You’ve Found a Lost Pet…Now What?

Perhaps you’re walking in your neighborhood and see a dog you don’t know.

He’s running loose without a leash and no one else is in sight. Or maybe you’re driving and a dog is running loose at the side of the road. Maybe a cat shows up on your doorstep in bad weather. In any of these cases, you kneel down, open your arms and the pet runs into your arms. Maybe you open your car door and he jumps in or the cat rushes into your house when you open your front door. Now what?

Evaluate the Pet

The first thing you need to do is a quick triage on the pet. How is his attitude? If he’s hurt or frightened, he may bite so look at his body language and attitude. Is he cringing away from you? Be careful. Is he growling, hiding or lunging? Be very careful. On the other hand, if he’s pushing himself against you or trying to climb into your arms, then be as cautious as you would be with any strange animal but he’s probably not going to bite.

Take a good look at him but don’t rush to judgements. A pet who is running loose and is dirty, matted, or has scars is not necessarily abused, as so many people assume. Dogs and cats can become lost for many reasons. Recently, I heard of a dog escaping from a dog sitter while the owner was out of town, a dog who went over a fence when he was frightened of thunderstorms and a cat who ran in fear after a car accident where the cat’s carrier was damaged and his owner hurt. These three pets were well loved pets and were in no way neglected or abused; however, when they were found (and thankfully they were found) they were dirty, hurt and hungry. Someone could have easily assumed they had been abused.

Instead, take a good look at him to see what help he needs immediately. Does he have any apparent wounds? Is he limping? If he allows it, can you run your hands over him? Do you feel anything that’s a problem? Does he wince or whine when you touch a specific spot? If the pet is hurt or sick, he will need to go to the veterinary clinic. That, of course, costs money. Can you afford to care for a pet who needs help but isn’t your own? This is a tough decision. If you cannot afford to do what is needed for this pet, talk to your veterinarian. He may offer financial alternatives. If that doesn’t work out either, then take the animal to your local shelter.

Look for Identification

Hopefully the pet’s owner made sure the pet had identification on him. Collar tags are the most commonly used identification and this is the easiest to find. If there are no tags, check the collar itself and look for an embroidered phone number. These are becoming more popular as they are quieter than tags.

If there is no collar, no tags and no apparent identification, then take the pet to your veterinarian and ask them to scan for a microchip. If he has one, wonderful! Hopefully the microchip information is up to date and the pet’s owner is excited to get him back.

If there is no identification at all then it’s time to contact your local humane society or shelter.



Contact Your Local Shelter

Laws vary in different counties and states but in San Diego County, if someone finds a lost pet, they must file a found pet report. Some places require the pet to be turned over to the shelter. In any event, the local shelter can explain the laws to you so you don’t get into trouble while trying to help this pet.

However, if your area only requires a report, it’s still up to you as to whether you keep the pet until the owner’s found. Your first responsibility is to your pets and if the found pet is ill, that could pose a problem. If the found pet is frightened, injured or loaded with fleas, ticks, heartworms or other parasites, these could also be a problem. The shelter can provide basic veterinary care while the owner is located.

If you decide you’d like to keep the pet until the owner is found and you’re willing to assume the risks, and it’s legal in your area for you to do so, then just make sure you file a found animal report so if the owner is searching for the pet, online or at the shelter, they can find him.

Searching for the Owner

People who have lost or found a pet will spread that information in many different places. Posters with the pet’s photo may be posted at local pet stores, veterinary clinics, feed stores and coffee shops. Online, notices may be listed on neighborhood online groups such as NextDoor. Local newspapers usually have online versions and most have a lost and found section for pets. If the pet is a specific breed, contact local rescue groups for that breed.

Post flyers in the neighborhood where the pet was found. Although some pets can travel a significant distance, especially if frightened, some also remain close to home. Flyers on mailboxes, poles, fences or anywhere else that they are legal can help. Talk to neighborhood kids. They see and pay attention to everything.

When you think you’ve found the owner, ask them to identify the dog or cat. Then, ask them something that only the owner would know. Perhaps the cat tries to bury his food bowl when he’s done eating, ask the owner, “How do you know when the cat is done eating?” Perhaps the dog has a certain way to ask for petting or does something cute when he’s being brushed. If the owner can answer these or similar questions, then you know you have the right person. Plus, ask for photos of the pet. Every pet owner has photos of his or her pet on their phone!

If an Owner Isn’t Found

If an owner is never found, that presents a whole new set of problems. Do you want to keep this pet? If you do, talk to the shelter again as to how to do it legally. Sure, you could do nothing and simply keep the pet but what happens if the owner shows up in six or nine months and wants the pet back? What then? Talk to the shelter and find out how to do this legally so that you won’t face problems later.

If the pet has been taken to the shelter, you can ask them to contact you if an owner doesn’t show up.  At that point you can either adopt the pet yourself or not. If you can’t or don’t want to adopt the pet, you can, however, notify rescue groups that the pet is at the shelter. Breed specific rescues for both dogs and cats often pull pets from shelters.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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