by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
While many cats wander in known territory for a few hours, or even a day, and return quite happily, there are those that have been away for a while. This article is intended for these cats that have had a long absence or a traumatic experience.
The most important aspect of a returning cat is – can you positively identify him as your missing cat? Microchips can be verified, as can specific markings and physical attributes, however, he may look different depending on how he has lived during his time away. He can lose weight, coat texture and even colour can change, he will look dirty and scruffy. His behaviour may also be different. A cat that has been away from home for a while may be so pleased to find someone to care for them that they will befriend any person; if this cat looks similar to your missing cat it is easy to mistakenly identif him as yours.
Unless we have information from the person who found him, we do not know what he experienced during his time away. Did he have access to food and water? Did he have to fight, either to obtain food or to defend himself? Was he traumatised in any way, physically or emotionally?
Whatever happened, he has had experiences that may have affected his body or emotions. We must respect this, and make his return home as stress-free as possible.
Injured or very weak cats will need immediate emergency veterinary care.
Confining him in a small area is recommended, especially in a multi-pet household. He may be hurt, disorientated, have fleas or ticks, or be carrying a disease. This confinement will allow him to eat and sleep in peace and comfort, regain strength, feel safe in a familiar environment, relax and regain confidence.
Provide water and a small meal. Hydration is essential while food should be offered in small amounts every few hours. Overeating after a period of possible starvation can cause issues in the digestive system or liver.
Check him physically for wounds, scratches, parasites, and any other issues. Pay attention to his reaction to being touched; this can help to identify areas of concern. Cats’ skin has the amazing ability to close quickly over a bite or puncture wound, but this can mask the site of an abscess. Frequent light grooming sessions will help to improve his appearance and re-establish the bond between him and you.
Ideally he needs to be checked by a vet as soon as possible. This should a physical examination as well as checking internal organs. Tests for disease may be carried out immediately, or delayed for a short incubation period. This is especially important for cats that have been away for a long time, or have bite or puncture wounds.
Once wounds and parasite issues have been resolved, and he is feeling confident, slowly integrate him back into the house and family. His adventures would have given him other experiences, and he may look, smell, and behave differently to the time before he left, so it may be necessary to re-introduce him as if he were a new cat. (See Non-recognition Aggression between Cats )
A traumatic experience may change his behaviour towards people, other cats, or even other animals. Since we rarely know the full extent of his adventures it can be difficult to help him regain confidence and composure in the home. He can be aloof or needy, nervous, afraid of being touched, or appear afraid or aggressive towards other pets in the family. He may also respond aggressively or instinctively to sudden or loud noises or movement.
When changed behaviour creates a problem in the family it is best to separate the returning cat to give him space and time to recover emotionally from his adventure, unless he needs companionship, in which case he should be allowed to be with someone – human or animal friend. This process will take as long as necessary for him to feel safe and ready to accept other pets and people.
As much as we want to have all the family together again as they were before, this must be done at the pace of the returning cat. Pushing too hard or too fast to ‘make’ him remember or like a previously-liked pet is probably going to have the opposite reaction, and it will take longer to create harmony.
Will he go adventuring again? That depends on him, his experiences, and his home life. Why did he go away before? What did he experience while he was away? Was it pleasant, exciting, or rewarding in some way? If that is not addressed in a way that satisfies him and other family members then he will probably wander off again. If he had a traumatic experience he could decide not to try that again! (refer to my previous article Keeping Cats at Home.
Each cat and each experience is different. Some cats will walk in and immediately be at home and accepted by the family pets while others may take time to adjust and settle back to normal home life. Our attitude plays an important role in the recovery and re-introduction process; try to act as normal as possible, considering his needs and respecting him while not excluding the rest of the family.