We feared Felix our missing cat was gone for good, then he turned up 10 miles away
A cat who undertook an unlikely 10 mile trip down the M1 has been reunited with his owners.
Andy Sheppard (45) and his wife Emma (43) became concerned about one-year-old Felix shortly after he vanished from their Lisburn home on Christmas Eve - just a year after the friendly feline surprised the couple's three children by turning up underneath the Christmas tree.
"We put him out the night before as always, but he never came home for breakfast - we didn't really start to worry until after Christmas Day," Andy said.
"There were fears that Santa Claus had changed his mind and taken him away again or that Felix had managed to climb onto his sleigh somehow."
Andy's eight-year-old daughter Bonnie had even speculated that the Elf on the Shelf - who had to be back in the North Pole for Christmas Day - had wreaked havoc on the family by taking Felix with him.
"The elf reports back to Santa regularly and hides around the house causing all sorts of mischief, so Bonnie thought he may have been behind the disappearance," her dad explained.
The distraught youngster never stopped asking where Felix had gone, leaving her parents to think of ideas.
Lost for words, they suggested the night prowler may have gone to live on the farm.
"We never once told her that he might be dead, but we had resigned ourselves to the fact that he wasn't coming home," Andy said.
After more than a week of waiting, Bonnie, brother Ted (11) and sister Eva (13) had also given up hope of ever seeing Felix again and their parents had even begun to purr over the idea of buying a new cat as a replacement.
"But then I got this notification from Nextdoor, a social networking site I use for work, and lo and behold it was about a black cat which had been found on the Lisburn Road," the landscape gardener said.
Andy and Emma didn't believe it could possibly be Felix until Braemer Veterinary Clinic uploaded pictures of the "very friendly" cat which bore a striking resemblance to their missing moggie.
"Initially I thought: 'No way!'," Andy added.
"But my parents live in the Malone area and I do a lot of work around that way, so I started to think it could actually be him.
"When I showed the picture to Bonnie she was convinced.
"She kept saying: 'It's definitely him!' because of a little mark he has on his ear."
Still sceptical, Andy phoned the vet and explained there was a very small possibility that he could be the owner but he had serious doubts due to the distance involved.
The vet, who was much more optimistic, said: "It sounds like Felix."
On Wednesday afternoon, the Sheppard family travelled to Assisi animal sanctuary in Conlig where the black cat was being cared for.
"We needed to see for ourselves in order to be sure," Andy said. "I couldn't believe it - it was him and we couldn't have been happier.
"I can only assume he was in the back of my pick-up truck when I drove into Belfast and probably froze with fear when I headed down the motorway.
"He must have been petrified and jumped out at the first opportunity he got which would have been in the vicinity of the Lisburn Road."
The entire family are delighted to have the furry stowaway back home safe, especially Bonnie, who has been keeping him busy in her upstairs den where they have been playing with her dolls.
"Eva and Ted really missed him too but, as far as Bonnie is concerned, Felix is her cat and she's been walking around with him like he's a handbag ever since he came home - it's caused a few arguments but nothing too serious," Andy said.
"He's a little nervous and a wee bit battered and bruised from his big adventure, but he's warming up a bit and getting back to his old self."
The timid tomcat might be home safe and well but he shouldn't get too comfortable as a return trip to the vet is now inevitable.
"Our priority is to get him neutered, he won't be out the door until that has been done," Andy continued.
"He's happy at home and we don't want him wandering off again."