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How to Find Lost Cats: Interview w/ a Pet Detective for cats

Best Friends Podcaster extraordinaire Jon Dunn and Lost Cat Finder Kim freeman talk about how shelters can benefit from directing owners to new methods and resources for finding lost cats.



1 (6s):

This is the Best Friends podcast dedicated to sharing the people and programs that are ending the killing of cats and dogs in America's animal shelters. You'll hear from animal welfare leaders from across the movement who will share the innovative and collaborative work that are creating life-saving successes in communities of all sizes.

2 (24s):

It's April the seventh. Thank you for listening to the Best Friends podcast. My name is Jon Dunn. You know, last night while I was making dinner, I was getting caught up on some of the podcasts I listen to. And I realized how quickly I skip ads and any announcements. Obviously, we don't have paid advertising on the Best Friends podcast, but we do have things to promote from time to time. And I just want to ask you to keep your finger off that skip ahead button. I really try to make sure it doesn't take too much time, but these things are important such as registration for the 2022 Best Friends National Conference is now open. We'll talk more about the conference in future episodes. What's happening this year, but I can tell you, it is in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Check out the show notes on your podcast app, go to the website Click the link for episode 107 and in the resources section, we'll have more information.

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Now you may be saying, Jon, it's April the conference isn't until July. It's a bit early to be telling me about this. Well, there's a good reason I'm telling you it's because there is an early bird special right now. If you register before April 30th, your registration will be discounted by $100. If you are with a network partner, you can save another $.50. We do also have scholarships available, but you are going to want to get your applications in for those right away. So listen, I cannot wait for the conference. I don't know exactly what we're going to be doing podcast-wise, but fingers crossed hopefully something, maybe a live episode.

2 (1m 52s):

Yes, that would be me unedited. Who knows what could happen. To learn more And coming up much sooner, April the 12th, the Best Friends Network offering a webinar on dog reactivity. What is it? Why is it? And what can you do about it? April the 12th, 6:00 PM Eastern. Again, link in the show notes or on the website. All right. So let's get into the episode where we're talking about cats once again, but this time it's about lost cats. According to Petco and their lovelost platform. One in three pets will go missing in their lifetime. One in three, considering there are 186 million dogs and cats living in American homes.

2 (2m 33s):

It's a lot of lost pets, about 10 million a year. Sadly, the number of those animals that make their way back to their owners is low, lower than you might think. And that's especially true when those pets aren't microchipped, which is much more common with cats, right? So only 2% of cats are reclaimed from shelters by their owners. I think we can agree that all lost pets deserve to go home. I know it's sometimes easy to be judgmental with these cases. How could someone let their pet go missing? They must be irresponsible. Folks accidents happen to the best of us. Truly. If you've not had a dog slip a lead or have a cat bolt out the door, when you have company over consider yourself lucky.

2 (3m 14s):

Really is one of the most gut-wrenching things that can happen to a pet owner. And all of it can be made so much worse when owners don't know what to do to find their pet. There's a lot of conflicting information out there. For example, should you put your kitty's litter box in the driveway to help them recognize their scent and come home? We address that in the episode, but the short answer is no. But that doesn't stop that potentially harmful tip from appearing all across the internet. So how are we doing when it comes to getting lost cats home and what can animal shelters and rescue organizations do to help cat owners be reunited with their family member?cut-and-paste To answer those questions and more, I chatted with Kim Freeman, a pet detective who has helped thousands of cats get home safely.

2 (4m 1s):

Well, Kim let's start at the beginning. How did you become a lost cat detective?

3 (4m 7s):

I lost my own cat. This was in Texas and I got all the typical advice. People get by well-meaning friends and, you know, social media. You know, put the litter box out, put some food out, do this, do this. None of that stuff worked. And this is why this cut and paste advice is so dangerous because every situation is different. If I'd followed that advice, my cat would have died. He was stuck in the rancher's shipping container behind me, and nobody was going to see a poster. Posters wouldn't do any good Nextdoor, Facebook. So having gone through it, you know, I learned firsthand how it feels and how stressful it is.

3 (4m 48s):

And it made me realize that, you know, I've, I've, I've been trained for this, I'm certified. I can use this knowledge to help other people who are in this panic mode. You know, nobody really thinks about recovering lost cats until it happens to them. And then they're just taking every piece of advice they can get from anybody.

2 (5m 6s):

Well, you say trained, curious as to what that means, you know, where, and how does that training happen?

3 (5m 11s):

Well, I was trained in lost pets in general. Kat Albrecht was the person who really pioneered the lost pet searching. So I was trying to learn, you know, dogs, cats, sugar, gliders, birds, iguanas, snakes, horses. But my niece, she has cats. You know, I love cats. And I like the detail cats involve. You know, with dogs, your dogs are roaming around or people can see them. I like the it's it's tracking I'm into the tracking part. You know, I found a cat hair, the cat has been passed here. The cat went over this fence. There's claw marks at the top. You know, I like that detective element of it.

2 (5m 49s):

So interesting to me, you know, I love a good mystery story for another day, but I set out to find out who my grandfather was because we didn't know. And I just got hooked into the investigative side of that, you know, just digging and finding all these clues. And I have to imagine that a missing cat is not dissimilar from trying to find a missing person.

3 (6m 9s):

Yeah. That's where Kat started. She was a bloodhound handler and did missing persons. So a lot of these tactics come from the world of missing persons. You know, the profiling we profile the cats, probability theory. She brought all that world into the lost pet world, really pioneered the whole thing in the nineties.

2 (6m 30s):

Well, probability theory, I know to be a mathematical term and then profiling, I know from TV, but in the context of missing cats, what does that mean?

3 (6m 39s):

Probability theory and profiling. You know, how they profile criminals, similar with cats. You want to learn what their personality and your search depends on each cats type, what they're like, you know, do they like greet strangers? Do they come up when a stranger comes in the house and greet them or do they dive under the bed. When they're stressed, do they go up higher? Do they go low? Those kinds of behavioral things, give us clues on how to search for them.

2 (7m 6s):

I want to make sure we focus on the shelter and rescue side of lost cats. How can we help owners find their cats? You know, I know the reclamation rate for lost cats in shelters is very, very low. Definitely one of those stats that we've all just sort of said for years, but I do think it's probably pretty accurate, which is 2%. 2% of owned cats, entering shelters make it back to their owners, right? It's 2%.

3 (7m 31s):

It is improving a little bit, but it is still very low. I know maybe two or three shelters, they've gotten it over 20% and I've studied their tactics because there are best practices that shelters can use to improve the reclaim rate. But part of the problem with the low reclaim rate, you know, dogs is not great. Dogs, I think is about 35%. But part of the problem with the reclaim right on cats is that the cats, when the cat goes missing, the owner runs to the shelter is my cat here? And the shelter says, no, but you know, we have cats do it up or we'll take a report. You know, we'll take a losts pet report.

3 (8m 13s):

Well, meanwhile, the cat is in hiding for 10, 20 days. No one sees it. Eventually it's starving and desperate enough to approach someone. And then by the time a cat, let someone pick it up or trap it, and it comes to the shelter it's in bad shape and it's usually three or four months later. And the owners long since given up looking. So there's this disconnect, you know, in, in the timeline for lost cat behavior and psychology and owners, you know, typical, I'll go check the shelters. I'll post on Facebook. So that's part of what I'm trying to, I'm trying to educate the owners on better, new scientific ways to find most cats, but also the shelters on not only how to prevent these unfound strays, who are not microchipped from coming in, but how to do the reports.

3 (9m 7s):

I've got the system I've created that is essentially free, shelters could be putting in place to notify owners so that it's automatic. Even if the owner has given up, if a match comes in, it will notify them.

2 (9m 23s):

The timelines for lost pets in shelters. You know, it's just very tight Isn't it? Stray holds nationwide three, four or five days. And it's such a narrow window when we're talking about lost cats and the timeline for lost cats. I understand the need for stray holds, but the timing is definitely tricky. Isn't it? Yeah.

3 (9m 42s):

If the cat's only there for the blink of an eye, what are the odds that they're going to reclaim it? It's I think there's a lot behind those low reclaim rates. It's it's a sad statistic that we got to figure out why. We got to look at the reasons why and address those.

2 (9m 57s):

Dr. Kate Hurley, UC Davis Million Cat Challenge. When she was on the podcast, you know, she really emphasized the point that cats and dogs are not the same. They're different, but we so often approach these two species in the same way in animal welfare. So from your perspective, when we talk about lost dogs and cats, what are the big differences there?

3 (10m 18s):

This is a generalization, but typically dogs roam and cats hide right? A loose lost dog. People are going to see it trotting down the street, cats hiding somewhere. The cat is more likely to be under someone's deck. Data shows that most cats. Now we're talking about the indoor cats who slip out the escapees here. They typically hide from 10 to 17 days before they even break cover. I mean, they will starve themselves. They're so scared to break cover and give away their location. And many people, many people I work with have given up within five days, a week. And so here's the cat finally coming out from hiding.

3 (10m 59s):

And meanwhile, the person's not looking anymore. Sometimes they're just mentally have given up. You know, they say, w we've posted on Facebook, we've checked the shelter. We've done everything. Whereas with dogs, this is one of the things I would love to change or, or help shelters realize and change is that we can't give out the same loss pet tips for cats and dogs. Kate Hurley is exactly right. They are such different species, especially when stressed. So yes, posters and Facebook and the, the typical lost pet advice does work for dogs. And I think, you know, shelters were created for dogs. And I think most of the pet advice is geared toward dogs,

2 (11m 41s):

Best practices todaym you know, a lot of platforms out there Nextdoor, Facebook, all the social media, PawBoost, those kinds of things. What is the best advice for a cat owner? You know, I'm going to guess that a big mistake cat owners make is they look too big, meaning, you know, the odds of my lost cat being more than a few blocks away, those odds are pretty slim. We all see these stories of that. The lost cat, you know, it's national news cat gone for seven years, found six states away. And I wonder if that sort of conditioned us conditioned cat owners to think in a, in a bigger way. Yeah. When the odds are that your cat is probably pretty close to home.

3 (12m 23s):

So this is part of the reason my population density is so important. And in the profiling, you've got to find out how many cars are there. The cat that dives under the bed, when someone comes to visit, is the cat that's going to dive under a car when they're scared. That's kind of, they're under the bed outdoors. Those are the cats that get transported. They see footsteps, or they see a dog. Somebody walk their dog past. And with the whole advent of SUV's, there's this skid plate under the vehicles, it's a perfect little cubbyhole for cats. They hop up on that and you can't see them unless their tails hanging down. So that's how they end up states away. They've accidentally been transported. So I try not to ever tell anyone, oh, just focus, you know, comb, your block, just, you know, focus on a hundred feet around your house.

3 (13m 11s):

They've got to cover every angle and transport is one I'm seeing it more and more. Every person says, NO, my cat would never go near a car. But guess where that cat ends up? Here's here's a good example--a good story to explain how. This was someone who downloaded my search guide --the DIY" Lost Cat Kit" and she had followed all the advice and did as far as searching in her immediate area and no leads. No sightings. Her cat had been lost for 3 weeks. People typically contact me after they're desperate after two and three weeks. So going through the profile I asked her what was happening that day her cat got outside: a plumber had come to fix her sink and was drilling. Big, scary noise. Cat ran out the door.

3 (13m 51s):

So one of the things I suggested was call the plumber and ask him where his next service call was -- where he went after her house. Did he have another job afterward? And he said, no, "I went home. But when I got home, my dog was barking at the truck."

He opened it up and a cat jumped out and ran away. He thought nothing of it, but guess whose cat it was? So Cannoli-- who would NEVER go near a car--had been transported to the plumber's house. Some of them hang on until the car comes to a stop and is shut off. But some will jump out along the way.

3 (14m 32s):

So yeah, the, the transport cases are very real and probably account for maybe two out of 10 of my cases.

2 (14m 40s):

Well, I certainly don't want to criticize the plumber, but I do think if I saw cat jump out of my van, when I got home, I'd like to think, I would wonder how the hell that happened and not just go in and have dinner. But again, something we've talked about on the program before is how we talk about cats. How we talk about cat behavior and maybe how little the average person knows about cat behavior. And therefore then knowing what to do when a cat is lost, you know, Liz Finch, one of my teammates on the Best Friends network team, one of her things, you know, these pet peeves, nails on a chalkboard things is when someone says, take the litter box and put it in the driveway.

3 (15m 17s):

YES! And risky and counterproductive. The litter box. You know cats, cats cover their poop for a reason. They don't want to give away their location. They're hiding their scent from predators. And if you put it out on display, you're inviting all the neighborhood, wildlife and territorial cats to come into your cat's safe zone, beat them up and chase them further away. On my trail cameras, I see raccoons and coyotes coming in. We have studied this for years.

A sack of potatoes would work just as well as a litter box, but be safer. A lot of these cats are coming home despite the litter box. Not because of it.

2 (15m 57s):

So interesting. And you know, it totally makes sense. Are there other things like the litter box where we sort of always done it, but it's not very effective or maybe even hurting our chances of recovering a cat?

3 (16m 9s):

yes. Let's use the walking around the neighborhood, shaking treats and calling. Okay. Maybe, maybe that will work for a dog. Most dogs are running and they're not going to slow down. But with a cat, if they were going to come out, they would have come out. And for people to walk around every day, shaking treats and calling... it's the Pied Piper effect. If your cat was two doors down and you're walking down the street, you could be drawing them five doors down. Away from home. You know, if they're trailing behind your voice from a distance, you're basically drawing them all over, away from their safe spot that's probably close to home.

3 (16m 50s):

So yeah, walking around, I don't know if shelters say to do that, but it's what people tend to do. People also tend to think that if they have searched an area, that's done, their is not there. But cats often have 3 different hiding places. And if they get flushed, let's say a landscaper comes, leaf blower, flushes it out. It's now hiding in a new place. You know, anytime they're disturbed, they tend to vacate: they don't know the world Isn't full of wolves. They're just in survival mode. So yeah, the shaking treats, and the one time can't just search once and say, my cat's not here, because they could come back.

3 (17m 32s):

A lot of times they have one hiding place in the daytime and they moved to another place at night. And of course you can say, well, I've combed every inch of my 500 foot radius, but cats move. It's not like looking for your lost keys that cannot walk. You could have found your cat 12 times and not known it because he evaded you 13 times. So in a way, I see people when they're doing really aggressive searching, they're really chasing. They don't realize it, but they're chasing the cat.

2 (18m 3s):

Totally makes sense when you say it.

3 (18m 5s):

Yeah. It's, it's all about thinking about these things from the cat's perspective. A cat who is stressed out, not the human grab-chase-catch mode. But the cats fearful: "I have to protect my life." I mean, they'll even run from their owners. Cat's vision is such that beyond about 20 feet is just blurry. They don't know it is you. It is just "something big is coming. I better get out of here before it gets any closer". So yeah, it's all about understanding cats, sight perception, their sense of hearing and smell --all of that factors in.

2 (18m 38s):

A lot of people listening to this are probably chuckling and saying, you want me to understand cat behavior? Get out of here.

3 (18m 45s):

Well, yeah.

2 (18m 46s):

Also, we're talking in generalities for the purpose of this conversation, but as we know, all animals are individuals. You've mentioned this, that, you know, of course there are common behaviors, but I'm trying to think about my four cats, how each of them might react. I feel like I could have an idea of what they might do and truly not nice to think about, but better to think about it now, before it happens. You know, touch wood it never does. Right. But it sounds like shelters and rescues when they're working with folks who have lost their cat, a best practice may be right up front to say, Hey, I've got some questions for you about your cat. And then that turns into good advice.

3 (19m 24s):

Yes. All of these things make a difference. My whole goal is to relieve shelters from extra work, more responsibility and doing extra stuff. So if they just alert owners to my online search guides, the person can figure out the right strategy for their unique situation. Factors beyond cat personality, like the weather, how dense the population is. Are there cars and SUVs parked nearby?

You know, the standard Lost cat cookie-cutter advice can be dangerous. A lot of times people think their cat's missing, but it's still in the house. So you don't want to leave a window open if the cat might still be in the house. I can see why shelters want to give owners tips, but it's smarter and safer to just direct them to Lost Cat Finder online guides, let them know there are new search guides based on scientific best practices and you can figure out which method is right for you.

2 (20m 16s):

We'll put a link to your website in the show notes and that way everybody can access them on their podcast app of their choice. And also on the website,

When it comes to shelters advising owners, is there one thing that you see done very rarely, but something that you feel like every shelter should be doing?

3 (20m 36s):

You know, I would love to see shelters offer at-home microchipping just for cats. My friend Monica Frenden did a drive-up microchipping clinic where people could just drive up and she would get in the car with them to do the microchip. They didn't have to bring their cat in where there were barking dogs. I would love to see more cats microchipped. I would say one in 10 of the people who come to me with lost cat cases are microchipped. One in 10, it's pretty low. So I think it would be even better if shelters could offer 2 people in a van to to do drive-arounds and offer in-home microchipping. {They could do one area from nextDoor per day and people could sign up for appointments on NextDoor.}

3 (21m 17s):

Most of the people (who do not chip) will say, "I was going to get her chipped but she never goes out so I didn't need to chip her, or, it was too stressful to go to the vet, just for a chip. A lot of it has to do with getting the cat in the carrier, taking it to a vet "just for a microchip."

There are some good new resources. You know, it used to be called Finding Rover. Now it's PetCo's lostlove or is it lovelost? And they're doing facial recognition. I think that's a big smart development. There's Dan with Findpet who's doing full body recognition, which is more important I think with cats. You know, the cat's ratio of their eyes to their ears, to their nose is all very similar. And that's what this facial recognition uses.

2 (21m 57s):

With dogs it varies a lot, you know, floppy ears, long snout, short snout. So it works better for dogs. So I'm excited about the full body. Unfortunately, most people's pictures of their cats, you know, they're upside down or they're doing something cute. They're not standing, frontways and sideways for the perfect photo.

I would like to see shelters really breakdown their advice, make it species-specific tips. So, oh, you have a lost cat. here is a guide to best practices for lost cats. If you have a lost dog? Do this. At least start there.

Again, I think it's about what works versus what we think works or what we say and we tell people to do, because that's just what we've always done.

2 (22m 46s):

If you could just boil it down, what should we be advising cat owners who have lost their cat?

3 (22m 54s):

Yeah, I would, I would encourage everyone that's hearing this go today, take a photo of your cat --a clear face on and a side view of their whole body, including their tail. Put a lost cat kit together so that you're prepared for the worst.

2 (23m 10s):

Yeah. And as we were talking about it, I think that should be part of whatever we're sending adopters home with. Right? Checklists and information about their new pet. Tell them take good photos. I'm not sure I have good ones to be honest with you. I've got lots of photos on my phone of my cats. But as you said, I don't know if a picture of Bob laying upside down inside his banana bed is going to be very helpful. You know, so good photos. I mean, they make the difference. Cats look alike. Markings are similar, size. So now I'm just thinking about how we stress to organizations to take good photos anyway, right? I mean, it's the difference maker often when we're talking about adoptions and you mentioned facial recognition, you do need good photos for that.

2 (23m 52s):

So I'm now wondering if a best practice for shelters, when they're getting the adoption photos, get the ones that you might need for this type of purpose. You know, the front image and the side image, the things you're mentioning, and then just give them to the adopter as part of their adoption packet.

3 (24m 9s):