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Understanding Why Cats Run Away: Expert Insights from a n Animal Behaviourist

What are the most common reasons why cats run away from home?

How does a changing environment or household impact a cat’s behaviour and tendency to escape?

Can health issues or stress cause a cat to run away? What signs should owners look for that indicate their cat might be stressed or unhappy?

Does breed-specific behaviour play a role in a cat’s tendency to escape, or is it more about individual temperament?

How can the relationship between a cat and its owner influence the cat’s likelihood to run away, and what steps can owners take to strengthen this bond?

What are the best practices for preventing a cat from running away, and how effective are microchips and collars in recovering lost cats?

What immediate steps should an owner take if their cat runs away, and are there specific strategies or resources that can help in finding a lost cat?

Can training help reduce a cat’s desire to run away? What methods or behaviour modification techniques are most effective in addressing this issue?

Any additional tips for pet owners?

Cats are mysterious creatures, often leaving their owners puzzled by their behaviour. One of the most distressing situations for a cat owner is when their feline friend runs away. We interviewed Jessica Prinsloo, an animal behaviourist from Beyond Behaviour, to shed light on this issue. In this interview, Jessica answers key questions about why cats run away and provides valuable advice on preventing and handling such situations.

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What are the most common reasons why cats run away from home?

Cats are highly attuned to their environments. Despite being skilled predators,  they are also a prey species. This means that they are naturally vigilant against potential threats like birds of prey or other predators. This sensitivity makes them easily startled by sudden noises, new smells, or changes in their environment. For instance, loud noises from activities such as clanging pots and pans in the kitchen, the lawnmower, or household repairs can frighten them.

Another common scenario is when a cat is relocated to a new environment without sufficient acclimatization. Cats need time to adjust to new spaces and establish their scent as a marker of familiarity. If they are let outdoors too soon in an unfamiliar place, they may become disoriented and attempt to run away to find their way back from the unfamiliar space.

Owners should also look for changes in the behaviour as a reliable sign that the cat is feeling unwell, as cats tend to hide pain and sickness really well.

How does a changing environment or household impact a cat’s behaviour and tendency to escape?

Cats are sensitive to changes in their environment, which can heighten their risk of attempting to escape. It’s important not to keep their environment completely static, as cats also need to learn to adapt to new situations. The key is to introduce changes gradually, depending on the sensitivity of the individual cat. For example, breeds like Ragdolls tend to be more adaptable and relaxed, while cats with a more feral background might be more sensitive to noise or unfamiliar smells.

When preparing for a major change like moving to a new home, it’s beneficial to introduce new elements slowly and with positive associations. For instance, start packing boxes well in advance so that the cat becomes accustomed to new smells and changes in the environment. Moving furniture around periodically can also help them adjust without feeling overwhelmed.

If moving day itself is too hectic, confining the cat to a quiet room with familiar items can reduce stress. Similarly, when moving into a new house, initially confining the cat to a single room can help them acclimate gradually to the unfamiliar surroundings.

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Cat sitting on the street. Why cats run away, behaviour expert interview.

Can health issues or stress cause a cat to run away? What signs should owners look for that indicate their cat might be stressed or unhappy?

Yes, health issues or stress can cause a cat to run away, especially if they experience sudden pain. For instance, stepping on a thorn might frighten them and cause them to bolt. However, most ailments make cats want to hide rather than run far. They often find small, dark, safe spots near home, such as a neighbour’s garage or under a car.

Common signs that a cat is stressed or unhappy include hiding in secluded areas, reduced appetite, over-grooming or excessive licking, and changes in behaviour such as increased aggression or lethargy. If your cat goes missing, start by searching nearby hiding spots where they might feel safe. Look under cars, in garages, and other small, dark places.

Does breed-specific behaviour play a role in a cat’s tendency to escape, or is it more about individual temperament?

It’s largely about individual temperament rather than specific breed characteristics. Unlike dogs, where breed behaviours are more distinct due to extensive domestication, cats are only partially domesticated. While there are differences in temperament between breeds—such as Ragdolls being laid-back and Bengals being highly energetic and prone to exploring—each cat’s response to change and propensity to escape is highly individual. Bengals, for example, retain strong hunting instincts and may be more likely to attempt an escape if given the opportunity to explore outside.

How can the relationship between a cat and its owner influence the cat’s likelihood to run away, and what steps can owners take to strengthen this bond?

The relationship between a cat and its owner plays a significant role in the cat’s tendency to run away. Building a strong bond with your cat begins with respecting their personal space and boundaries. Cats prefer to initiate interactions on their terms. Always invite them into your space gently for affection or cuddles, and observe their response. If they lean in and engage positively, continue; if they withdraw, respect their choice. This teaches them that you respect their space, which creates trust and encourages them to seek out interactions with you more willingly.

Avoiding rough play is crucial as well. While it might seem playful to humans, cats often don’t enjoy rough handling. Instead, focus on gentle interactions that they find comfortable and enjoyable.

Ensuring your cat has sufficient resources is essential for their well-being and can enhance their bond with you. The rule of thumb is to provide resources equal to the number of cats plus one. This includes litter boxes, scratching posts, food and water bowls placed separately, and a comfortable place to sleep. These resources not only meet their physical needs but also create a sense of security and stability, which is crucial for a trusting relationship between you and your cat.

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What are the best practices for preventing a cat from running away, and how effective are microchips and collars in recovering lost cats?

Microchips and collars are very effective. A study has shown that 72% of cats still wore collars after six months. Microchips were even more effective in the study, with 99.8% remaining functional after six months. Collars provide visible identification, while microchips offer a reliable backup for reuniting lost cats with their owners. Both methods significantly increase the chances of recovery if a cat goes missing.

Cat walking on the side walk. Why cats run away, behaviour expert interview.

What immediate steps should an owner take if their cat runs away, and are there specific strategies or resources that can help in finding a lost cat?

If your cat goes missing, immediate action is crucial. Start by sharing a recent photo of your cat with neighbours and on local community platforms, urging them to check their properties, including garages and cars. Creating a familiar spot outside your home with a blanket that smells like your cat, food, and water can attract them back. Utilize social media to spread the word widely, as networking within your community enhances the chances of locating your cat. Persistence is key—continue searching thoroughly, both nearby and within your own.

You should also visit local shelters (such as the SPCA) in person to see if your cat may have landed up there. Shelters are so busy that they may not be able to recognize your cat from a description alone, so it’s best to go in and see if they are there with your own eyes.

Can training help reduce a cat’s desire to run away? What methods or behaviour modification techniques are most effective in addressing this issue?

Training can indeed help reduce a cat’s inclination to run away while fostering a stronger bond between cat and owner. Cats, being independent by nature, choose to stay based on the quality of their relationship with humans. Training with positive reinforcement methods not only enriches their environment but also gives them mental stimulation and enjoyment in spending time with you.

One effective technique is teaching a recall command using a loud, distinctive sound paired with a high-value treat consistently at the same time each day. This conditions the cat to associate the sound with a rewarding treat, encouraging them to come when called. This can be particularly useful in safely managing their outdoor access by ensuring they return home promptly, especially at night.

Beyond recall training, teaching cats tricks like high-fives or rolling over can also be engaging and mentally stimulating. These activities not only entertain the cat but also deepen the bond with their owner. Resources like YouTube tutorials can assist in learning how to train these behaviours effectively, making the process enjoyable for both cat and owner alike.

Cat looking away on the street. Why cats run away, behaviour expert interview.

Any additional tips for pet owners?

One crucial tip for pet owners is understanding that cats are highly sensitive to their personal space and social dynamics. When managing multiple cats in a household, it’s essential to observe their behaviours closely. Look for signs of true companionship such as sleeping close together or grooming each other, rather than mere tolerance of each other’s presence. Cats that coexist peacefully will actively engage with each other in positive ways.

Moreover, it’s important to recognize early signs of potential aggression, which often begin with subtle behaviours like staring or blocking access to resources. Addressing these behaviours early can prevent escalations that might lead to fights or even cats running away to avoid conflict. Providing ample resources such as multiple litter boxes, food and water stations, and vertical spaces can help minimize tension.

Additionally, for cats experiencing stress or anxiety, consider using pheromone diffusers or herbal blends designed to reduce feline stress levels. These products can create a calmer environment and help maintain harmony among cats sharing the same space.

By being attentive to these details and fostering a positive environment, you can enhance the well-being of your cats and strengthen their bond with each other and with you as their owner.

Jessica’s insights into why cats run away offer valuable strategies for prevention and recovery. By understanding cats’ sensitivity to their environment and nurturing a strong bond through gentle interactions and adequate resources, owners can reduce the likelihood of escape and strengthen their relationship. Practical measures like microchipping and immediate action upon a cat’s disappearance further enhance the chances of reunion. These efforts not only keep cats safe but also enrich their well-being within the home.


Jessical Prinsloo

About Jessica Prinsloo

Animal Behaviourist

Jessica is a COAPE International Companion Animal Behaviourist (CCAB, CAPBT, ICAN). She is the owner of Beyond Behaviour and is passionate about animal welfare and specialises in cat behaviour modification. Jessica is also a Certified Parent Educator and is currently completing her psychology degree through SACAP. She hopes to combine her knowledge of animal and human psychology to support families to get the most out of their relationships.

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