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Why Cats Run Away: 11 Reasons & How to Deal With It

Quincy Miller

By Quincy Miller

cat is running on green grass

It’s something that pet owners never want to think about, but unfortunately, it happens with disturbing regularity: Their best friend runs away from home.

While any pet can get lost in the Great Outdoors, it’s especially worrisome when cats go missing. Unlike dogs, calling them isn’t likely to bring them back, and they’re vulnerable to predation from all sorts of other animals.

If you’re worried about your feline friend running off, it would be helpful to first understand why they sometimes leave, then you can think about what you can do to bring them back. Here, we look at 11 common reasons that cats run away, so you can hopefully keep yours safe and close at all times.

The 11 Reasons Why Cats Run Away

1. They’re in Heat

Two cats in the grass
Image Credit: christels, Pixabay

Reproductive instincts are powerful, and if you don’t spay your cat, then they’ll be overcome by a powerful urge to roam and find a mate every time their cycle comes along.

It’s not just females that are vulnerable either. If an unaltered male catches a whiff of a female in season, they’ll do just about anything to track them down. Your cat could bolt out the door the second that you open it, chew through screens, or spend hours casing the joint in hopes of finding a weakness in your perimeter.

If those urges carry them far enough away from the neighborhood that they’re familiar with, they could struggle to find their way back home again.

  • How to Deal with It: The obvious answer is to have your cat spayed or neutered as soon as you can. This will remove their urge to leave their home in search of a mate, and it has bonuses as well, such as reduced aggression toward other cats and a longer lifespan. If you’re not willing to have your cat fixed, though, your options are limited to being extremely vigilant about keeping them inside. You should also get your cat microchipped, make sure the information on their collar is up to date, and consider investing in a GPS collar that will help you track them down once they go missing. We strongly urge you to spay or neuter your cat instead, though.

2. They’re About to Give Birth

If your cat wandered off while she was in heat but came back a few days later, there’s a good chance that she’s pregnant. You might think that would solve your running-away problem, but many cats also make a break for it once it’s time to give birth.

Expectant cats will seek out a quiet, secluded, secure location to give birth, and if you have a hectic household (such as one with small children or dogs running around), they may feel that your delivery room isn’t up to snuff.

That means that as her due date gets closer, she’ll be more intent on finding the perfect birthing spot. If that means leaving your house, so be it.

  • How to Deal with It: If you have a pregnant cat, you need to provide her with her own part of the house and make that section as comfortable as possible. That means providing her with blankets for warmth, keeping necessities like food, water, and a litterbox nearby, and keeping your kids and pups out. If your cat is confident that you’ve provided her with a suitable place to give birth, she won’t have any reason to leave the home (especially since her food bowls won’t be automatically refilled out there). However, if she does run away, the good news is that she shouldn’t go far, and you should be able to track her down without much trouble. Just research the characteristics of a prime birthing spot for a cat, and look for that sort of location in your immediate vicinity.

3. They Want to Hunt

domestic cat hunting prey
Image Credit: Piqsels

You may not realize it, but housecats are capable of wiping out entire ecosystems just for giggles. Yes, your cute cat wants nothing more than to slip the surly bonds of the prison you keep them in, if only just to enjoy a few carefree hunting sessions. The problem with this is that it’s hard to stop with just one. Regardless of whether your cat is successful in their initial hunt, they’ll likely find something else that they need to kill, and then something else, and so on. Before they know it, they’re lost and far from home.

  • How to Deal with It: The urge to hunt is deeply ingrained in your cat, and you won’t be able to turn it off. What you can do, however, is redirect that energy by playing with your pet. You can use toys or even a piece of string to give them something to stalk and pounce on, thereby satisfying their urge to kill. It would also help to remove anything that gives your cat a view of all the delicious animals outside your door.

4. They Want to Claim More Territory

One of the things that make cats such flight risks is also what makes them such great RISK players: They have an insatiable thirst for acquiring new territory. Once your cat has become completely comfortable in their home, they may desire to expand their kingdom. That means venturing out beyond the confines of your house. That’s especially true if your neighborhood is full of outdoor cats.

If your kitty sees these other cats encroaching on their territory (and worse, marking it), they may feel the need to get out there and show those cats who’s boss. This is bad because not only does it make your cat more likely to run away, but it also dramatically increases the risk that they’ll get in a street fight or three, and that can expose them to all sorts of horrible diseases, like feline AIDS.

  • How to Deal with It: The urge to claim territory is strongest in unneutered males, so this is a problem that can be largely mitigated by having your cat fixed. Beyond that, your best bet is to try to remove the temptation to roam by limiting their ability to see what those other cats are doing outside. That may mean removing window perches, keeping curtains closed, and setting up cat trees away from windows.

5. They’re Getting Other Meals

stray cats eating kibble from bowl
Image Credit: Hulki Okan Tabak, Unsplash

If you have an outdoor cat that will disappear for days at a time before coming back or one that leaves at the same time every day, there’s a chance that they have another family somewhere nearby.

Outdoor cats that don’t have collars or other outward signs that they belong to someone could be “adopted” by another cat lover. As soon as your cat realizes that they can get multiple meals every day by simply showing up at the right time, they’ll eat to their heart’s content.

  • How to Deal with It: If you know who the other owner is, you can talk to them and ask them to stop feeding your cat. Otherwise, you should put a collar with ID on them so it’s clear that they have an owner who’s already feeding them at home.

6. They’re Stressed

If your home is chaotic, your cat may decide to take off in search of calmer waters. After all, no one wants to live in a house where they’re constantly stressed out of their mind.

Stress could be due to having a dog or rambunctious child in the house, changes such as moving or renovations, or getting bullied by one of your other cats. If your cat’s home life is non-stop stress, they’ll try to run off at the first opportunity.

  • How to Deal with It: You’ll have to identify the source of the stress before you can solve it. If it’s another animal that’s causing the trouble, you may need to give your skittish cat as much space as you can. This could mean giving them an entire room, cordoning off your home with baby gates, or doing whatever else you can come up with. If it’s due to a temporary situation, like moving, you’ll need to try to make things as easy on your cat as possible. Let them be the first to move into your new home so they can get acclimated to it at their own pace, and give them plenty of attention (and treats, if they’ll take them) until they get comfortable.

7. They’re Feeling Neglected

Tuxedo cat purring on the ground
Image Credit: Rosy_Photo, Pixabay

Despite your best efforts, you can’t always give your cat as much attention as you’d like. Whether it’s due to a demanding job, a new baby, or something else entirely, if you don’t give your kitty as much time and affection as they need, they could go searching for it elsewhere. While your cat’s aloof nature may tempt you into thinking that they don’t need you, studies have proven otherwise. A lonely cat is one that’s not above hitting the road at the first opportunity.

  • How to Deal with It: It doesn’t take much to meet your cat’s need for attention, so try to carve out a few minutes several times a day to play with them and give them a few scratches. It’s good for them and it’s good for you too. You may need to call in additional help. If you’re stuck at work all day, you may need to ask a friend or family member (or failing that, hiring someone) to stop by and play with your cat for a little while. You can also enlist every member of your household in your campaign to lavish attention on your furry friend.

8. They’re Scared

When your cat gets frightened, one of their strongest instincts will be to get away from whatever’s scaring them—and they don’t care where they go. If something in your house spooked your cat and there’s an open door or window nearby, it’s likely that your kitty will bolt to safety. This can be especially dangerous if the thing that scared them is also capable of chasing them. Many outdoor cats have been run off by a neighbor’s dog, and that chase could see them running quite a long way from home.

  • How to Deal with It: It’s impossible to anticipate everything that could frighten your cat, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. Giving your cat a secure location to interact with the world (such as a cat patio) can allow them to keep an eye on what’s happening in the neighborhood without putting them at risk. You also need to be extra careful anytime something is going on that could potentially scare your cat away. This includes construction in the neighborhood, holidays with fireworks, or anything else that you can think of.

9. They Don’t Feel Well

laying cat sick
Image Credit: Sisacorn, Shutterstock

Cats don’t like to socialize when they’re under the weather or hurt, preferring instead to find an isolated spot where they can recuperate in peace. If your house is a constant whirlwind of activity, though, they may decide that the only way to find a peaceful spot is to vacate the premises.

In the best-case scenario, your cat will wander off until they feel better, at which point, they’ll come back home. The problem with this, of course, is that the outdoors is not friendly to a cat that’s already sick or injured. They’re likely to get even more seriously injured when they’re alone and unable to fully defend themselves. Because of this, there’s a myth that cats will wander off to die, preferring to spend their last moments alone. This isn’t true; cats, like us, prefer to be surrounded by the ones they love. However, many sick or injured cats who wander off do indeed end up dying, although not by choice.

  • How to Deal with It: While many people neglect to do this, you should take your cat in for regular vet visits to make sure they’re in good shape. This may help you catch serious illnesses before they progress, or in the worst-case scenario, it can enable you to plan a way to allow your cat to cross the rainbow bridge as peacefully as possible. Beyond that, it’s mainly a matter of checking in with your cat regularly. This can be hard in hectic households, but giving your cat regular attention will allow you to determine if they’re feeling sick or have an injury of some sort. If that’s the case, you can then figure out a treatment plan (including peaceful recuperation) that won’t make them run for the hills.

10. They’re Stuck

If you have an outdoor cat and it’s been a while since you’ve seen them, they may not have run off at all—they may be stuck somewhere. They could be caught in a fence, trapped in a pipe, or stuck up a tree, unable to get down.

This is a tricky one because unless you can actually see where they’re stuck, you’ll never know if that’s the case at all. Also, even if you know for a fact that they are stuck somewhere, there are thousands of potential places to check, and you probably won’t even think of them all, much less be able to investigate each one.

  • How to Deal with It: There are only two things that you can do in this situation. One is to prevent it from happening by keeping your cat indoors (we strongly recommend this approach), and the other is to fit your cat with a GPS collar so you can find them when they don’t come home. Be aware, though, that GPS collars aren’t foolproof. Many only give you a general idea of where your cat might be, and there’s always the chance that the collar could break or fall off (especially if the cat is struggling).

11. They Just Do

Tuxedo cat running at high speed indoors
Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

Cats are mysterious creatures—that’s part of their appeal, but it also makes their behavior hard to decipher. If your cat tends to wander off and you’ve ruled out the aforementioned possibilities, you may have to just make peace with the fact that you have a free spirit on your hands. That won’t make things any less stressful for you, of course. However, there’s only so much that you can do to keep a cat from escaping, and if your kitty is bound and determined to be a little Houdini, you can’t really stop them.

  • How to Deal with It: There’s not much that you can do. Your best bet is to keep them inside and be extremely vigilant about not leaving doors open; however, this requires your entire family (and any guests) to be alert at all times, which probably isn’t realistic (especially if you have kids). In the end, you’ll just have to accept that they’ll probably run off at some point and hope that they’ll keep coming back. You can improve the odds of that happening by giving them a well-made collar with an ID tag and possibly a GPS tracker on it. In any case, you’re just going to have to take your chances.

The Two Absolute Best Things That You Can Do to Keep Your Cat From Running Off

If you’re worried about your cat wandering off and not coming back, there are two things you can do that have the best odds of preventing it from happening: get them fixed and don’t let them go outside.

Having your cat fixed will eliminate their desire to wander off in search of a mate and greatly reduce their urge to mark their territory (which is good news for your furniture too). They’re much more likely to be content staying at home, where there are comfy couches and a reliable supply of food.

Likewise, keeping them inside will keep them from hunting smaller animals, exploring their neighborhood, or adopting a second family. Also, if they’re never allowed outdoors, then the outside world will be big and scary to them, so they’ll be less likely to sprint out the door when you’re bringing in the groceries.

These things won’t eliminate all these behaviors, of course (your cat will still love to hunt, for example), but they’ll greatly reduce the chances that you’ll be making 100 copies of a “lost cat” ad at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday.

Keep Your Cat Happy (and Right by Your Side)

While all cats can wander off from time to time if given the opportunity, you want to do everything in your power to convince them to stay home instead. This can mean erecting physical barriers to keep them from leaving, but it also means giving them the love and attention that they’ll find to be in short supply out in the real world.

Once they discover that it’s much easier to hunt food that comes out of a can at the same time every day, they’ll decide that home is the place to be.

Featured Image Credit: YuliaPodlesnova, Shutterstock

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