The "House Trap" and "Simply Sitting"

  • At least 30% of lost indoor cats are found when they return home on their own.
  • Most cats return home between 12am - 4am, but some are active as soon as it gets dark.
  • Most cats return home on the 4th - 7th night after they get outside, but some return as early as the first night or as late as 8-10 days later.  A few will return weeks to months later.
  • Most cats do NOT meow at the door or wait to be found.  So if you don't take the right steps, you may never know that your cat came home.

A lot of pet detectives don’t like to suggest “waiting for your cat to come home” because it is a passive activity.  Indeed, if all you do is put out some food or litter and wait for your cat to show up at the door, you probably won’t find your cat.  However, I like to focus on proactive "waiting.” It may sound like an oxymoron, but what I mean is engaging in activities that encourage your cat to come home AND that help prepare you catch your cat. 

Many indoor-only cats will return to their yard, but most do so in the middle of the night and many don’t even try meowing at the door.  So, if you don’t do things right, you’ll never even know that your cat was there. 

If your cat was lost from a location away from home such as a friend’s house or while traveling, your cat may still return to the point of escape.  Cats have even been known to return to the vet’s office or near the point of escape from a vehicle.  This is less common but still happens. 

On the other hand, an indoor-only cat is highly unlikely to return to your home if they are lost from a location away from home.  This is referred to as "homing behavior" and occurs when a cat somehow (perhaps using the geomagnetic field) travels from an unfamiliar location back to a familiar location.  Homing is very uncommon with cats that lived indoors their entire life.  If your cat has previous outdoor experience, you may want to review this article for the latest research on cat homing behavior to see if it is likely in your situation. 

When are Cats Most Likely to Return Home?

Most indoor-only cats return home at night.  Between 12am – 4am is the most common time, but some are active as soon as it gets dark.  Some cats will attempt to return home within the first few nights, but the majority return home between the 4th to the 7th night after they got outside. Others may not try to return for 8-10 days, and a few may return weeks or even months after they went missing

Leave a Way for Your Cat to Return Home

  • Leaving a way for your cat to get back into the house is one of the fastest and most effective ways to find a lost indoor cat.
  • Only do this IF it is safe to do so for yourself, family and other pets.
  • Consider creating a "House Trap" or your cat may not stay in the house after they return.

Leave a Door Open Directly into the House

Not everyone can do this, but if done correctly this is one of the most effective and quickest ways to get your cat home.  This method is best for a cat that escaped out an open door and you can leave that door open.  Only do this IF it is safe to do so for yourself, family and other pets. 

  • If possible, leave a door open leading directly into your home rather than just into a porch or garage.  
  • Make sure that the door is open enough, so your cat can easily enter.  Usually one foot is sufficient.  
  • Turn off all outdoor lights and most indoor lights.  Lost cats are more comfortable traveling in darkness.    

Optionally, place some food inside the house at least 10 feet from the door.  This carries the risk of attracting other cats or wildlife (most likely raccoons, skunks or opossums) into your home.  Most cats have a strong motivation to get back inside regardless of the presence of food.  Putting out food becomes more important if your cat has been missing more than 3 days and are more food motivated.    

Only do this if it is safe to do so and you can securely lock up any other pets in another room.  Depending on your location and level of comfort, you may want to either sleep or sit watch in a nearby room.  This way you can scare out any unwanted visitors such as other cats or raccoons that might come inside, and you can close the door after your cat comes inside.  

If the door is just left open, some lost cats will come inside, eat, and then leave again.  I know it makes no sense, but I have seen it happen.  The good news is that they usually come back and do it again.  If you do stay awake, be quiet and don’t be too close to the open door.  Some cats may be scared from coming inside by your presence. 

If you can’t leave your door open all night, consider leaving it open for a few hours.  The best time is between 12am and 4am.  And the majority of escaped indoor cats return home on nights 4-7.  Some cats do return as early as the first night while others may take 7-10 days before they attempt to come home. 

If your cat comes inside, be aware that they may still be very fearful and one wrong move could cause them to run back out the door.  See the page on If You See Your Cat for instructions on how to catch a cat by hand.  Alternatively, create a "House Trap" so your cat can't run back outside (see below for instructions).

If your cat runs back outside, do NOT go looking for your cat.  Wait at least an hour to see if they come back in.  Then just check nearby hiding spots and stay out of the woods so you don’t scare then farther away.

Leave a Window Open

If you can’t leave a door open, some people leave a window open.  I even know of one cat that came back in a window using a fire escape (this was also the likely point of escape).  Place a folding table, cat tree or other furniture outside of the window to make it easier for your cat to enter.

Create a "House Trap"

If you just leave a door or window open, some lost cats will come into the house and then leave again.  While some cats settle down quickly once indoors, others remain extremely skittish and one wrong move can send them running back outside.  To avoid this problem consider putting a humane cat trap in the house and/or create a "House Trap."

To create a “House Trap” you need to devise a method to shut the door or window after your cat comes inside.  A rope tied to the door handle, so you can quickly pull the door closed, often works well.  Since most doors open inwards, you may need to run the rope outside and then back in through a window.  If you do this, make sure that you can close the door quickly and that your cat is far enough inside the house before you try to close the door.  You don’t want to risk them getting scared and running back outside or worse getting hit by the door and then escaping.  A bowl of food placed at least 10 feet inside can help lure your cat away from the open door. 

If you can't figure out a way to close the outside door, consider putting food inside a nearby room.  Then pull this door closed with a rope once your cat enters and is eating.

You can also create a “house trap” in the garage or an enclosed porch.  However, I do not recommend using the garage door.  Use a side-entrance instead.  Garage doors make a lot of noise and move too slowly.  Most cats will get scared away and run back out the door before it closes.  If using a porch, make sure that any windows are closed and/or screens are secure.  Cats have been known to push out or break through screens when in a panic.

Monitoring the Door or Window

You can either watch for your cat to enter remotely or in-person.  If doing so in-person, then set up a sleeping spot where you can keep an eye on the entrance but not be too close.  Your presence may scare your cat if you are right inside the entrance and making any noise or movement.  See the page on If You See Your Cat for more information on how not to scare your cat away.  

Note: not all cats are scared once they get back inside.  One cat owner fell asleep while monitoring the open door and woke up to her cat walking on top of her.  

If possible, find a way to monitor and/or alarm the open door or window.  The best option is some sort of surveillance camera that will alert you when an animal enters the house.  Some options include security cameras, wifi cameras, cellular wildlife cameras or driveway alarms (see Surveillance for more information).  If using any alert system that makes noise, make sure that you are far enough away from the door that this won't scare your cat.  

Even an audio baby monitor can be helpful.  Just place the monitor near some dry food, and you should be able to hear if an animal is eating the food.   

If You Can't Leave a Door or Window Open

  • Try sleeping near a door or window that is open, but still has the screen in place.  You may hear your cat meowing outside.
  • Put a surveillance camera or motion alarm near the point of escape, so you can see or hear if your cat tries to come inside.  Some cats have even been found by meowing on a baby monitor outside the door.
  • Leave a door open into a porch, garage or basement, preferably one with lots of hiding places where your cat can feel safe.
  • Put a humane cat trap near the point of escape and/or in a porch or garage.  

Create a Safe Place or "Comfort Zone" for Your Cat to Return

You can help create a safe place or “comfort zone” for your cat by leaving open a door to the basement, garage, porch or a shed.  Turn off all outdoor and indoor lights because escaped indoor cats prefer to move around in the dark.  Place a box or crate with a blanket or towel, some food and maybe a clean litter box. 

Make sure that there are other secure hiding places inside and not just an open box or crate.  Cats prefer to hide under or behind items where they cannot be easily seen.  If you try this method, be aware that your cat is unlikely to return and just hang out.  They will either eat and leave or just hide.  This method is more effective, if you add a baited humane trap to the location and/or some sort of surveillance. 

If you leave a garage, shed or basement open, you should thoroughly search them at least once each day.  Some cats will return to these spots during the night and then hide.  If your car is in the garage, check your car engine in the morning to make sure that your cat has not hidden there.  

If you shut the door of a shed or basement, be sure to thoroughly search them first.  You don’t want to accidentally lock your hiding cat inside.  To be safe, I would also recommend leaving out some food and checking it periodically for at least one week. 

Try "Simply Sitting"

Most people spend far too much time frantically searching and not enough time just sitting and listening in their yard.  I have had a handful of cases where I was helping set up cameras and/or traps and the lost cat just appeared and starting meowing.  This has happened anywhere from 3 days to two weeks after the cat went missing.    

“Simply Sitting” is a technique where you sit calmly in an area where your cat has been seen or near the point last seen with the goal of luring them out of hiding.  This may be more effective then actively searching because most cats will not respond to their owner if they are walking around.  Try just sitting with occasional talking or even singing.  Read a book out loud or talk on the phone, but make sure to spend some time listening as well.  This method is most effective if done at a quiet time of the day or night.  

Some people also suggest playing with your cat’s favorite toy while sitting.  In most situations, your cat will probably be too scared or stressed to engage in play.  However, if you are missing a very bold, adventurous cat, this might be worth trying, especially if you see them.