My cat keeps running away from me! It’s a frustrating and common experience. But why do cats run away? And if yours does, what can you do to stop it?
Why do cats run away from home? There are many reasons. Cats are independent, so don’t feel loyalty towards their owners like other pets do. Therefore if a cat is unhappy, hungry or bored they will run away. Cats that don’t get enough food at home, or which are greedy, can run away to find food. Cats can get lost, especially indoor cats that escape for the first time, as they don’t understand the world outside. Cats can run away to get food from neighbors or to stay at their homes. Cats which aren’t neutered or spayed will also try to escape so that they can find a mate, and some cats run away so that they can find a place to die. To stop your cat running away, identify why it’s unhappy, consider keeping it indoors, and be kind to it when it comes back after it does run away.
The guide below first runs through all the reasons why cats run away, explaining them and their underlying causes in detail. We’ll then look at ways to stop your cat running away, how effective they are, and what you can do if your cat just won’t stop.
Why Does My Cat Keep Running Away From Me?
There’s nothing more frustrating than having a cat run away. Your mind races with thoughts of what might happen to your pet, you have to take time off work to organise searches and missing posters, and all for the cat to act like nothing happened when you get it back.
So, why do cats run away? And what can you do to stop them?
1) Cats Aren’t Loyal Like Other Pets
Cats are far more independent than other pets, and their continued residence in your home is contingent on a healthy pet-and-keeper relationship plus good care. The underlying reason for this is that cats are inherently solitary. That’s not to say that a cat can’t enjoy a person’s company, which of course is false. But the species that housecats descend from doesn’t live in prides like lions do. They live entirely alone except in select circumstances, like when they need to reproduce, or when prey is very scarce and they need to team up to hunt.
While the bond between a cat and its keeper is as strong as that between a person and any other intelligent pet, cats still aren’t built to be loyal. If anything changes in your relationship, then your cat won’t ‘stick it out’ because it’s loyal to you. It will make the logical decision and leave.
2) Do Cats Run Away If They Are Unhappy?
First things first, it is possible for cats to be unhappy or depressed. This can occur as a result of trauma or mistreatment, because of ‘bullying’ from another cat in the household, because of a newborn baby taking all of the cat’s attention, or for many more reasons. If you’ve ever lived in a home where you’ve felt stressed and depressed because of your living conditions, you’ll understand your cat’s drive to find somewhere else to live.
3) Indoor Cats Can Get Bored
Cats are domesticated in some senses, but not in others. Your cat’s biology is that of an animal that lives outdoors; its psychological makeup and instincts tell it to go outside, too. As a result, indoor cats can get bored unless they are provided with lots of stimulation such as:
- Lots of things going on. Cats can enjoy quiet time, but if forced to live somewhere where nothing ever happens, will quickly get bored.
- ‘Simulated hunting’, i.e. play. The purpose of chasing feathers or string isn’t just play. It’s for the cat to simulate hunting. That’s why cats chase, pounce on, bite, grab and kick their toys: they’re going through the motions of hunting. If the cat can’t do this at home, it will want to do so elsewhere, whether through play or real hunting.
- A scratching post. Cats need to scratch things to stop their claws from growing too long. Scratching posts are perfect for this. If your cat doesn’t have one, they will scratch furniture; if they don’t have anything to scratch, they will want to seek out something outside.
- Food that is nutritionally adequate and satisfying for the cat to eat.
These points become more relevant if you go away on frequent trips. Your cat can get bored without your attention and affection, your play, and all the things you do in the home.
4) Your Cat May Not Be Eating Enough At Home
Cats need to eat. If your cat isn’t getting enough food, then it will be forced to try and find food elsewhere. Again, this can happen if you take frequent business trips or vacations.
This is a logical decision on your cat’s part. You are your cat’s sole source of food. It has three choices: either wait for you to give it food, find food at a neighbor’s house, or go hunting. If you don’t provide enough food, then it will pick options two or three.
Some cats even run away or at least stay at neighbors’ houses solely to eat, even if they do get enough food at home. This could be because your cat doesn’t like the food that you offer it, or it could just be greedy.
5) Do Outdoor Cats Get Lost?
That’s not the only reason cats run away, though. It’s also possible for cats to get lost when they get out into the big, wide world.
This applies both to indoor and outdoor cats. Outdoor cats can enjoy exploring so much that they get far away from home, and can’t easily find their way back. They could get stuck in somebody’s crawl space, for example, without a clear idea of how to get out.
But if anything, this applies even more to indoor cats. When an indoor cat gets outside for the first time, it has no idea what kind of world it’s living in. If it were to escape into a forest, that wouldn’t be so bad, and it could probably make a fair fist of living for itself. But if your cat lives in the suburbs or in a city, it will encounter cars, other pets, concrete and precious few green spaces. It’s very easy for an indoor cat to become disoriented when it gets outside for the first time, and, of course, get lost.
As such, it’s possible that your cat isn’t consciously running away. It may plan to come back each and every time it leaves. But it may be getting lost along the way.
6) Why Do Cats Leave Home for Days?
Another possibility is that your cat is having some of its care needs met elsewhere. Outdoor cats commonly go to other people’s houses to get food or affection, to play in their yards or with their toys or pets, or even to find care because they’re sick. Your cat may be going to a neighbor’s house and staying there for a few nights each time before coming back.
As annoying as this might be for you, your cat doesn’t understand why this behavior is a problem. You might feel that you’re the cat’s ‘owner’, that the cat is your property, and that in return for all you do for it, the cat’s actions seem a little ‘rude’. The neighbor is also in an awkward position; they may not know whether the cat is a stray, or whether they’re unwittingly stealing somebody’s cat. But all the cat knows is that there’s another place it can find food and shelter if it needs to.
7) Your Cat Wants to Have Babies (Why Do MALE Cats Run Away? Why Do FEMALE Cats Run Away?)
If your cat isn’t neutered or spayed, then it may run away to find a mate. The mating drive is very strong in cats; just ask anybody who has had a male cat that won’t stop spraying, or a female cat that won’t stop yowling at night.
While there are good arguments for spaying and neutering all house cats, you may not want to, and that’s your personal decision. But this is one of the side effects. Your cat knows that it won’t find any other cats to mate with in your home, so it will see if it can escape to find any. This effect is made all the stronger if your cat can hear another cat yowling outside, or smell a cat spraying in its yard.
8) Why Do Cats Run Away to Die?
The final and easily the most morbid reason that cats run away is to be alone before they die. Cats which are sick will try to hide somewhere that they can’t be found, either by people or by other cats.
This behavior stems from your cat’s wild ancestors. While wild cats are predators, they can also be prey; small species like that which housecats are descended from are in the middle of the food chain, not at the top. They’re therefore vulnerable at the best of times. But all predators, even cats, will try to hunt for prey that’s the easiest to catch: older prey animals or young prey animals, or prey that’s ill or injured. So, when your cat is ill or injured, it will feel like it has to hide away.
It’s possible for a cat to run away to find a place to die, but to not actually die. So if your cat is very ill, it’s possible that it will do this multiple times.
How Do You Keep Your Cat From Running Away?
There is no one way to stop a cat running away from home. The precise fix depends on what it is that’s causing it to leave home in the first place.
Identify Why Your Cat Is Unhappy
As such, the key to stopping your cat from running away is identifying what’s making it unhappy. Go through everything in the list above and see if any of them seem relevant. The most common things that make cats unhappy include:
- New additions to the family. Cats can react badly to newborn babies, new cats, and new pets of other kinds.
- Changes in food that the cat doesn’t like. Cats react badly to changes in food even if those changes are good for them, can experience vomiting, and be reluctant to try new foods.
- Lack of time spent with you recently. If you’ve got a new job, new hobbies, or something else that means you spend less time with your cat, this can make it sad.
This is something that varies from case to case, so think back over the last few months, and try to figure out what precisely the problem is. Then, if possible, fix it.
Keep Your Cat Indoors
Another option available to you is to keep your cat indoors as much as possible. This isn’t always easy, but if you can do it, then your cat obviously won’t be able to run away.
The problem is that turning a cat from an outdoor cat into an indoor cat is difficult. That’s because cats are naturally outdoor animals; indoor cats kept indoors from when they’re young don’t realize what they’re missing, whereas outdoor cats kept indoors do. Your cat will therefore beg to be let out, and may appear depressed.
One way of getting around this is by teaching your cat to walk in a harness. This can take a long time, and not all cats take to harnesses. But if it works, you can safely walk your cat, giving it outdoor time without it having the chance to escape. Another way of achieving the same thing is to build your cat a run that it can run around in.
Another way is to build a ‘run’ for your cat. A run is like a big hutch that your cat can run around in outside. Building one is a lot of effort, but doing so would entirely solve your outdoor cat problem. You could let your cat out into the run any time you like without worrying.
How to Deal With Runaway Cats After They Come Home
This is a core misunderstanding that people make with regard to their runaway cats. Making the wrong choice here can lead to the problem resurfacing; the right choice can stop it from happening again.
Many people’s immediate reaction to their cat coming back is to scold and punish them. The idea is that this will make the cat think twice about running away again. In reality, though, this is easily the worst thing you could do.
The problem is that cats don’t have a full grasp of cause and effect. They don’t understand that they’re being scolded, punished or shouted at because they ran away. All they know is that they’re back at the place they came from, and now they’re getting shouted at or even hit. This reinforces the idea of your home as somewhere the cat does not want to be.
Instead, you have to show the cat you’re happy that it’s back. Give it treats, give it lots of affection (if it will allow you) and try to make it as comfortable as possible. While they don’t understand punishment, cats are good at linking people, places and behavior to treats and rewards, so do as much as you can for your cat when it returns. If your cat ran away because it was unhappy at home, then this alone may be enough to stop it running away as often, if at all.