two women and a cat

It's a nightmarish thought for a cat lover, your beloved pet going missing. If your cat came home after you'd given up hope, how would you react? Probably rejoice and move on, right?

But when Lost Cat author Caroline Paul's cat, Tibby, disappeared while Paul was recovering from an accident, then reappeared five weeks later, she couldn't leave it alone. She and her partner (and illustrator of the book), Wendy MacNaughton, embarked on a project to figure out where he went. They not only answer that question, but also end up learning some unexpected lessons about life, technology and relationships.

Caroline and Cats

Q. My first question is about your previous book, Fighting Fire, but it's actually relevant: You used to be a firefighter — did you ever rescue a cat stuck in a tree?

A. I never went to a call for a cat stuck up a tree, but I did rescue a lot of animals from fires. They used to tease me and call me Doctor Dolittle because I was always concerned about animals when I went into a fire. I'd look for the food bowls or talk to the owners.

I remember one particular rescue where it was super smoky and I saw the cat sitting on the windowsill, and I know cats — they run, they're skittish. I tried to mind meld: "I'm here to get you, I'm here to get you…" I walked right up and put her in my coat. She didn't run from me — she knew what I was there for, and that was fairly typical of most of the animals. Except the first animal I rescued, who bit me — it was a little dog.

illustration of a cat

The Quest: Where Do Cats Go?

Q. After Tibby vanished and came back, one thing you did was contact pet detectives, some of whom were confused by your request.

A. Confused is actually putting it nicely. I think some people thought I was a little bit nuts.

Most pet detectives are looking for lost pets. I wanted them to figure out where my previously lost cat had been, and that flummoxed most of them. With the exception of the pet detective that used dogs, who sort of got me and was very plain and said, "It sounds like GPS is going to be your only hope."

Q. Some of them also seemed maybe a little shady?

A. I don't like to judge, but the woman who kept insisting that he just couldn't find his way home — I already knew that was so not true.

Q. And that seems like an unlikely theory in general — most professionals advise that you look near your home for a lost cat, since most don't go far.

A. Some cats do get far, like if they get stuck in a car engine, but they're not like dogs that shoot straight out and keep running. But we've collected a lot of lost cat stories — some cats have been found 3,000 miles away for some unknown reason. A lot of the stories are quite miraculous, but the one thread that I've found is that if you microchip your cat, you have a much better chance of being reunited.

map with illustration

Q. So you have become the person everyone talks to about their lost cat?

A. It's amazing how many people do have lost cat stories. Some of them are tragic, but most of them seem to be that cats find many families — they're sort of polygamous that way.

There's a story that I heard where a neighborhood started to put up lost cat posters, all for the same cat, from different families. It turned out that this cat was visiting different families and they each thought they sort of owned him. One of the families went on vacation and boarded the cat and he was suddenly gone, and all the other families thought they lost the cat.

Life Lessons

Q. A lot of the book is about your adventures with technology. But although the GPS narrowed down the search, what made the difference was getting out and talking to people.

A. Most of all what helped us was that I started to talk to my human neighbors about my animal. The crazy thing was I'd been there 20 years, and Tibby knew this neighborhood better than I did. The GPS shows that he's in everybody's backyard. It took him being gone and this quest to actually talk to my neighbors.

Q. In some of those conversations, it seems like you are looking very hard for someone to blame.

A. Yeah, because I would say I felt betrayed when he left for five weeks then suddenly reappeared fat and happy, because like many cat owners, I'm under the illusion that he really can't live without me. We want that in any relationship, but we believe it with our cats, probably especially because we get to fill in a lot of the gaps because they're not talking to us.

If he had been stolen, that would have meant he still really couldn't live without me and it was all against his will. But that clearly wasn't true. Sometimes cats just choose to leave, and you can never be sure why.

Q. I think you do give some hints about why, though. He was a very shy cat, and when you were recovering from your accident, there were people tramping in and out of the house to help you. Your other cat, Fibby, was hissing and swatting at him. It wasn't about you — it was about the situation. Did that make you feel better?

A. No, because what happened to thick and thin?

But the truth is, as I say in the book, I thought the important thing was that he left, but really the important thing was that he came back. That was a bigger testament to his love for me.

Q. A kind of subplot of the book is your relationship with Wendy, which was just beginning at the time. It can be a test of a relationship, how someone feels about your pet, but this was a much bigger test than usual.

A. Wendy was not an animal person when she first met me. Like most people who fall for somebody who is an animal person, she pretended she was. But when he disappeared, she actually had become bonded enough, and obviously was trying to take care of me at the same time. She did go to heroic lengths to help, despite the fact that she thought I was crazy because once he was home she thought, well, he's home. Isn't that good enough? But for real cat owners, it's not.

Q. You have two new cats now. Do you ever put the GPS on them?

A. No. I love these cats, too, but these are what Wendy considers her cats, and Wendy really has become the kind of cat owner that I am — which is sort of openhearted and wide-eyed and completely believing that your cat loves only you and doesn't wander far because of that and has no other life. If you put a GPS on, there's the danger that you might blow that illusion. So until it's necessary, we're not doing it.

Q. So you think another lesson you learned is that any relationship benefits from a little bit of comforting illusion?

A. [Laughs] That's a good way to put it, yes.

Editor's note: Keeping cats indoors reduces the risk of a cat getting lost. Read more Vetstreet articles about ways to enrich the lives of indoor cats:

Keep Your Kitty Safe and Happy With a Souped-Up Catio

5 Secrets of Supremely Happy Indoor Cats