The cat stares out from the photograph. She's lying down, her legs tucked beneath her, making her body look like a furry egg. She looks alert, her head erect, her sky-blue eyes narrowed slightly. She's a well-groomed Siamese with a tiny nick out of her right ear. Her name is Sashi and, says the poster bearing her picture, she's missing.

Pets go missing every day. Dogs bolt after digging under a fence. Cats slink through an open screen door. Birds literally fly the coop.

If you're a lucky owner, the pet comes right back, and you breathe a sigh of relief. But sometimes, as with Sashi -- a cat from Northwest Washington that went missing in May -- there are days and weeks of uncertainty.

The faces stare at us from telephone poles. Their owners plead in the "Lost & Found" section of the newspaper.

Sashi's owner, Heather, spoke with me on the condition that I not print her last name. She thought people might think she was crazy, given the lengths she and her husband went to try and recover her cat.

"You didn't use a psychic, did you?" I joked.

She did. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Sashi slipped out about midnight on May 17. The cat was staying with a workmate of Heather, who was watching Sashi while the owners were in Italy on vacation. Sashi didn't have a collar on at that moment, and though the pet-sitters gave chase, she disappeared into the night.

The pet-sitters immediately started putting up "lost pet" signs, but when Heather and her husband arrived home five days later, she still hadn't been found.

There was a quandary: The cat had escaped about five miles from its home. Friends tried to be encouraging, pointing out that the epic journeys of lost pets are legendary. But would Sashi know how to get home?

Experts recommend that owners of lost pets paper the neighborhood with posters, but which neighborhood? The one where Sashi was lost or the one to which she might be headed?

Heather started in the area where Sashi went missing, then expanded from there, eventually putting up about 400 posters. She also sent messages to every neighborhood list-serv she could find, asking people to be on the lookout for a small Siamese.

No one keeps accurate statistics on lost pets, said Stephanie Shain, director of outreach at the Humane Society of the United States. But with 73.9 million dogs in the United States and 90.5 million cats, the numbers are probably astronomical.

One indicator is the "return-to-owner" rate: the percentage of pets brought into animal shelters that are reunited with their owners. About 25 to 30 percent of dogs wind up back home, said Stephanie. For cats, it's only 3 to 5 percent.

Why the difference? Stephanie said dogs are more likely than cats to be wearing a collar. And since many indoor-outdoor cats live a sort of peripatetic existence, gone for hours on end, owners might not realize their cat is missing until a day or two has gone by.

With no sign of Sashi, her owners turned to professionals. Their first step was to hire a pet detective named Carl Washington who works out of Georgia and Virginia.

"My friend told me this guy had found her cat in two weeks," said Heather. "I was like, okay, I'll call him."

Pet-finding is a growing industry. Google "pet detective" -- and then ignore the references to the Jim Carrey movie -- and you'll find companies with such names as Sherlock Bones and Pet Hunters International.

They use their knowledge of animal behavior to narrow the search area. Many have dogs trained to follow the scent of cats and dogs. Carl works with CoCo and Rocky, a miniature poodle and a Jack Russell terrier. Laura Totis, a Carroll County animal handler who has been involved in missing-person searches, works with a Rottweiler named Xena and a German shepherd named Chewy.

"They'll find whatever I tell them to find at the start," Laura said. "It's scent discriminating. It can be a cat or a turtle or a horse or a person. It doesn't matter to the dog. I treat the [pet] search the same as you would treat a lost-human search. For example, if it's an elderly dog, we'd treat it almost like an Alzheimer's search."

Laura said even small dogs can travel 10 miles in a day. Cats don't roam so far afield. "House cats tend to panic," she said. "[They'll] find someplace to hide and camp out there for weeks."

To lure cats into the open, some pet detectives set out stinky bait or use humane traps. Like some sort of nocturnal pet Pied Piper, Carl set out tuna fish in the alleys for three nights running near where Sashi went missing to draw felines out of the shadows.

"Lots of cats came out, but never her," said Heather.

She doesn't regret the $1,000 she paid Carl Washington, since he seemed to know what he was doing, even if he didn't have any luck.

All the while, Heather was going door-to-door, asking if anyone had seen her cat. She and her husband also were responding to phone calls from people who were sure they recognized Sashi from the posters. And every other day they called animal shelters from Fairfax to Howard County to see if any cats matching Sashi's description had been brought in.

"It's a full-time job if you really want to be serious about it," Heather said.

None of the leads panned out.

It was time to bring in the pet psychic.

Tomorrow: Will the psychic's prediction help find Sashi?

Julia Feldmeier helped research this column.