Psychology and the Missing Cat
Why would a cat run away?
In the missing cat cases that I have worked on since July 2000, the largest percentage involved an outdoor-access cat turning up missing very soon after a house move. Cats are territorial by nature and if they don't perceive the new home as their territory, they may try to get back to the old house. Even if they don't succeed in returning to the old home, they are motivated to look for it. Introducing a cat to a new neighborhood is best done over a few weeks; keep the cat indoors for at least two weeks, preferably more; then gradually let the cat out under supervision and always before mealtime to ensure that your cat will have a desire to return to you when called.
The second most common cause of missing cats has been indoor-only cats, escaping through some access accidentally left open or access unknown to the owner. The motivation to get out is often territorial or simply opportunistic. Seeing another cat or a squirrel outside the window may spur a cat to single-mindedly defend its territory. A door accidentally left ajar may offer the indoor cat new exciting scents, too compelling to resist. But once the indoor-only cat has entered the Great Outdoors, it may panic at finding itself in foreign territory and go into a complete defensive mode by hiding from everything and anything including their owner. The fact that their pet does not come when called makes people think the cat has "run away" but actually the cat is simply too frightened to show themselves or to return home. The majority of these missing indoor cats have been the timid sort; I know of only three cases of a missing indoor cat that was a dominant personality not a bit timid.
A much smaller percentage of missing cats are sick or injured. From our human perspective, we would think a sick or injured cat would want to stay close to home. But if a cat is in a lot of pain, it may be attempting to remove itself from anything that it associates with pain. Or it may be in such pain, it fears for its life and goes into a complete cover defensive mode as a survival mechanism.
Most cats do not literally "run away" even if abused if anything they would prefer to stay put because of their innate territoriality. It is more descriptive to say that a cat was lured by a squirrel, or chased off by a dog or some other frightening event, but then finds itself reluctant to leave the NEW territory out of fear, rather than say the cat intentionally ran away from its old territory.
What is the"homing instinct"?
Homing instinct refers to the ability of an animal to perceive direction that is beyond the usual human five senses. There are two types of homing instinct: one type refers to the ability of an animal, after being moved, stolen, or lost outside their established territory, to return to their home base. Another type refers to the ability of an animal to follow their owner, when their owner has moved away and left the animal behind, called "psi trailing."
Scientists in Germany and the US have tested cats to find out if they had a this first type of homing instinct, the ability to return to home base after being removed. In the US test they sedated a bunch of cats (so that the cats could not consciously remember the route by sight, sound, smell, touch or taste), drove them on a very circuitous route to a big maze and then released the awakened cats, one by one. The maze had openings in 15 degree increments. The cats were left to wander at their leisure and exit if they wanted. More often than not, the cat exited the maze at the closest point towards their home. Older cats performed better than younger. Homing ability dropped off with distances greater than 7.5 miles from home.
One theory to explain this ability is that cats have sensitivity to the earth's magnetic field (perhaps because as they age more metal is deposited in their brain). When cats had magnets attached, the homing ability was disrupted.
What is "psi trailing"?
"Psi trailing" is a term that Dr. Joseph Rhine of Duke University coined to refer to animals managing to locate their owners after the owner moves away and leaves the animal behind. He documented a number of cases of this phenomenon, in all cases the animal had to have some distinguishing mark, abnormality, or previous injury by which the owner could positively identify the pet, in order to rule out any lookalike situations. In one case a cat followed its owner, a veterinarian, from New York to California. The cat settled down immediately in the "old cat's" favorite chair, and, after taking x-rays, the new cat also happened to have the same physical abnormality as the "old cat."
Dr. Myrna Milani, D.V.M., offers a few explanations for this phenomenon. One is that perhaps there is some dis-equilibrium when closely bonded creatures are separated, something that could one day be explained with something similar to Bell's Theorem. Bell's Theorem proposed that all electrons function in pairs, with each electron spinning in the opposite direction of the other electron. The physicist Bell speculated that if you change the spin of one electron, the other electron would "sense" it and alter its direction accordingly to the one whose spin was altered. When scientists began doing experiments in space, this was one of the first things they tested. And sure enough, when the spin of one electron taken into space was changed, its matched electron back on earth immediately altered its spin correspondingly.
If we mammals are made of cells, molecules, and atoms, maybe the bond between two creatures is not just with the "heart" but also some sort of "rhythm" on an "actual" cellular or atomic level that is disrupted when the physical bond is disrupted?
What can personality determine about the lost cat's probable location?
Missing indoor-only cats and timid outdoor-access cats are more often located nearby rather than farther away. The cause is more likely to be fear. Bolder less timid cats who are missing have a higher chance of being involved in a mishap (car accident, locked up, illness, predation). Most likely something has interrupted their usual routine. If a cat is more socialized to other cats (feral or born of a feral mom) and is only timid with humans, it's more likely that it is wanting to explore with other cats. Read here to determine the personality profile of your cat and how it may affect its behavior when lost or missing.