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 paperboys.
"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 backyards," 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 it to hop in. But you can protect against the loss of your cat by microchipping it and strapping on an ID collar.
Even long-lost cats can be found, a joy that Mickey and June Wilson experienced. When an 8,700-acre wildfire came close to their Santa Barbara, Calif., home in May 2009, the couple grabbed their cat Morris and evacuated.
For one night, they stayed in a motel in Buellton, about 45 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.
When Mickey Wilson went to get luggage from the car, Morris, rambling freely in the second-story room, escaped. Wilson searched everywhere, following several tips, but came up empty-handed.
Heartbroken, Wilson and his wife returned home the next day without Morris. Relatives went up a few times after that to look but could not find the cat.
Four months later, Wilson got a call from a woman who found Morris behind a restaurant at a feral cat feeding station. The station is run by Catalyst for Cats, Inc., a group of volunteers trying to control the feral cat population in Santa Barbara County by trapping, sterilizing and returning and then feeding wild cats in the area.
"Owned, lost cats show up at feeding stations more often than one would imagine," said Marci Kladnik, a Catalyst for Cats volunteer and columnist for the Cat Writers' Association.
Morris was in good shape except for the tip of his tail, which was broken.
"If he hadn't had a name tag on his collar, we would never have seen him again," said Wilson, a retired aircraft engineer.
Wilson had to put Morris down about six months ago because of bladder problems. "He was a special cat," Wilson said. "And we enjoyed him up to the very end."
Morris' discovery shows even a long search isn't hopeless.
"Don't give up! Cats can return home months after being lost," Orange County Animal Control spokesman Ryan Drabek said. But he says that 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 ID, said Dr. Karen "Doc" Halligan, author and chief veterinary officer of the Lucy Pet Foundation.
"Both 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, it 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 Kladnik, the author.
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," she said.