How to Effectively Check Sightings for Your Lost Cat

Relatively few lost cats are picked up, so most calls are for potential sightings.  In other words, someone thinks that they might have seen your cat.  Depending on where you live and what your cat looks like, you may get a lot of false sightings.

Learning how to check sightings effectively can help prevent:

  • Spending a lot of time and energy chasing after the wrong cat.
  • Missing out on a sighting that REALLY IS your cat.
  • Giving up too soon because you burn out or can't handle the emotional roller coaster of false sightings.  

Types of Calls to Expect

Most calls will probably be potential sightings, but you should also expect to receive calls from well wishers and people giving unsolicited advice. 

If you post to social media, you will get A LOT more well wishers and people offering advice.  You are also likely to receive some scam calls or texts.

Potential sightings

Someone saw a cat (or at least an animal) that they think might be your cat.  Be aware that many people are not "cat people" and they may not be observant when it comes to telling cats apart. Some calls may even end up being animals other than a cat like a skunk or baby deer (yes, I got that call).  

I have your cat

This doesn't happen often, but occasionally someone will call telling you they have your cat. Unless your cat has some distinct markings and/or a collar or microchip, this may or may not actually be your cat.  Request photos of the found cat.

There is also some chance that this is a scam.  Don't go to anyone's house alone and preferably meet in a public place with the cat in a carrier or cage.  

Well wishers and advisors 

Some people may call to just tell you that they're sorry that your cat is missing and that they'll keep an eye out.  

Other people may give you unsolicited advice.  Most commonly they will tell you to put your cat's litter box outside.  Or they may give you unhelpful advice such as "you know there are coyotes around here."  

Scammers and prank calls

Sadly these do happen.  If someone says that they have your cat, they should be able to send you photos.  Don't give out any personal information such as your address.  

One popular scam asks you to read a code sent to your phone.  This usually has to do with 2-step verification for an account, so don't give out the code.

If you are offering a reward, never pay before getting your cat back.  Be sure to meet the person in a public place and don't go alone.  

What to do When You Receive a Call or Potential Sighting

If they are seeing the cat now?

If they are looking at the cat now, try to convince them to stay there and keep them in sight but not to approach them.  If they are reluctant to do so, first try an emotional appeal – tell them how much your cat means to you or how long you have been looking.  If they are still hesitant, you might consider bribing them to keep the cat in sight until you get there.

If you cannot get there immediately or the person cannot stay, ask if they can send you a photo or (better yet) video of the cat that they are seeing now.  Just tell them not to follow after the cat if they scare it.

Keep a record of sightings

At the very least, keep a record of sighting dates, locations, and phone numbers.  You may also get leads from texts, emails, Facebook or other online sites.  Be sure to keep track of the sighting source in case you need to follow-up with the person for more information.

When someone calls, it can be difficult to remember all the pertinent questions.  Make sure to get the caller's name and number in case you need to get in touch again.  You may also want to print off a list of questions to keep with you as reference.

Try to get as much detail as possible

  1. Ask them to describe what the cat looked like (see below for more details).
  2. Exact location of sighting including nearby landmarks.
  3. When was the sighting?  Try and get both the date and the time.  If they don't know the time, then what time of day or night? 
  4. What was the cat’s physical condition.  Did they appear sick or injured?
  5. How was the cat behaving?  This information can be really important!  If the cat was seen lounging in someone's yard it is more likely an owned cat.  But if the cat was seen darting under a shed or deck or hiding in a garage, this is more characteristic of a lost cat.

How to Determine if the Sighting Might Be Your Lost Cat

Remember that many people WANT the cat they saw to be your missing cat AND you do too.  If you’re not careful, it can be easy to convince yourself and the witness that it is your lost cat even when it’s not that likely.  

Also be aware that some people will call in sightings for animals that don’t look at all like your lost cat.  You can easily rule these out with the right questions.  

For example, if your lost cat is a short-hair black and white cat, your may get calls for:

  • An all black cat
  • A dark gray cat
  • A long-hair black cat
  • A skunk

Don't ask leading questions

Do not provide too much detail about your cat’s appearance, and don’t use leading questions. If you keep asking "yes" questions, the person will probably just keep agreeing with you.  

  • Don’t ask “Did you see a red collar?”  Instead ask “Was the cat you saw wearing a collar?”  If yes, “What color was it?” (But keep in mind, cats often lose their collars.)
  • Don’t ask “Did the cat have short black fur with a white chest?”  Instead ask “Did the cat have short fur or long fur?  How would you describe the color and markings?”
  • You can even try adding a false leading question.  Ask “Did the cat have a white tail tip?” when your cat does not.  Just explain afterwards that you have been getting a lot of false calls about a similar looking cat with that characteristic.

It's easy to forget what questions to ask in the excitement of receiving a call.  Consider keeping a list of questions to ask.

Don't share too much information

If possible, withhold at least one identifying characteristic of your cat’s appearance.  This can help you rule out any potential scammers that claim to actually have your lost cat.  This can often be a physical feature that is only visible if they actually had your lost cat in-hand.  

Use a photo line-up

A photo line-up can be a helpful tool for confirming sightings.  This is similar to the line-ups used in law enforcement.  You want to provide a series of photos that look similar to your lost cat and see if the caller can pick out the right photo.

Photo line up of cats

To create a photo line-up, copy a series of pictures including your cat and other cats that look somewhat similar  You can get these other pictures off the internet or from false sightings that you have received.  See if the caller can correctly pick your cat out of the line-up.  

  • Don’t use the same picture of your cat that is on the posters or flyers.  
  • Pick some photos of cats with similar markings but different hair length.
  • Pick other photos of cats with different colors or markings.
  • Add photos of cats from false sightings that you may have already had.

If you cannot meet the caller in person, you could also send a series of photos to them and ask them to pick out the one that they saw.

Share more photos of your cat

Rather than the photo line-up, some people just send the caller additional photos of their cat. This may help them determine if the cat they saw really looked like your cat.  However, you may get more false positives this way, since people often want it to be your cat.  

If you are lucky, the caller may have taken a photo or video of the cat they saw.  If not, ask them to do so if they see the cat again.  Just ask them to not follow the cat if it runs away.

More Tips to Prioritize or Rule Out Sightings

Checking sightings can be emotionally and physically exhausting.  If you are getting multiple potential sightings in different areas and can't easily rule them out, you may want to use some of these methods to prioritize which sightings to check.

If a sighting seems less likely, make sure to still keep a record.  Ask the person to call you if they see the cat again and if possible get a video or photo to send you.  If you run out of new sightings to check, you may want to circle back and take a closer look at some of these less likely sightings.

Was the cat seen in a likely location?

Most escaped indoor cats are found within 1/4 mile of their location lost and rarely more than 1/2 mile away.  But some cats may travel farther including former feral, outdoor-access or stray cats, or some Bengal cats.

Likewise indoor cats are unlikely to cross Interstates or multi-lane highways.  They are also less likely to cross busy streets.  But don't rule these out completely!  Occasionally they do get across and then they are unlikely to make it back across to return home. Most lost cats are unlikely to cross rivers, swamps or bogs.

Was the cat seen in a location where cats are uncommon?  

This might be a lost cat.  For example:

  • In someone's yard in a rural area
  • Loose in a campground
  • Out on a golf course
  • Off in the woods or wilderness not near any homes
  • In an industrial or commercial area (though some of these may have feral cat colonies)

Was the cat behaving like a lost cat?

Most escaped indoor cats are extremely skittish when lost.  Ask the caller to describe the cat's behavior.  If the cat sounds confident and comfortable, it is more likely a resident cat.  For example was the cat lying in someone's yard or sitting on their steps?  However, if your cat is lost for a month or more, they may become more comfortable in their new environment.  

If the cat was seen darting under a shed or deck or hiding in a garage, this is more characteristic of a lost cat.  A cat seen hanging out in a backyard near the woods or dense vegetation might be a lost cat. 

Are they feeding the cat?

If the cat has been hanging around for a while and they are even feeding the cat, this is definitely a sighting to follow up on.  See if they will let you put up a surveillance camera on the food to help determine if it is your cat.  

Going On-Site to Check Potential Sightings

If the sighting sounds like it could be your missing cat, then visit the location as soon as possible.  Your goals for going on-site are to:

  • Search for your cat.  If you are lucky, you will see the cat and determine whether it is your cat.  However, in most cases, there will be no sign of the cat.
  • Find out if anyone else nearby has seen a cat that looks like your cat.
  • Find out if anyone owns a cat that looks like your cat.
  • Get more people looking for your cat so you will hopefully get more sightings.

How to Effectively Check Out Potential Sightings

  1. If possible, meet the caller where they saw the cat.
    • Ask them to show you exactly where they saw the cat.  If the sightings was in their yard, ask permission to make a thorough search of the property.
    • Make sure to leave them with a flyer or ask them to take a photo of one.
    • Ask them to contact you immediately if they have another sighting and preferably not to try and catch your cat themselves.
    • You might ask them to try and get a picture or video of your cat, especially if they can’t get in touch with you.  However, if your cat is extremely skittish, tell them not to attempt to approach them.
  2. Walk around the area looking for any sign of your cat.  Also take note of any other cats or loose dogs that you see.  This is usually a from the street or sidewalk search and not a thorough yard-by-yard search, 
  3. Distribute flyers in the immediate area up to 500 feet (if urban or suburban) to 1/4 mile (if rural).   This works best if you knock on doors and talk to people.
    • Ask them if they have seen a cat that looks like your cat.  
    • Also ask if anyone has a cat that looks like yours.  However, also keep in mind that this does not rule out that your cat may also be in the area.

Supplies for Checking Sightings

Make sure that you are prepared for checking sightings.  You never know when you might see your cat.  Be sure to bring:

  • Posters, flyers, and/or business cards.
  • Treats or good food to entice your cat if you see them.
  • A towel, small blanket or pillow case to safely secure your cat if you are able to pick them up by hand.  
  • A humane cage trap in case you see your cat, but they will not approach you.

Next Steps If You Think It Might Be Your Cat

How quickly you decide to move forward with next steps is up to you.  If you aren't getting many sightings or if your cat has distinctive markings, then you may want to move forward after a single sighting.  However, if you are getting lots of sightings all over the place and/or don't have the energy to follow up on every one.  Then you may want to wait for more sightings in the same area first.  

  1. See if the caller or someone nearby will let you put out a surveillance camera and feeding station.  This is often the most effective way to verify sightings and help catch your cat!  
    • Many people will allow a camera in their yard as long as it's not too intrusive.  Offer to put the camera somewhere that it won't take pictures of them, but is likely to get your cat.  If they are resistant, remind them of the reward if there is one or offer them one if they'll help you catch your cat.
    • If they refuse the camera, then first try asking one of the immediate neighbors.  If no one will let you put out a camera, then see if they will at least let you put out some food AND they will call you again immediately when they see the lost cat again.  However this is not ideal, and you don't want want a bunch of different people just putting out food in the same area.
    • As a last resort, see if there are any nearby areas to put a camera that aren't on private property.  
  2. If you are really confident that the sighting is your missing cat AND there have been multiple sightings in one area, you might also consider putting out a humane trap.  But make sure that you are able to monitor the trap and check it frequently.  See Trapping for more information.
  3. Put up some posters in the area.
  4. Try walking the area at a quiet time.  Be sure to spend some time just standing or sitting and listening.  You might even try Simply Sitting somewhere near the sighting if you can get permission.  (Note: in general these search methods are less effective with skittish indoor cats.)