One morning, Regina van Vuuren woke up from a vivid dream. She had let out one of her cats the previous evening and now, in her dream, it drank water at the riverside and she saw it fall in the water, disappearing under the surface. Sure enough, the cat did not return the following day, nor the days after that. Two weeks after she had the dream, her neighbors told her the cat was found beneath the ice of the frozen river, drowned.
“I’m terrified of losing cats ever since, the sorrow is just too great. If one of them does go outside I completely lose it. Will they come back? The insecurity just kills me. The end result is that I’ve locked myself in with my cats, essentially,” she says, “I guess it’s kind of a trauma.”
Of the estimated 3.1 million cats in the Netherlands, around 40.000 go missing each year. Approximately 70% of them are eventually returned to their (happy) owners (and often found within a 500 meter radius from home) but what happens to the cats that remain missing is a concern. Not only to anxious cat owners, but also to animal welfare organizations that have to deal with ownerless cats or stray cats’ impact on other animal populations. Yet little to no regulation has been issued from The Hague regarding the matter.
Feelings of bereaved cat owners can range from sadness to hopelessness, and from depression to guilt. Fortunately some owners have more luck, like Isja Smand.
“Panic! He must have been taken! Something must have happened cause he never stays away that long. And then every day you get more concerned, until in the end you lose all hope. But after ten days, he simply reappeared!” she says.
Cats are different from other pets, not least because they often freely roam outside, but that’s where the trouble starts. If something happens that makes the cat leave its habitat (the space that includes its territory), it may become disoriented and not be able to find its way back. Sudden noises from fireworks, or the threat of a new cat in town can force a cat to flee and give up its habitat, but according to cat expert Esther Bouma there are more important reasons why cats flee the scene.
“The urge to find mating opportunities can make a cat stray further and further away from home in order to find a suitable mate. And if something changes within a household, that can really upset a cat. A newborn baby for instance will disturb a cat’s peace and literally drive it away. The same happened during Covid, when everyone started to hold zoom-meetings at home all of a sudden – cats didn’t like that,” says Bouma.
Amivedi, a Dutch volunteer organization committed to missing pets since 1933, keeps a database which collects information about missing cats’ breed, color, gender, whether or not they’re chipped and neutered, and when and where they go missing.
It turns out that the total number of cats missing in the Netherlands between February 2022 and February 2023 is 12725, with male cats going missing more often than their female counterparts (gender fluidity is not a big thing in the animal world).
Most cats go missing in Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland which makes sense as the majority of the Dutch population lives there, but what’s remarkable is that relatively more cats go missing in Friesland if we compare the population of missing cats and human population per province.
Data provided by Admiral reveals that male cats are 60% more active outside than female cats, with males spending nearly twice the amount of hours active outside compared to females, while also traveling further away. Female cats generally remain closer to home and also spend 28% more time sleeping than males.
“A major cause of cats running away is whether or not they have been neutered. Male cats which aren’t castrated walk further from home in order to find mating opportunities, and if they leave their territory they can get lost,” says Bouma.
Cats are natural hunters, but some experts claim that home comforts are more important to our feline friends than possible birds of prey. According to professional cat sitter Ineke, “food is more important than the chance to escape.” Bouma confirms this, saying: “cats’ hunting instincts diminish when you play with them more often, and when you give them food that is wet and rich in protein.”
Missing house cats have to survive outdoors and some are more successful in doing so than others. Cats can get stuck in places where they take shelter, which is what happened to Van Vuuren’s cats several times.
“One cat was old and blind and crept into a neighbor’s shed, but they locked it and didn’t look inside for two weeks, so he died. Another one that was missing turned out to have been stuck inside a closed Chinese restaurant for two weeks,” she says.
Other cats find comfort and food elsewhere.
“It’s hard to say if cats love us the way we love them, but they do have the ability to easily attach themselves to strangers if they can provide them with enough food and love,” says Bouma.
The missing cats that do not get stuck or find a new home tend to eventually lose the socialization skills they acquired through living with humans. The so-called “wild factor” determines the extent to which cats are still considered tame: this is not a measuring device but according to the Stray Cats Foundation, “helps to determine skittishness around people.”
There is no strict definition of what a stray cat is: they are variously described as cats that have been spotted outdoors a couple of times or as cats without owners. When missing house cats have become alienated from humans they often join colonies of stray cats, and this can cause problems in their surroundings.
Nina Cohen of the Queen Sophia Animal Protection Foundation says that predation is a real problem, “especially the damage that house cats and stray cats do to bird populations. This is something that our organization is examining right now.”
In order to stop the nuisance caused by stray cats, the Stray Cat Foundation champions the Trap Neuter Return Method, which aims to diminish stray cat populations by catching and sterilizing stray cats before letting them loose again. Simply killing them is not considered effective since dead members of a group are instantly replaced by new stray cats.
Curiosity killed the cat
But killing cats is exactly what the Province of Friesland advocates. The Trap Neuter Return Handbook published by the Stray Cat Foundation claims that according to the Dutch Hunters Association between 8000 and 13500 cats are shot per year in Utrecht Province and Friesland in order to avoid disturbances and preserve bird populations. Utrecht has since ceased the killing of cats, but the province of Friesland, which incidentally is the province where the percentage of missing cats is relatively very high, still endorses the activity.
“I don’t know where you got that figure but it’s completely wrong. Do you even know what hunting regulations are?” asks hunter Arjen Bosma.
The Dutch Hunters Association could not confirm any numbers without doing more research, but some Wildlife Control Units (that is what hunters call themselves) provided additional information.
“The number of cats that are shot in Friesland is between 200 and 400, and this is because cats are dangerous. They kill between 10 and 20 thousand birds each year and it’s mind boggling that they are allowed to roam freely,” says Sietse de Boer of WBE Jagers Skarsterlan.
Two law researchers from the University of Tilburg claimed that under EU environmental laws (the 2009 Birds Directive and the 1992 Habitat Directive) domestic cats should be banned from roaming outside as they are a danger to wildlife. NOS reported on this, to which the Dutch Bureau of the European Commission replied: “We are not going to ask cat owners to keep their cats on a leash. According to our information cats are not the biggest threat to biodiversity.”
Anousjka Duinstra, spokesperson of the Province, explains that shooting cats is a way to protect the low lying breeding grounds of birds in Friesland, although authorities are still busy researching the exact impact of cats on vulnerable bird species. In the meantime, cats can be shot to prevent damage to flora and fauna.
De Boer says that hunters are careful not to shoot ordinary house cats. “A stray cat can be determined by the fact that they are perpetually outside and usually avoid humans. Extra care should be taken in the vicinity of houses and farms.”
The hunting of cats in Friesland has caused controversy and over 27000 people recently signed a petition to put a stop to it. Clearly not everyone agrees that cats are dangerous.
“There is no conclusive evidence that cats have that big an impact on bird populations. Cats hunt at night, when most birds are quiet and inactive. Chemicals used in agriculture are a much bigger cause of bird deaths,” according to Bouma.
There is another volunteer organization in the Netherlands that does more than collect data: the Animal Ambulance organization collects animals too.
Andre Nijdam, manager of the branch in Groningen says: “Our ambulances are mostly sent out for bird emergencies, but last year (2022) we had 2150 incoming cats. We’re talking about anything from sick cats to cats that were hit by cars. Most of them were actually hit by cars. From the cats that are brought in, 70-80% are returned to their owners eventually. And that’s something we work very hard for, with the help of our Facebook group and the missing cats section on our website; not only because of the costs involved but also because we cannot keep those cats indefinitely: sooner or later we have to decide whether to have a vet put them to sleep .”
The majority of cats that go missing are chipped, and according to Amivedi 77% of missing cats that were chipped are reunited with their owners. Though missing cats without a chip were only reunited with their owners 22% of the time.
When asked what advice they would give to cat owners so they don’t lose their cats, people overwhelmingly responded: get your cat microchipped. “If you want to let your cat outside, I would always get them chipped. If they are found or arrive at the vet, you will always be contacted,” says Van Vuuren.
According to Dutch law, cat owners are not required to chip their cats, in contrast to their canine counterparts. Dogs have been required to be chipped since 2013, and as a result less dogs have gone missing. It would be wise for the government to also introduce this law in case of cats.
But what other solutions are there? Another option could be some type of gps tracker. Collars with GPS trackers exist, though they aren’t a good solution either. “Collars aren’t good for cats, they can get entangled in it. For example, a branch can get caught behind the collar or they could get stuck crawling underneath a fence,” warns Van Vuuren.
So what about a microchip with a gps tracker? Currently they don’t exist, and it’s unlikely they will anytime soon. “Firstly, microchips are the size of a rice grain so there’s no space for a GPS tracker, and secondly, it would be way too expensive,” according to Nijdam.
Another option is to put the cat on a leash and go on a walk with it, but that’s a bit like a Dutch person wearing a helmet while cycling; it just looks silly.
Though the best option for cat owners (but perhaps not the best for the cat) is to simply keep the cat indoors at all times like Van Vuuren does.
“I never want to have a cat go missing again. The sadness of missing a cat; that is inconceivable.”