Lost pets not found by their guardians are a major contributing factor to the homeless, feral, shelter, and stray pet populations. Until recently, guardians were on their own with minimal advice and no hands-on assistance to help them recover a lost pet. Knowing what to do in the first 24 hours is critical and can mean the difference between a successful reunion or a permanent separation.
When a guardian first discovers that their companion animal is missing, there are several things that should be done that will increase the chances of a successful recovery. In this article we will examine five key principles to consider, how human and animal behaviors affect lost pets, and specific steps guardians can take to recover a lost pet. The five key principles to consider are:
1. Search Home Base First - It is critical that you thoroughly search your own property and obtain permission from your neighbors to search their property in the event the missing pet is trapped, injured, or deceased. Most cats hide in silence within their territory when injured (they do not "go off to die") and there have been many cases where dogs were trapped on their guardian's property for several days yet never barked.
2. Recruit Volunteers To Help - Get assistance! More than likely, you will need the help of friends and family who can assist you with the many tasks involved in searching for a lost pet. Checking shelter cages, creating and posting large lost pet posters, distributing flyers, and posting notices on social media are only a few of the tasks that need to be done. Thinking beyond your closest friends and family, there is a huge community of animal lovers in your social media network that would be happy to drop everything to help.
3. Seek Professional Help - There are many lost pet recovery specialists who offer (phone) consultations as well as others who respond and help with tasks such as poster creation, physical searches, shelter checks, setting up feeding stations, humane trapping (especially of skittish dogs and cats), and other complex services such as using a search dog that has been trained to track lost pets. While pet tracker search dog services are typically fee-based, many volunteer groups offer other services (listed above) at no cost or for a donation. Tapping into rescuers who have training and experience with recovering lost pets is critical and could be the key to recovering your lost pet. For a listing of trained resources visit Missing Animal Response Network's (MARN) Pet Detective Directory.
4. Social Media Is Key and Free - Most communities have volunteer managed Lost & Found pages on Facebook where you can post your lost pet's information for free. These groups often work closely with their local shelters so be sure to ask them exactly what lost pet recovery services they offer. Many will also cross post your lost pet's information in other community platforms like Craig's List and Nextdoor.
5. Neon Posters - By far the number one tool that MARN volunteers have seen that is most helpful to recovering lost companion animals is a strategically placed and properly constructed poster. One of the biggest mistakes that guardians make is that they hang small flyers through a neighborhood, not realizing that most drivers can't read the information. Flyers are white, 8 ½ X 11 size paper that typically has a lost pet's photo on it along with a paragraph of information. Flyers are perfect to hand out to people, leave on doorsteps, and post on bulletin boards among other locations. However, they are not great for posting on telephone or utility poles. To effectively market a lost pet, create highly visible large neon posters (neon poster board is available at office supply stores) with large letters that read "LOST DOG." These signs are proven to capture the attention of driver's whereas small white flyers don't. In the below photograph we compare a small LOST CAT flyer with a giant, neon LOST CAT poster.
One of the keys to successfully locating a lost pet is to understand how they behave. Lost pets do not behave like pets behave when in their own homes. They demonstrate distinct patterns of behavior common in lost dogs and cats, often so different from their usual behaviors that their guardians fail to find them even when they are nearby. One of the important aspects to understand is that not all companion animals behave the same when lost. Dogs and cats are like apples and oranges and the methods used to search for them can vary based on the species, temperament, terrain, and circumstances surrounding the disappearance.
When a cat who is allowed access outside vanishes, it means that something has happened to interrupt the customary behavior of that cat coming back home.
Any cat that is transplanted into unfamiliar territory is a displaced cat. The majority of cases of displacement involve indoor-only cats that accidentally escape outdoors. However, outdoor-access cats can become displaced into unfamiliar territory as well.
Some outdoor-access cats can become displaced when chased from their territory (usually by another cat or a loose dog) and can end up just a few houses away, hiding in fear. While some of these cats may adapt after a few days and work up the confidence to return home, many become disoriented. One of the primary methods recommended to recover displaced cats is the use of digital wildlife cameras and baited humane traps.
The behavior of a sick, injured, or panicked cat is that they will hide in silence. Just because the cat owner does not see or hear their cat does not mean that s/he is not right there. The lost cat could be hiding in the neighbor's yard. If not found, the cat will likely end up in your shelter in a few months.
Cats who are afraid or injured will seek areas of concealment such as under a deck, under a house, under a porch, or in heavy brush.
Most critically, these cats will not meow. Meowing would give up their location to a predator. Their behavior has nothing to do with whether the cat loves you, recognizes your voice, or whether s/he can smell you. It has everything to do with the fact that a panicked cat will hide in silence. So just because you do not see or hear your cat does not mean that s/he is not very close to home.
An interesting behavioral pattern that MARN has observed with displaced cats is that many cats will simply not respond to food or break cover (from their hiding place) for several days, sometimes even weeks.
Cats with confident temperaments initially hide in silence, but within hours (or sometimes days) break cover and meow, return to the front door, or finally enter a humane trap.
Cats with more skittish, fearful temperaments may take several days before they finally reach a threshold point (typically ten to twelve days) and before they will finally break cover. In one case, an extremely timid cat hiding inside the attic of a veterinarian's office did not enter a baited humane trap for twenty-two days, most likely due to barking dog noises that kept the cat in a constant state of fear. Cat owners should be encouraged to continue with trapping efforts even if their cat does not immediately enter the baited trap.
Wiggly-butt, friendly dogs are more inclined to go directly up to the first person who calls them. These dogs are at risk of self-adoption because they end up with well-meaning rescuers who don't want to turn them into an animal shelter for fear they will lose their lives there. Depending on the terrain and population density where the dog was lost, these dogs will generally be found fairly close to home or will be picked up by someone close to the escape point.
Dogs with aloof temperaments are wary of strangers and will initially avoid human contact. Eventually, they will be inclined to accept human contact once they have overcome fear issues and become hungry enough. The wariness of these dogs can be easily misinterpreted as "abuse," since many will cower in fear. In addition, these dogs are often not recovered for weeks or months after their escape, giving them the physical appearance (thinness, injuries, stickers, ticks, etc.) that they're stray and homeless rather than someone's lost pet.
Dogs with timid, skittish temperaments (due to genetics, a lack of socialization, and/or puppyhood experiences) are more inclined to travel farther and are at a higher risk of being hit by cars. Due to their cowering, fearful behavior, people assume these dogs were "abused," making them reluctant to search for an owner. It may be necessary to use "magnet" dogs with a snappy snare, baited humane dog traps, specially built enclosure traps, or "lost dog calming signals" (see below) to capture a skittish dog.
Dogs with skittish temperaments that become lost are difficult to recover, primarily because they run from rescuers and often from their own guardians. By the time a guardian sees their skittish lost dog, it is probable that several would-be-rescuers already tried to capture him, sending the dog into a blind panic. It is also important to understand that the olfactory portion of a dog's brain closes down during the "fight or flight" process and that a panicked dog likely won't recognize their guardian's scent. Guardians should be prepared that their timid lost dog may run from them. Guardians should be instructed that if they should see their dog, they should not call or chase or even look at their dog. Instead, they should remain calm and do the following:
To watch a video explanation and demonstration of how to use Calming Signals check out this blog post.
Dog and cat caregivers often behave in ways that actually reduce their chances of recovering their lost pet.
Some develop "tunnel vision" and fail to find their pet because they focus on wrong theories. They assume their dog was "stolen and sold to research" when in fact their dog might have been rescued and put up for adoption through a local adoption event.
Cat caregivers are often discouraged by others who tell them "your cat was probably killed by a coyote," when in fact their cat is hiding under the neighbor's deck.
Alone and discouraged, both dog and cat caregivers experience "grief avoidance" and quickly give up search efforts because they really believe they will never see their pet again.
Sometimes rescuers who find lost dogs and cats behave in ways that reduce the chances that the animal will be reunited with their owners. Those who find skittish dogs assume that the cowering, fearful behavior means that the dog was "abused," when in fact the dog was simply born with a fearful temperament and has been shy and fearful since it was a puppy.
People who see a skittish cat darting under a deck automatically assume that the cat is "feral," when in fact the cat could be a tame housecat born with a fearful temperament and has been shy since it was a kitten. Some people who find a stray dog who does not have a collar automatically assume it is "homeless" and therefore immediately work to place the dog rather than attempt to find the dog's owner. In addition, the first place the caregiver of a lost dog will search for his or her dog - the local shelter - is typically the last place that someone who finds a loose dog will take it, for fear the animal will be killed.
Now that you know about the human and animal behaviors that inhibit lost pet recoveries, here are the steps and techniques you can use to increase the chances that you will find your lost companion animal.
One of the biggest mistakes related to advising pet caregivers how to search for a lost pet is to provide "one type fits all" lost pet recovery advice.
Lost dog incidents require different sets of advice from lost cat incidents because dogs behave very differently than cats do when lost. In general, dogs run and cats hide.
In addition, how people perceive loose dogs is very different from how people perceive loose cats. People pull over and rescue dogs, but most people ignore cats. Thus the search for a lost cat truly involves searching for the cat.
The search for a lost dog, on the other hand, usually involves searching for the person who has self-adopted/rescued the "homeless stray" (lost) dog that they found. In addition, the most effective methods that should be used to search for a missing outdoor-access cat are very different than those that should be used to search for an indoor-only cat who escaped outside.
It is critical to encourage cat caregivers to obtain permission from their neighbors to enter their yards and conduct an aggressive, physical search of their property, looking under and in every conceivable hiding space for their lost cat. A Missing Cat Study conducted in 2017 revealed that 40% of lost cats found by their guardians are recovered by conducting a physical search of the missing cat's territory. The median distance for outdoor-access cats that were lost and then found was a 17-house radius of their homes (i.e. within one block). For escaped indoor-only cats the median distance of where these cats were recovered (most with a humane trap) was much closer-within a 2 house radius. In spite of these cats being so close, handing a flyer to a neighbor and asking them to "look" for a missing cat will just not do! Most neighbors simply will not go out into their yards, get on their belly, and look around under their house or deck for someone else's cat. And yet many times neighbor's yards are the areas where a sick, injured, or displaced cat is likely to be found.
Rewards can be problematic. While in some cases they help encourage people to return a lost pet, rewards frequently create two problems: scamming and chasing. Scamming occurs when a thief finds your advertisement and decides they are going to falsely claim they have your pet (when they do not) and ask for you to wire them money. Offering a reward for a lost cat is less problematic since there isn't the same problem of people rushing to lost cat sightings. There is actually cool brain research regarding offering a "reward" verses asking for "help" on this blog post.
Chasing occurs when would-be-rescuers who really want to help recover a lost pet will rush to the area where there was a sighting of the dog and ultimately ending up chasing the dog, tragically sometimes resulting in the dog being killed in traffic. This happens frequently with social media sites when someone happens to post the location of potential sightings. Most savvy Lost & Found page administrators have learned to keep lost dog sightings private and only release that information to the lost dog's guardian or to volunteer searchers who are trained to calm and capture (and not chase) a loose dog.
One of the biggest game changers over the past ten years that has helped revolutionize how we search for lost pets has been the development of social media. Most communities in North American now have at least one Lost & Found page on Facebook where pet owners can post photographs and details of their lost companion animal. In addition, organizations like Lost Dogs of America and Pet FBI are doing a great job of improving how lost pet posts are crafted and shared. Another great site to check for FOUND pet advertisements (ads) and to post LOST pet ads is on classified Ad websites like www.craigslist.com and Canada's version which is www.kijji.ca. Websites like Nextdoor and Facebook groups that are set up for specific neighborhoods are also great locations to post information and reach people who live near the escape point.
If the owner/guardian says that their dog is skittish and is running loose and they can't catch him, or if the owner/guardian of a missing cat says she is an indoor-only cat that escaped outside, suggest that they utilize feeding stations with baited humane traps and wildlife cameras to help recover their pet.
MARN offers detailed information on this topic on their website, along with lost pet consultations to instruct dog and cat owners in how to use humane traps and/or wildlife cameras to help recover panicked dogs and displaced cats.
In 2021 Petco Love Lost (formally Petco Foundation) acquired the former "Finding Rover" company which is known for its innovative facial recognition software for pets. Many shelters have signed up for this program where they now post the photographs of all stray dogs and cats that have come into their shelter. Guardians can go to the www.petcolovelost.org and, using a photograph of their missing pet, scan the photograph to see if it matches up to any found ("stray") dogs or cats that are sitting in local shelters. The site is free to use and should not be overlooked.
"Tagging" a car is when owners use neon window markers to write their lost pet information (most often used for lost dog cases) on the back window of their car. This is a fantastic way of "marketing" a lost pet while the family drives through their neighborhood and community.
An intersection alert is where the owner/guardian uses four giant, florescent "REWARD LOST DOG" posters to "market" their lost dog by standing on a street corner, holding the sign just like sign twirlers.
In the past, MARN instructed 43 different families to conduct intersection alerts and 14 of them got their lost dogs back by using this technique!
While the most effective method for finding cats is searching neighbor's properties, making a scene and "protesting" a lost dog is a highly effective method for recovering lost dogs.
This is a unique lost pet recovery technique that MARN trained pet detectives advise some pet owners to use to capture skittish dogs and cats. The concept is that when someone has a skittish pet who bolts outside and then returns to the home but won't allow anyone to approach and keeps darting away in fear whenever the owner/guardian opens or approaches the door, they can affect a capture by hiding inside the home behind the open door, enticing the animal into the house with the smell of food, and slamming the door closed once the pet has entered the house. This method works especially well on indoor-only cats that have escaped outside (and are hiding nearby) but has also worked to capture a few escaped dogs as well.
In addition to knowing what to do should you lose a beloved pet, it is also vital that you take specific action should you find a loose companion animal. One of your first efforts should be to have the animal scanned for a microchip. This is easily done at a local veterinarian's office or your local shelter. You should also contact your local shelters and file a found pet report. Next, check the Internet on sites like Craig's List and local Lost & Found pages for LOST pet Ads, and if you don't see a listing then post a FOUND pet Ad. For found cats, one technique that works well is to create a "temporary tag" by writing the message "If This Is Your Cat, Please Call Me at 555-1212" on a piece of thin paper that you then tape around the cat's neck. You can read the story of how a cat's family was found using this method on this blog.
It is common that loose dogs are found by rescuers shortly after their escape and in a close proximity to where the dog lives. Thus one of the easiest and best tactics that you can do to connect with the guardian who is searching for that lost dog is to post a giant, neon FOUND DOG poster at major intersections near where the dog was found. In many cases, the dog's owner arrives home after work (typically 6:00 p.m.), discovers their dog has escaped, and then gets in their car to drive through the area to search for their wandering dog. Having that neon FOUND DOG sign up can be key to getting that dog back to his proper home.
The biggest enemy that dog and cat owner/guardians will have is their desire to give up too soon. This behavior is called "grief avoidance" and is natural. In times of grief, people want closure and an end to their emotional pain.
However, people who give up too soon typically don't find their lost pets. The most critical and effective tool that you can give to someone who has lost a dog or cat is encouragement. Refer families to MARN's website, encourage them to check MARN's website for the "National Pet Detective Directory" where they can find community resources willing to help, and advise and encourage them to not give up hope.
For more information on lost pet behaviors as well as MARN's lost pet recovery training courses, visit their website at www.missinganimalresponse.com.
Kat Albrecht-Thiessen is a former police officer, field training officer, police detective, and K9 (police bloodhounds and cadaver dogs) trainer turned pet detective. During her ten-year career as a search dog handler, Kat and her dogs located physical evidence, missing people, and criminals. In 2001, Kat founded the former Missing Pet Partnership and in 2017, she formed the Missing Animal Response Network (MARN), a network of trained volunteer and professional lost pet recovery experts working to offer community-based lost pet services.