LOS ANGELES — If a scared dog bolts from home, it's likely to run as fast and far as it can. But if a house cat panics, it's more likely to slink away and stop at the first good hiding place it finds.
Because the getaway is so different, the search has to be, too, said Nancy Peterson, cat programs manager for the Humane Society of the United States and a registered veterinarian technician.
Don't run to a shelter or post signs right away, she said. Immediately after you notice your pet is missing, search your yard, contact neighbors and show a photo to mail carriers, delivery drivers and newspaper delivery people.
"Most cats that escape or leave home won't go more than five houses away, so you should go to neighbor homes and ask if you can check their back yards," she said. "If the cat does get further, it's because a dog or another cat chased it. Unfortunately, the farther away it gets, the harder it is for it to get home."
The search for your feline friend tends to be tougher going than if you had lost a dog, experts say. Good Samaritans often come to the rescue of dog owners, picking up pooches and making a call to the owner or taking them to a shelter. But there is no cavalry for cats, and domestic ones are not easily caught — you can't just open a car door and coax the cat to hop in. But you can protect against loss by microchipping kitty and using an ID collar.
"Don't give up! Cats can return home months after being lost," Orange County Animal Control spokesman Ryan Drabek said. Most of the cats the facility takes in each year are feral. Only a third of them are domesticated, he said.
But there's always hope if a cat has an ID, said Dr. Karen "Doc" Halligan, author and chief veterinary officer of the Lucy Pet Foundation.
"Both of my cats have breakaway collars, tags and microchips. That is something all cat owners need to do for their cats," she said.
If a lost cat doesn't find its own way home the first night, broaden the search. Start checking shelters, post fliers and sign up on all the lost-pet apps available online.
"Don't wait too long," said Peterson of the Humane Society. "Cats are creatures of habit. If they disappear one night and don't reappear by the next, something is probably wrong."
If you find your cat, he or she will probably be skittish. "For a cat, danger comes from above, so don't stand over a cat. … Talk to it gently. Pet it, pet it, pet it, pet it," said Marci Kladnik, a Catalyst for Cats volunteer and columnist for the Cat Writers' Association.
At home, "the cat will be glad to get there. It might be a little needy and will purr and purr. Go back to your normal routine. That's what the cat wants."