How do I find a lost animal?

Basset nose in cat holeLost animals are a special concern. Of course, you want your companion back with you as soon as possible. The first thing you want to know is what you can do to get them back. That’s why you’re here. You need to get all of these things in place immediately to give your lost animal the best chance of getting home safely. Do not depend solely on a communicator or psychic to find a lost animal. Animals need human help to get home safely.

If you find your animal, never, ever, hit, scold, or otherwise punish the animal for coming to you! Animals live in the present. The punishment will be associated with coming to you, not with running away.

1. Check the shelters daily because they often have short holding times and may not recognize your pet if it’s dirty or injured.

2. If your pet is microchipped and you haven’t kept it up to date, update it immediately! If you don’t have the number or information, the vet or clinic that implanted it may be able to help you get access again.

3. Presumably, you’ve also done all you can physically to locate your friend. That means posters in neighborhoods near where the animal went missing, checking shelters, calling friends and local rescue groups, putting lost postings at every website you can find that will let you post a notice. (Please keep track of which ones you’ve used too so you can remove the post, which makes it easier for others to see which animals are still missing.) Here’s another service to expand your reach, Lost My Doggie, and it’s not limited to dogs. Some services are free and some have a fee.

4. Another option is a lost pet tracker, someone who works with a trained tracking dog. You’ll have to do an internet search under “lost pet tracking dogs” to find out if there’s one in your area. They aren’t available in all areas but a tracker can be very useful in getting you close enough to recover your pet.

5. If your animal went missing from your home, they are often nearby. Cats, in particular, tend to stay close and hide (most often within about one mile unless you’ve recently moved), especially if they’ve been an inside domestic cat since birth. Yet, they may not come or respond vocally when called. Ask neighbors to check in sheds, under decks, or any place a frightened, injured, or lost animal might take shelter.

6. If you can afford to offer a reward, do so, and proceed with caution. Yes, there are scams out there. Still, a reward makes the animal more valuable alive and makes the effort to return him/her worthwhile. Money can be a powerful incentive for people to help look for your pet. Be sure you have a good photo or know something about your pet that a scam artist won’t be able to answer. If you can’t come up with something like that, do the best you can. Never go to someone’s home or meet anyone alone when responding to a caller who claims to have recovered your animal. Slow down and control your hopes long enough to be safe. Even if you go with someone, be sure someone who isn’t with you knows where you’ve gone and why.

7. Be aware of the dangers of holidays, noise, and other things that can cause animals to panic and bolt. There are also additional dangers to animals that are allowed to live outside and spend time unsupervised, especially cats and small dogs. Animal predators, as well as unscrupulous people, are more likely to strike during holidays. For example, Halloween is known to be exceptionally dangerous for black cats. Silly superstitions are hard to kill. In addition, birds of prey can easily pick up a kitten or puppy that’s left outside and coyotes clear a six-foot fence without much effort. Be vigilant and try to keep your animals safe before there’s a problem. Nevertheless, be aware that not all disappearances are resolved, which is terribly difficult for everyone. I need to gently tell you to look for signs that something like this may have happened to your furry friend. Signs of a struggle? Blood? A neighbor that heard what they thought was a dog fight or cat fight? There’s still a chance you pet got away. The more you know the better able you are to get on the trail and try to get to an injured animal in time.

8. One other thing you may want to try is an old method that hunter’s sometimes use to find a dog that strayed too far. Get an old sweaty shirt, sweat suit, or something you or his/her favorite person has worn well. It has to be smelly to help them find “you” and to keep the scent strong for a while. Place it where you last saw the animal, along with a large bowl of water. You may want to attach a note asking anyone who finds it not to remove it because you are trying to find your pet (a picture attached would also be good, since anyone in that area might also have seen the animal). Don’t put food out. It may lure animals that could be a danger to your pet. Check back a couple of times a day, especially near the pet’s regular mealtimes, if possible. It’s important to check as frequently as possible. Call and look for signs of your pet in the area every time you come. They may be nearby sleeping in bushes or even weak or injured and unable to respond to your call. It’s an animal’s nature to hide in that situation.

9. If you’ve lost a dog and get a sighting of him/her, don’t get over-excited and give chase if you can avoid it. That makes it a game for the dog. If you can safely sit down and call them to you, try that first. They may not come readily at first. Have some favorite food or treat and place it close to you or hold it out in your hand. A few dogs will only come to a car. In that case, try to safely maneuver your car to a place where you can open the door and call them without the dog having to cross streets, rivers, or other dangerous areas. This is best done with a helper, but it can be done alone–carefully. If the dog shows signs of being afraid of a leash or car, try to get someone to help lure it into a garage or yard where you can work within a controlled area. At that point, most animals will come to you, if it’s your animal and they know you well. It may be harder with a newly adopted pet that’s less bonded to you.

10. Cats that are lost or injured may react rather violently, even to their owners. Just as a docile cat can become a Tasmanian devil when taken to the vet, a terrified cat that’s overwhelmed by being lost and frightened is not likely to be calm and tame. Be sure you have a towel to wrap the cat in, pillow cases also work well for capturing an agitated cat. Don’t worry, the cat can breathe in the pillow case for a bit. Have a sturdy (NOT cardboard) carrier with you. Stand it on end and drop the pillow case (without anything holding the pillow case closed except your hand) into the carrier and quickly close the door securely, return the crate to a normal position. The cat will usually work it’s way out of the pillow case quickly. Do not open the door of the crate until you are in a safe location, which means someplace like a bedroom with the door closed at home, or in an exam room at your veterinarian’s office or emergency clinic (if injured) when the vet/vet tech decides it’s appropriate.


Note: If you’re helping someone catch their animal or you’re catching an animal on the loose, be careful and move slowly. Should the animal show signs of aggression toward you, try to lure the animal into an area where it’s safe and other animals and people are not at risk. Then, get help from animal control. Even friendly animals may bite when in pain. If the animal is injured, there are good first aid instructions online that show how to make a temporary muzzle from old panty hose or socks and how to use a board, or anything that will work like a board, to transport an injured animal. Here are also some basic first aid tips.

Personally, I suggest people avoid calling the police, if at all possible. The reason is that most law enforcement personnel are poorly trained to handle animals and it can result in an animal that’s simply scared and defensive being shot. If abuse, theft, cruelty, fighting, or some other illegal activity is involved, you’ll have to decide how to handle the situation based on your experience, the risks, and the animals involved — including whether you can safely rescue your animal without undue risk.