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Tips if you find a stray pet

Posted by Jennifer on December 29th, 2009

found-dog“I’ve Found a Stray Pet! What do I do now?” Have you ever come across a lost pet and wondered what you should do?  Call the police?  Chase and try to catch them?  Take them home and find them a new home? While these might seem like good ideas, without taking the proper steps first, you may be endangering the pet, breaking the law, or depriving a grieving owner the chance to be reunited with their lost pet.  But, of course, you want to help and make sure the pet is safe!  Below are some tips for getting a found pet safely back to their owner. (If you lost your pet, see our Lost Pet Guide instead.)

If you see a cat you think may be lost:

Many people allow their pet cats to spend time outdoors, so if you see a cat outside with a collar and the cat looks to be in good health, you probably do not need to take any action.  If a cat approaches you, it’s always a good idea to see if there is a collar with identification, because the cat may have gotten lost.  It never hurts to call the owner just to make sure the cat should be outside where you found him.  If you find a cat that has no identification and seems friendly but he’s skinny, has matted hair and is need of care, see if you can pick up the cat and take him home.  Many cats are feral (wild) and won’t allow you to approach them, but a lost or abandoned pet may well allow you to approach and pick them up. Once home, follow the steps we suggest below to try to reunite a lost pet with their owner.

If you see a dog you think may be lost:

First, please be very careful if you are going to try to catch a stray dog yourself. Even normally friendly dogs who are lost can be frightened and bite unexpectedly. Do you know the difference between a friendly wagging tail, and a “warning flag” wagging tail? If you are afraid, do not try to catch a stray dog. Dogs can sense your fear and are more likely to bite when they do. Also, chasing the dog may itself scare him or her, and do more harm than good.  For example, chasing after a dog can cause him to dart out into traffic, or panic and run away.  Also, we certainly do NOT advise trying to capture an unfriendly pet by yourself! That takes lots of aggressive dog-handling experience and accepting the bite risks involved.

If you can’t or don’t feel safe capturing a stray dog you see:

  • Write down the details of the dog (color, size, breed and sex), the exact location (street address or intersection) and WHICH DIRECTION the dog is moving.
  • Call animal control. You can dial 411 and ask for the closest agency. Report the stray’s information. Some agencies will come out immediately if you are on a cell phone and “tracking” the pet. Others will send an officer as soon as possible depending on the urgency of other calls.
  • Ask neighbors or anyone outside (including children) if anyone knows the stray dog. Often they can direct you where to find the owners.
  • Follow the pet. Some pets will wander into an empty yard where you can close a gate behind them to contain them until animal control arrives or until you can ask around and locate the owner.

If you see a stray dog who acts friendly, here are some tips you can use to get the dog off the street and out of immediate danger:

  • Call the dog to you, and get him to follow you into a store or yard where you can close the door without having to grab at the dog.
  • Do not grab at or move quickly towards a stray pet. Squat so you are not leaning over the dog, and use slow, calm movements.
  • Leash the dog.  It’s handy to keep a slip leash (available at vet offices or shelters often for free) in your car or in your bag for just such a purpose. Or use a regular dog leash with a loop handle, your belt or rope, fashioned into a noose. If a stray dog approaches you and is friendly, you can slowly and calmly drape the noose over his head to leash him.
  • If you are in your car, open your car’s back door. Owned pets will sometimes jump right in, and will be less frightened (and less likely to bite) than when running loose.
Abandoned or lost?
Don’t judge the condition of the animal and make an assumption about an uncaring owner. Pets can be lost for days, weeks or months, and become sick, thin and dirty. An anxious owner may have been frantically searching for their lost pet that you’ve found! Collars and tags can have fallen off. Signs that a pet may have once been a loved family member are: BEING SPAYED OR NEUTERED and/or having a microchip.


If you have a lost dog or cat safely in your custody, how do you reunite them with their family?

If there is an ID tag with a phone number, call and try to return the pet to the owner directly.  If you can’t reach the owner, or the pet has no ID tag, call your local animal control right away to see if anyone has reported their pet missing, and to ask for further instructions. Every city has different laws governing stray animals. Some say you must bring him to the shelter, and leave him there for a ‘stray period’ to give an owner a chance to claim him (often 3 days), and will allow you to adopt or rescue him after 3 days. Others may let you house the animal if you file a lost pet report and post “found” notices in the newspaper and at the shelter.  No matter what, bring the pet to a shelter or vet to have him scanned for a microchip. Here are some other steps to take:

  • Make FOUND PET flyers. Keep a couple of key details off the flyer. Give out only enough information so the pet’s owner will suspect it’s their pet. For instance, if you find a Bichon Frise with a red collar, you might advertise “Found: Small white dog with collar”. When the owner calls, ask him or her to describe the collar and ask what breed their dog is. Beware of unscrupulous characters who will try to claim dogs for nefarious purposes.
  • Post flyers in the area where you found the pet, all local shelters, and vet offices.  Ask in the vet offices if they recognize the pet as one of their patients.
  • As you distribute the flyers, remember to look for the lost pet flyer that the owner may have posted.
  • Place a Found Pet ad in your local newspaper classifieds, and check for a Lost Pet ad as well.
  • There are many web sites that specialize in lost and found pet postings. Some popular ones are TheCenterForLostPets.com, petharbor.com and fidofinder.com. (Also findtoto.com, a for-fee service.)

What if you can’t find the owner?

After you’ve followed the steps above, you may decide you want to keep the pet you’ve found or help find him a new home.  If the pet is in the shelter, you may have priority to adopt him (since you found him in the first place), or you may need to complete an application or follow the shelter’s adoption procedure prior to the day the pet becomes available for adoption to make sure you’re at the top of the list. Every shelter is different, so verify with your shelter how to proceed if you want to adopt (or rescue to rehome) the pet you’ve found.

If you can safely and legally house the pet while you attempt to find the owner, that’s wonderful. If not, call local rescue groups to see if anyone has room to foster the pet for you and to help find the pet a new home if the owner cannot be located. You can find rescue groups in your area here: http://www.adoptapet.com/animal-shelters

And please, make sure to microchip and keep current ID tags on all your pets!
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