Helping Lost Pets Find Their Way Home
By Laura Harris
Animal lovers may believe that only irresponsible humans could “lose” a beloved cat or dog. But accidents happen. If you see a lost dog or cat, your actions could make all the difference in helping a pet finds its way safely home.
Think “Lost”, Not “Stray”
Losing a pet is surprisingly common. An ASPCA survey found that 15% of pet lovers reported losing a dog or cat in the past 5 years. Yet many assume that any dog or cat on its own outdoors—particularly without a collar or ID tag—is homeless. Too often, we believe that these animals are feral or abandoned.
One reason why we assume that lost animals are strays is that lost pets may appear shy or fearful. Many dogs are just, well, scaredy cats. Some breeds may be more skittish, and a dog on his own outside who seems anxious or scared may just be timid. And depending on how long the dog has been lost, he may even “look” like a stray and be thinner, with matted or dirty fur.
That’s why the Missing Pet Partnership, a nonprofit organization that helps families track down their lost pets, advises people to “think lost, not stray.” By treating that cat or dog as someone’s lost pet, rather than as abandoned, you may significantly increase the odds of reuniting them with family.
“Someone who believes that a dog was dumped is more likely to self-adopt that dog rather than attempt to find its owner,” reports the Missing Pet Partnership. “In reality, we have many people showing up at our animal shelters every day to report that their dog escaped and is lost.”
Outdoor Cats: Lost, Stray, or Feral?
When a cat is living outdoors, it can be difficult to tell if it’s a lost pet, a stray, or feral. A feral cat is not socialized to people, is typically fearful of them, and survive on their own outdoors. Feral cats are unlikely to ever enjoy living indoors as pets.
Unfortunately, a lost cat, particularly one used to living indoors, may appear feral at first glance. A cat who has only lived indoors may go into fight-or-flight mode outside. That’s why Alley Cat Allies, a cat advocacy group, says it’s important to understand the difference between an aggressive or feral cat and one that’s simply scared. According to Joan Miller, a cat behavior expert, behaviors that seem aggressive, such as hissing or growling, may actually mean the cat is expressing fear or anxiety. Feral cats are unlikely to vocalize, so meows or purrs may also be signs of socialization with humans.
A feral cat may actually appear more neat and well-groomed than an escaped pet. A pet is likely to be stressed and anxious when outdoors and may stop grooming. If the cat responds quickly to sounds like a can or bag of food opening, she is probably not feral.
If you think the cat may be someone’s pet, try to safely catch and secure them. Approach them slowly, making sure they can see you. Never chase a cat. Use smelly food like tuna or sardines to lure them to a carrier or box with plenty of air holes. If the cat is so scared or shy that you cannot get close enough to secure them, you may need to use a humane trap.
Helping Lost Dogs
If you encounter a lost dog, it may be frightened, sick, or injured, so approach with caution. Any sudden movement or loud noise may spook them, so be careful near busy streets. The Humane Society of the United States recommends speaking calmly and reassuringly as you approach, making sure they can always see you. If possible, use strong-smelling food to lure them to you.
If the dog appears aggressive or threatening, don’t approach them. Go somewhere safe and call Animal Control (see Resources below).
If you can approach the dog, secure them, either with a collar and long leash or by containing them in a fenced yard. If you leash them, the Missing Pet Partnership suggests first telling them, “Go home!” Believe it or not, some dogs know exactly where home is and will lead you there!
I’ve Caught the Animal—Now What?
After you’ve secured the animal, time is of the essence in finding their humans. First, contact local shelters and rescue organizations and file a found-animal report. Shelters are typically the first place people call when a pet goes missing, so it’s critical to contact them quickly. Provide complete information about where you found the animal, including landmarks and cross-streets.
Next, take the animal to the nearest shelter or veterinarian so they can scan for microchips. Microchipping is increasingly common, particularly in pets adopted from shelters, and may be the most effective way to ensure a lost pet is reunited with family. (Microchipping services post online profiles of missing pets.) The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that 52% of microchipped dogs were returned home, compared with 22% of unchipped ones. Only 2% of cats without microchips were reunited with family, but microchipping increased this to 39%!
If you can’t safely house the animal until their family is found, you’ll need to surrender them to a rescue. But there’s still plenty you can do to help get them home. Go door-to-door where you found them. Bring a photo and description to show neighbors, ask if they know the family, and give them your number. Post photos and the animal’s description on social media, and encourage others to share.
Think about what you’d want others to do if they found your pet alone outside without a collar. Your hard work could make all the difference for a distraught family missing their beloved companion.
Laura Harris is a volunteer with King Street Cats who lives in Alexandria with her two cats, Thunder and Marmalade. She thanks Steph Selice of KSC for her help with this article.
Alley Cat Allies
7920 Norfolk Avenue, Suite 600
Bethesda, MD 20814-2525
Office Hours: 9 a.m.–6 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday
Animal Welfare League of Alexandria
4101 Eisenhower Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22304
Animal Welfare League of Arlington
2650 S. Arlington Mill Drive
Arlington, VA 22206
Humane Rescue Alliance
DC Animal Care and Control
1201 New York Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Missing Pet Partnership™