Tools to find a lost cat: Humane trap

Learn when to use a humane trap, how to set it, and what to do when your cat is trapped.

You’re trying to find your lost cat. You think you know where he is but he hides or he won’t come to you! A humane trap may be just the tool you need to bring your kitty back home.

What is a humane trap?

A humane trap is a box trap commonly used to catch cats for trap, neuter, and return. Some people use it to trap nuisance wildlife like raccoons although this is illegal in many areas. Humane traps can be purchased at many feed stores, hardware stores, or online. Good ones can cost $70+ but work very well and hold up to long term use. Cheap ones can work but may hang up and not trigger or trigger at the wrong time, ruining your chance of catching your cat.

When to use a humane trap

This tool is most effective when you know where your cat is but you can’t catch him. You may have seen him yourself, had verified sightings from someone else, or have security camera footage. These sightings are most often in the owner’s own yard, a neighbor’s yard, or a location where outside cats are fed. The trap is best used in a targeted manner. You do not want to randomly set traps and hope for the best, as you will more likely catch wildlife or other people’s cats. if you catch a skunk you will have a whole new problem to deal with!

How it works

The humane trap is a variation on the old drop trap, the “original mouse trap,” you may have made as a kid. This trap features a box of some kind propped up by a stick. A string attached to the stick either leads to a food treat to be grabbed by the targeted critter, or to your hand to be pulled when the critter is underneath the box. The modern humane trap is a metal cage with a trip plate inside. The door is propped open and food is placed at the end so the cat or other animal must step on the trip plate to reach it. When they step on the plate, the door shuts.

How to set

As mentioned, you are more likely to be successful is bringing your lost cat home if your efforts are well planned. Choose an ideal time to set the trap, when your cat has been seen, most likely after dark. You’re not going to leave it set all the time, and you don’t want to catch the wrong cat or other animal. Pick an ideal location for the trap, where your cat has been seen and where it is safe. Line the trap and place the bait at the end. Cover the trap (or not, if your cat avoids a covered trap), and wait. These steps are shown in the accompanying video.

Do’s and don’ts

These are my suggestions from experience. You may do things differently depending on your experience or how your cat reacts to the trap.

Line the bottom of the trap

I like to line the bottom of the trap with newspaper. This helps keep the cat from injuring his paws on the wire mesh. 2-3 sheets works well. Too much and it will interfere with the trip mechanism, too little and it won’t provide any protection. I do not recommend using a towel to line the trap as it is too heavy and the cat can catch his claws in the material. I have seen cats injured and wound up in towels in cages in shelter situations, so don’t recommend this.

Cover the trap

Many cats will panic when the trap door shuts, so a cover will help keep the cat from injuring himself. It can be very frightening to be trapped in place, unable to run, yet able to see everything around that could be a threat. For a cover you can use an old towel, lap blanket, or bed sheet. When setting the trap, fold the cover back from the open door. When the cat is in the trap and the door shut. cover it completely and leave it covered during transport. You can easily feel the carrying handle through your cover.

Monitor your trap(s)!

Monitoring your traps is an absolute necessity in any situation. It is required by law in many areas, even in traps used for hunting. In California, you are required to check traps at least once every 24 hours. I don’t recommend waiting that long as a lot can go wrong in a trap.

A cat can panic and injure himself, requiring medical attention. A predator or an aggressive cat can approach the trap and cause fright or injury. Extreme elements can quickly cause illness or death, especially heat. For that reason, you should not trap in extreme temperatures, whether hot or cold.

You can watch the trap from a distance, through a window if the trap is outside your home, or from your car if at another location. You can set up a security camera and watch the live footage or enable motion alerts.


If your trap(s) are visible to the public, you may want to post a sign. There have been cases of possibly well meaning individuals sabotaging trapping efforts by springing the door. These people may think you are going to harm, relocate, or take the cat to a shelter. A clearly posted sign with language like, “Please do not touch the trap. I am trying to catch my lost cat. Call if any concerns (your phone number),” can help prevent this.

What to do when your cat is trapped

You managed to trap your kitty. Hurray! Now what?

DO NOT open the trap for any reason. Many trapping efforts have been ruined by owners opening the trap in an attempt to pick their cat up, transfer them to a carrier, or put them in the car. The trap functions as a carrier, so use it as such. Keep it covered until you are safely in the house in a secure area. Only open the trap when all doors are closed, maybe even in a separate room at first. You cat will likely be traumatized from his experience and may dart and hide until he has a chance to calm down and get his bearings.

If your cat has been missing for a long time, a trip to the vet is a good idea. It is not uncommon for a lost cat to lose weight, pick up parasites, or become injured from fighting with other cats. If he is visibly ill or injured, you might try to get him in immediately, even to an emergency clinic if your regular vet is not available. You’ll have to use your judgment as to the immediacy of the need. If he is okay for now, call your vet and make an appointment as soon as they are available.

Be sure to check out our article and video on using security cameras to find a lost cat, and stay tuned for a future article and video on re-acclimating your recovered lost cat.