My Pet Is Lost!
What To Do When Your Pet Is Lost
“Missing Cat, Please Help!” I glanced at the post. The sweet, grey face of Elizabeth stared out from the screen. I didn’t know her, but I knew she had a story and a family and someone was looking for her.
One of my cats went missing for about 20 minutes and that was long enough for me to know I never, ever want to go through that again. And my job at a vet clinic means we are often the go-between for missing pets. It breaks our hearts and we want to help, but how? There needs to be an easy way to tell people what to do when your pet is lost.
And this blog post was born. Much of the information in this piece comes from work presented by Annalisa Berns and Landa Coldiron at the Western Veterinary Conference in 2008 and 2012. These women are pet detectives with hands on experience in finding lost pets.
Another excellent source is Kat Albrecht founder of The Missing Pet Partnership.
The Initial Shock
Recognize your emotions will be strong. Don’t become paralyzed with fear or grief and stop taking action. Hard as it may be, you need to get going and keep going.
Realize that YOU must do the looking when your pet is lost. Get out and keep driving around or walking the neighborhood. You can ask others for help, but are they going to crawl around in bushes helping you find your cat?
The process can take days or even weeks. This may seem like torture so seek out helpful support, not doubters, or those who don’t understand the power of the human-animal bond. Explore all avenues and take every step you can. Ask for help. Find someone who can help be objective when you can’t. Keep searching.
Don’t Wait, Get Looking
Especially for dogs, the faster you can mobilize a group to search, the better. Fan out in all directions with the objective of trying to catch up with the dog. Ask everyone you see about the dog. Take paper and pen (or business cards) to leave them your contact information so they can call if they do see the dog. Four to five people driving a neighborhood can cover a wide territory and a sighting is possible.
For cats, your search is going to be on foot and much closer to home, at least initially. You’ll have to knock on doors to get permission to go into all the back yards, side yards, and under deck areas that you can.
Where To Look?
Sounds silly, but the first thing to ask—did you or someone actually see your pet escape outside? If not, do not overlook searching inside the house. And if you have cats, this means looking in crazy, unlikely places—the ceiling crawl space, even in walls (usually in a basement utility room where the ceiling isn’t closed, they can land in the framing of a wall not closed up). Did they crawl under a bed and then up into a box spring? Are they locked in a closet or utility room by accident? A cupboard or pantry shelf?
If you are certain your pet is lost, understand scared pets behave much differently than the one snoring on your couch as you watch TV. You aren’t likely to find your cat or dog strolling around the block, casually wandering up the driveway to sit at the front door.
For Lost Cats
When cats are lost, their instinct is to “hide in silence.” This protects them from predators, but makes it harder for you to find. You will need to be physically active in your search. Don’t assume they will come up to you or even meow. Fear may paralyze them.
Keep talking as you search. For some cats, hearing your voice will draw them out. Bring along good and smelly cat food. Food may lure them out especially if they are hungry.
If your cat is curious and outgoing, these cats may travel when they end up outside. Travel may be up to a 5-block radius. First, start with the outside of your house. Then, get friendly with neighbors and ask permission to search the outside of their property as well. You need to do the looking.
If your cat is not into people or is shy/skittish, these cats may stick closer to home. They are likely to be hiding out of fear. Search a close-by radius and look everywhere a scared cat might hide.
This shyer group may try to break from their hiding place and make a run for the house. Keep in mind, this may take as long as 7-10 days (or even more) for them to work up the courage to make a break for it. Often times hunger and thirst makes this happen.
If your cat is “xenophobic” or scared of everything, these cats will bolt in fear and then hide in silence once outside. This group is hard to find and hard to catch. If they are caught, they may be mistaken for feral because they are terrified. Using a humane trap is often the best route for this type of cat.
Keep repeating the searches. Once is not enough.
For Lost Dogs
Dog personality plays a role in how far they roam and whether or not they may be picked up by someone. The happy dog (tail wags at everyone) may not go very far. They are most likely to be picked up by someone—which may work against you if person doesn’t take to a shelter or somehow make it known they have the dog. The search for the happy dog may not be a big area. Ask neighbors to get a lead.
If your dog is “aloof” or wary of strangers, he can travel a great distance. These dogs can be enticed with patience and food, but often not. Their shy behavior may create the appearance that they’ve been mistreated when that is not the case. This group may be gone a long time.
“Xenophobic” or fearful dogs will travel the farthest. They will bolt out of fear and not be mindful of surroundings. When this type of dog is scared, he may not come to the owner because his fear or stress state is too high.
If you have another dog at home that the lost dog is friendly with, bring him along for the search. Bring a longer lead and let the “not lost” dog go farther into spaces that would be harder for humans.
Keep repeating the search and talking to people in the area.
Get The Word Out
Call your local animal control. Call your local shelter(s) and find out if there is paperwork you should fill out. Don’t assume your phone call is enough. Find out what their policy is for lost pets and how long they will hold them. Call them daily. Don’t rely on them calling you—they are overworked and underpaid and you are not the only one they serve.
If the shelter is open, go there and see for yourself. They may have 5 pets similar to yours. You will know yours before they do.
Call or email area vet clinics. If you can email, include a picture and identifying information. Many times clients will notify their vet when they find a stray.
Call the microchip company and report your pet missing. If you have a current membership, they may have additional assistance available to help spread the word.
Get Social. This is one time where social media and the internet will be your friend. Post on Facebook and not just on your page. Ask friends in your community to share news that your pet is lost.
Search Facebook for “Lost and Found Pets” for your area or state. Many areas have a page set up just for this type of thing. Post to those pages.
Call or email smaller rescue or shelter groups, especially the no-kill ones. Ironically, when people find a lost pet the last place they take it is the local humane society for fear of the pet being euthanized. Yet as owners of a lost pet, that is the first place we look.
If your dog is an unusual breed or one that “looks like” a specific breed, notify breed-specific rescues in the area. Shelters and breed-specific rescues may work together to place lost pets.
Go door-to-door in your neighborhood, up to a 5-block radius. Hand out fliers with your pet’s info and your contact info.
Hang posters—but not just a plain sheet of paper. Buy some brightly colored poster board to make the sign stand out. Use big, bold letters for key words like “lost dog” or “reward” and then the breed and your phone number. Include a picture. You can always put additional details in smaller print. Interested people will stop and read, but the big and bold key facts are visible from the street.
Don’t forget to stop and talk with school bus drivers, mail carriers, or taxi drivers (if you live in a big enough city). Those folks are out often and may have seen your pet. Give them your contact info in case of a sighting.
Pet stores often have a lost and found board. As do gas stations, churches, and libraries. Place a flier anywhere you can within a reasonable radius so the word gets out.
It may be “old school”, but it works, place a notice in the newspaper or other weekly community pages.
Other Things To Try Around The House
Set up a small-scale security camera around the home. These can run under $200, are motion triggered, and connect wirelessly to your internet. Try to focus the camera on likely entry/exit points. You might see movement at night and get a clue as to where to look.
When out searching, just keep talking. Hearing your voice might make a pet come out.
Do they have a “favorite” noise (e.g., the can opener) that you can somehow make outside as you are searching? Record it on a cell phone and keep playing it as you search.
Leave out their food and water.
For cats, leave out their litter box in a safe and accessible place near where they escaped. It may not work, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
Don’t rule out humane traps (e.g., Havahart or Tomahawk). These need to be set up appropriately (e.g., disguised) and well baited. It may sound awful, but if used properly they do not hurt the animal and the result is you have your pet back. Consult your vet or a local rescue or shelter to get great tips on how to camouflage a humane trap and what foods to use (e.g., some folks swear by KFC).
There are services that use scent dogs to help track lost pets. They are rare, but they do exist. Do your homework to make sure the company is legit.
A Huge Note On Safety
Don’t lose sight of common sense and caution when your emotions are running high. Be cautious of the information your share with strangers when your pet is lost. Do NOT meet strangers in unfamiliar places and do NOT go alone.
If someone calls in response to your flier or sign, ask THEM to describe the pet with specific and leading questions “Is the nose pink or black? What color are the paws? Describe the tail.”
Use questions you know the answer to that might be unique about your pet. If someone is scamming you, they may hang up because they can’t answer the questions. If the person is legitimate, the pet they’ve found might not be yours. You can save a trip.