Is there a more heartbreaking sight to be regularly seen on a suburban street than a lost-cat poster? You get lost-dog posters, too, but they’re nowhere near as common. Right now, if you live in suburbia, there’s a good chance there will be a lost-cat poster within four or five roads of your house, and, unless you’re made of steel, it will be accompanied by the inevitable, aching questions.
Was the cat run over? Did someone steal it? Perhaps it’s locked in a garage? How do the cat’s humans feel right now? Every time I pass one of these posters, it’s all I can do not to abandon whatever I’m doing and round up an ad hoc search party.
I have four cats and I’m lucky: these days, none of them often strays far from home and, on the rare occasions they do, they always send me a text to let me know what time they’ll be back. However, the most mercurial of them, The Bear, who is now heading towards his 18th birthday, was responsible for several disappearing acts in his youth. He once vanished for six weeks, returning smelling of death and cabbage and looking like a malnourished stoat.
The Bear, who is better known to many Twitter users as @MYSADCAT, has deep, soulful eyes, which seem to hold all the world’s sadness. He has a way of looking at me like he knows stuff, big stuff, and I often wonder if much of his wisdom was picked up on these excursions. I’m tempted to speculate that during his six weeks away he went on an Orwellian trip, seeing a brutal side of life in soup kitchens and dosshouses, and realising he had it pretty good with me after all.
When Caroline Paul’s cat Tibia returned, looking remarkably plush and well-fed after going missing for a similar amount of time a few years ago, she decided – with the benefit of new cat-GPS technology – to find out exactly what he had been up to. I won’t spoil the story, as she’s written about it in a beautifully quirky new book called Lost Cat, but her findings about what Tibia got up to when not under her supervision turned out to be very surprising.
I’ve recently been on the opposite side of Caroline’s scenario, being regularly visited by a ginger cat. My assumption, from the condition of this cat, which my girlfriend and I named Graham, was that he was feral. We managed to trap him inside, then take him to the vet’s to be castrated and tested for cat Aids. After a further, fruitless attempt to befriend him, he escaped, and hasn’t been seen since. I’m pretty sure Graham was feral, but I have no proof. What if a family are now wondering a) where their ginger cat went for several months, and b) why he no longer has testicles? I now have microchip catflaps to keep feral cats out; these are better than magnetic catflaps, which I was told by my aunt and uncle not to get because “our cats kept getting stuck to the fridge”.
Monday has been designated the first “Catwatch Day”: an attempt, set up by SureFlap, the company that made my catflaps, and the Royal Veterinary College, to get owners to track their cats and report their findings. I plan to join in with this (see sureflap.co.uk/cat-care if you want to do so), but I’ll have to be crafty. I’m convinced that while I am out, my cats hold all sorts of wild parties, invite their friends over, and hide my socks, but they’re very sly, and I have my doubts about whether I’ll catch them out. We tell ourselves our cats are little furry people, and that we know them, but that’s perhaps complacency. The truth is, we can probably never really know them, just as, in a way, we can never really know each other.
Tom Cox is the author of the cat books ‘Under the Paw’ and ‘Talk to the Tail’ (Simon & Schuster). Follow his cat, The Bear, on Twitter: twitter.com/MYSADCAT.