrepid cat wanderers to ramble about pretty much wherever they want to. The RSPCA states: “Cats are protected by law and are free to roam meaning they might go into other people's gardens or allotments.”
From supermarket stalkers and hospital visitors to notorious cat burglars
While popping next door to visit your neighbour’s pad is one thing, some felines have taken a liking to all manner of unusual locations where they choose to spend their time.
Lupin, for example, a black cat from Haverhill in Surrey, is popular with visitors at the local branch of Aldi, where he’s been spotted in the bread aisle and nosing around the cat food display. His owner said he was adopted after being found as a stray and had been microchipped, but he just liked to wander.
Fluffy ginger cat Henry is a regular visitor to Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, despite having a loving home nearby. One parent, whose 14-year-old son had been treated for leukaemia for several years, said: "Henry really does bring joy to patients and staff alike. You know it's going to be a good day when you get to see Henry." Bosses have acknowledged he has “found a place in the hearts of many of our staff and patients.” The hospital's recruitment administrator, Thalia Barnes, adds: "He has been a great sense of therapy and companionship to all those who are graced by his presence.”
Then there’s Theo, a notorious cat-burglar from Ipswich, who terrorises his local neighbourhood by breaking into people’s homes through open windows or cat flaps, bringing home any treasures he can find, from soft toys to cash and Christmas decorations. His embarrassed owner, Rachel Drouet, says: "He likes to visit my neighbour and steal his cats' Kevin the Carrot soft toys. We've talked to Theo about his thieving, but I don't think even he knows why he does it.” Cat expert Roger Tabor, from Brightlingsea in Essex, says “Cat burglars like Theo are rare. With cats like this, the normal developmental pattern in the very early weeks didn't happen and while he wants to hunt and retrieve things, he's become fixated on toys which he thinks of as prey. From the cat's point of view, he's not a thief, he's just behaving normally.”
From stealthy stowaways to the mystery of the disappearing cat
Some cat’s misadventures have seen them ending up several miles from home. Tia sneaked inside her neighbour Doug Craig's van as he was loading it to fix a broadband connection at Coll's fire station, which resulted in a three-hour ferry crossing to Arinagour in the Inner Hebrides. The 31-year-old noticed hairs all over his tool bag and said he got the fright of his life when he saw two eyes shining out from the back of his van: “I thought 'Oh no, I've cat-napped my neighbours' pet'! I've heard of other curious cats climbing into colleagues' vans on occasion – but I've never heard of one that went to sea on a 100-mile round trip.” The stowaway was happily reunited with owners Elyse and Martin Hamilton the following day.
Loki the kitten disappeared from Filey and was not seen again until being found 85 miles away in Bradford a week later. RSPCA inspectors were unsure how she made the journey but think she may have snuck into a car or escaped after being snatched. After walking into a house in Bradford, the RSPCA helped trace Loki's owner, Claire Harrison, through Loki’s microchip. Loki’s owners have now bought a collar that allows them to track her location. An RSPCA spokesman said the incident highlights the importance of microchipping pets and keeping the details on the database up to date.
Encouraging your cat to stay closer to home
If you’re happy to let your cat enjoy their daily jaunts but would prefer that they didn’t stray too far, there are number of things you can do. Nicky Trevorrow adds: “Some cats may never leave their own garden, while others travel far and wide. But the average roaming distance is actually pretty small — at just 40 to 200 metres from home.”
She points to the fact that hormones can be a factor in long-distance cat travellers, especially in cats that haven’t been spayed or neutered. “Male cats will often roam far from home when looking for a mate. Some cats have a strong hunting instinct, which means they’ll be keen to find and catch prey, even if they have a bowl of food at home.”
Along with neutering, Nicky Trevorrow also recommends making sure your cat is microchipped – the government is set to introduce compulsory cat microchipping to help reunite lost and stray pets – and is wearing a quick-release collar (these automatically snap open if caught on something) with an ID tag: “Putting your name, address and phone number on the tag will help reunite you and your cat if they do get lost far from home. Collars in bright or reflective colours can help keep your cat safer at night-time. Some collars say: ‘Don’t feed me’, which can also help to keep cats closer to home.”
You could, like Loki’s owners, decide to add a GPS tracker to your cat’s collar so you know exactly where they are even when they’re away from home.
Nicky Trevorrow also emphasises the importance of making sure your cat's vaccinations are always up to date to protect them from contagious diseases they could be exposed to from other cats.
Training your cat to come home
According to feline experts, you can also train your cat to come home. Nicky Trevorrow says: “Cats might be independent, but they’re also intelligent and generally they know where ‘home’ is. If you’re worried, however, there are a few different things you can do to encourage them to spend more time at home. Training your cat to return home when called means you can allow them out to explore with confidence.”
She suggests either calling their name or using a sound they’ll learn to recognise. This could be shaking a packet of treats or tapping a spoon on their bowl containing their favourite cat food. Start calling your cat when they’re close by and when they return, offer them a treat. Gradually increase the distance before you call them back.
Nicky Trevorrow also suggests considering whether your cat’s home environment is interesting and stimulating: “If not, add some entertainment that might encourage them to spend more time at home. Rotate the types of toys on offer and try using a feeding ball or puzzle feeder to appeal to your cat’s hunting instincts.”
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