Lost Cat on Car

What should you do when you see a dog or cat wandering around your neighborhood or along a road? You may wonder if he’s really lost, if his owner is nearby or if you should do something to help.

Although you may be worried about sounding a false alarm, it is likely that the pet needs help and you should take action if possible. Here’s what you should do if you find a lost pet.

Approach Carefully

Always use caution when approaching an unfamiliar animal. Frightened or possibly injured animals can behave unpredictably, so approach the animal slowly, speaking calmly. If you’re at all concerned about the animal’s behavior (if he seems aggressive or won’t let you get close), call your local animal control or police department for assistance.

Try to entice the animal with food and lure him into your car or a carrier, or to restrain him with a leash if possible.

Check Tags

Obviously, the easiest thing to do is check the pet’s tags for identifying information and call the owner, says Temma Martin with Best Friends Animal Society. You can also obtain the owner’s information from a dog’s license tags. Contact your local animal control office for instructions on how to use dog license numbers to locate the owner.

Never take the collar off a lost dog or cat, Martin advises. If the pet escapes your care, he will be without identification and even harder to get back home. Also, Martin says, don’t assume the pet does not have an owner if he’s without a collar. Collars can come off easily or may have been temporarily removed by the owner for a bath, for example.

Check for a Microchip

Take the pet to the local shelter, humane society or your veterinarian, where they have special equipment to scan for a microchip. Microchips are tiny electronic devices that use radio waves to transmit a unique pet ID number when they are read by a special scanner. Shelter or veterinary personnel typically contact microchip registries with the ID number, which is then matched with the contact information, so owners can be notified that the pet has been found.

Work With Your Local Animal Control Agency

Many people are wary of calling the city shelter or animal control department because they are afraid the pet will be “put down,” but such agencies can actually be great partners in finding a lost pet’s owner, says Martin, who has 11 years of experience working in municipal shelters.

Animal control and city shelters are usually some of the first places an owner looks for a missing pet, which is why communicating with those organizations is critical, Martin says.

Every locality is different, so call and find out from your local animal control agency what your community’s animal control laws are, how the shelter or agency operates and how you can best work with it to find the owner of the pet. Some cities have a certain period of time before you are legally required to relinquish a lost pet to the county, while some do not, Martin says.

Some organizations allow you to keep the pet with you while you search for the owner, but be sure to file a “found pet” report so that if the owner is looking for the animal, the shelter will have your information. Pet FBI, one of the largest and oldest lost and found pet databases, recommends visiting the shelter in person to file your report, including providing a photo of the recovered pet.

If you do take the pet to the city or county shelter or animal control, find out what their “stray hold” time is. This is the length of time that the shelter must keep the pet before the animal is released to the care of a local rescue or another shelter, is available for adoption or, depending on the shelter and circumstances, is euthanized.

If you’d like to adopt the pet yourself and have relinquished him to the local shelter to keep for the designated time, let the shelter know you’d like to adopt him if the owner is not found within the designated time and call the organization periodically to check on the animal’s status.

If you decide to try to find the owner yourself (whether or not you keep the pet with you or leave him at the shelter during the stray hold period), there are some effective ways to conduct the search.

Canvass the Neighborhood

Start by walking the neighborhood with the pet. You may get lucky and run into someone who recognizes the animal and knows his owner. You may even find the owner herself!

Take a Picture and Write a Description

Take a good, clear photo of the pet. Then write a brief description of the animal, where he was found and your contact information. However, don’t reveal every detail about the pet in your description. Keep a couple of vital pieces of information to yourself (such as gender or certain distinguishing features or markings) so that if someone comes to claim the pet, you can be sure the owner is who she says she is, Martin recommends. Sadly, there are people who collect lost pets for unethical purposes.

Post Fliers and Signs

Create fliers with the photo and description of the pet and, in large, bold letters, how to contact you, Pet FBI recommends. Print the fliers on brightly colored paper, and leave and post them everywhere you can — coffee shops, vet offices, schools, grocery stores, churches and other public places. Angel Cofer, a pet lover in Hilliard, Ohio, tracked down a lost dog’s owner by leaving fliers at the offices of various apartment complexes near where she found the pooch. Within 24 hours, the dog’s owner spotted a notice at his own apartment complex, a mile from where the dog was found, and happily contacted Cofer.

Create large, brightly colored signs with large, bold lettering, and place them at the corners of busy intersections or along busy roads. Make sure your contact information is easy to read from a moving car.

Leverage Social Media

When it comes to lost pets, social networking is a tremendous tool. Use the information from your flier and post it on your Facebook page or other social media pages, asking your network to share it as well.

Leverage Lost and Found Pet Databases

There are many databases that list lost and found pets. Nonprofit PetFBI.org, for example, allows users to upload descriptions, photos and locations of lost and found pets. The organization’s large digital community also shares photos and descriptions of pets across multiple social media networks. Some animal control agencies, like Franklin County Department of Animal Care and Control in Columbus, Ohio, say their wardens often leverage Pet FBI’s Facebook page and database as one effective tool to help reunite lost pets with their owners.

What Happens When You Find the Owner?

If you hit pay dirt and think you’ve found the owner, ask her to provide the details you held back in your description. The legitimate owner should be able to answer your questions. If you are with the “owner” in person, notice how the pet reacts to the person claiming to be his owner. If the pet doesn’t seem to recognize the person or seems scared or unsure, trust your gut. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask the person for more documentation, such as photos or even veterinary records. Most legitimate owners will be happy to provide additional proof.

Whether you’re the type of person whom lost pets just seem to “find,” or this is your first time coming across a pet in need, kudos to you for trying your best to reunite a lost pet and his owner!