Often we read about cats being lost for a long time and sometimes they come back or are found. Many cat owners expect their cat to behave like other family members, namely to follow them wherever they go to live. They might assume that it’s enough for them to provide a good home with security, food and shelter together with good human company. They might expect their cat to stay put under these excellent conditions. Nearly all of them will but a some don’t.
However, a high quality home (from the human standpoint) might not be enough for a domestic cat. Domestic cats need to form an attachment to their physical environment. Many of these cats are “voluntary migrants” looking for a better place to live. The reason or at least the most likely explanation is that they are unable to establish a place, or what is called a “home range”, where they can feel relaxed and where they are unchallenged by other cats.
It seems that sometimes cat owners fail to recognise this necessity in the domestic cat. Challenges and threats from other cats might come from next door or perhaps from another cat in a multi-cat household .
There is possibly an overconfidence by cat caretaker/guardians in the ability of domestic cats to get along where there are two more cats in their home.
So the most likely answer to the question in the title is that a cat goes looking for a “better home” because he feels stressed and challenged by other cats and is unable to establish a territory where he feels settled.
In one study, in one area of the UK, as many as one quarter of cat owners adopted their cat because he turned up one day. These cats were not feral, they were domesticated cats keen to find a new home and adopt a new owner. They had recently been someone else’s companion animal but where desperate to leave what might have been a high quality home to find a new place to live. Many are ‘voluntary migrants’ to use the words of Dr Bradshaw. Some are genuinely lost but often this is a deliberate search for a better place to live.
Cat owners need to be vigilant and on another page I present the signs of feline discord in homes where there are more than one cat (to follow).
Source: Myself and Dr Bradshaw.