How Many Pets Go Missing?
If you have ever tried to research lost pet statistics, you have probably seen the statement that 1 in 3 pets (30%) will go missing in their lifetime. Most prominently, this statement appears on the homepage of the HomeAgain microchip company. Various other sites attribute this statement to the ASPCA or AHA but fail to provide an exact source. To date, I have been unable to find any actual research to back up the 1 in 3 pets will go missing statistic.
The only published research study on lost pet rates found that between 11-16% of dogs and 12 - 18% of cats are likely to go missing at least once in five years.
Weiss et al. 2012
The first research on lost pet statistics was conducted by the ASPCA in 2010 (Weiss et al. 2012). They surveyed pet owners and found that 14% of dogs and 15% of cats in the study went missing once in a five-year period. Since their study had a small sample size, they used statistics to calculate that in the US pet population, between 11-16% of dogs (1 in 6 to 9) and 12-18% of cats (1 in 5 to 8) will go missing in a five-year period. Unfortunately, they made no attempt to calculate or discuss how this lost pet statistic relates to the lifetime of the pet. If a dog or cat lives 10, 15 or 20 years, does the chance of them going missing increase or stay the same?
In reality, there are many variables that contribute to the likelihood of an individual pet going missing. At this point, there isn’t any published research on what characteristics increase the chances of a pet going missing. You might think that indoor-only cats are less likely to get lost than an outdoor-access cat, but the available research indicates that this may not be true. Lord et al. (2007a) found that 41% missing cats were indoor-only cats, and approximately half of survey participants in the Huang et al. (2018) study reported a missing indoor-only cat (unpublished data).
How Many Lost Cats Are Found?
If your cat goes missing, what are the chances that they will be found? You may have heard the lost pet statistic that only 1 to 5% of lost cats are found. This fortunately is NOT true and is a misinterpretation of return-to-owner (RTO) rates. RTO rates are the percentage of pets that are returned to their owners after they have been brought to a shelter. Sadly, very few cats ARE returned to their owners once they end up in a shelter. Various studies found RTO rates of 1.5 to 4.5% for cats. Likely reasons for this low RTO rate include:
- Very few cats have ID tags
- Microchips are often not registered or kept up-to-date
- Owners tend to wait longer to check the shelter and don’t check them as often as for a lost dog
- Many towns/cities have short or nonexistent minimum stray holds for cats
- Animal Control in smaller towns may not pick up stray cats, so they end up taken to rescues or shelters farther from where they were found
- Unless a cat is sick or injured, most people tend to assume a loose cat lives somewhere nearby and is not lost, so they are not reported or brought to a shelter
- A cat may be missing for weeks or months before they are taken to a shelter
Research studies report that between 53-84% of lost cats are found (Table 1). The range in values is partly due to the potential bias of the different study methods. The least biased study is probably Weiss et al. (2012) which found that 75% of missing cats in the study were found and therefore statistically 63- 84% of lost cats in the US are found.
If you work with a lost pet tracker or pet detective, you may find that their recovery rates are lower then these. This is most likely because many people wait to contact a pet detective or tracker until after their cat has been missing for several days or a week or longer. In some cases, they have even been using search techniques that are detrimental to finding their lost cat. Many lost cats can be found without professional help, but make sure that you are using proven search methods and not just trying everything you can find on the internet.
One interesting lost pet statistic that has not be published is the difference in recovery rates between lost indoor-only cats versus outdoor-access cats. While both types of cats may be equally likely to go missing, indoor-only cats are much more likely to be found (Table 2). My case records show a similar trend with around 75% of lost indoor-only cats being found versus only 33% of lost outdoor-access cats. When an indoor-only cat goes missing, they are likely hiding in fear and are usually not too far from home. On the other hand, when an outdoor-access cat goes missing it usually means that something happened to prevent the cat from coming home. These cats may be trapped, injured and hiding or deceased nearby. Or they may be displaced and lost farther from home, which makes them much more difficult to find.
How Are Lost Cats Found?
Weiss et al. (2012) and Lord et al.( 2007a) both determined that most cats were found because they returned home on their own (45-72%). Weiss et al. (2012) also found that 30% (18-44%) were found in the neighborhood. Lord et al. (2007a) found that 11% of cats were found due to neighborhood signs, but they did not even ask specifically about doing a neighborhood search. All other search methods were less then 2%. See Table 4. Please understand, these results do NOT suggest that the best search method is just to wait until your cat comes home. All of these studies had relatively low recovery rates, and many cats were never found. What these studies strongly suggest is that most people don’t know how to effectively search for a missing cat and use ineffective methods.
I would recommend reading this blog article: Review of “Successful Search Methods Used to Locate Missing Cats and Likely Locations Where Missing Cats are Found." This study used a more complex method than simple percentages and looked at what search methods owners actually found useful in their search. In particular they found evidence that a physical search increased the likelihood of finding a missing cat alive (Huang et al. 2018).
How Many Lost Dogs are Found?
Lost dogs have a much higher recovery rate than lost cats. Research studies found that between 71- 97% of lost dogs were recovered (Table 3). Weiss et al. (2012) used statistics to estimate that between 86 to 97% of lost dogs in the US are found. Dogs also have higher return-to-owner (RTO) rates if they are brought to a shelter. RTO rates were between 10 to 30% (HSUS online).
More dogs are likely found at the shelter because:
- Significantly more dogs have ID tags (48-89%) compared to cats
- Owners tend to check the shelter sooner and check back more frequently
- Most towns/cities have minimum stray holds for dogs (though these may be as short as 2-3 days)
- Many towns have some sort of Animal Control Officer that will attempt to pick up loose dogs
- People are more likely to report or try to catch a loose dog
How are Lost Dogs Found?
Weiss et al. (2012) found that most dogs (38-59%) were found by searching the neighborhood. This was followed by 13-29% returned home on their own. Nine to 23% were found due to an ID tag or microchip. Only 2-12% were found by visiting or calling animal control/shelter. This study used a random phone survey so is less biased then other studies.
Lord et al. (2007b) found that most lost dogs were found due to a call or visit to an animal agency/shelter (34.8%). This was followed by 25.5% found due to a license or ID tag and 15.2% found due to neighborhood signs. Only 7.6% of dogs returned home on their own. The results from this study are somewhat biased because they found survey participants by contacting people that had reported their pet lost to the shelter or had posted a lost pet ad in the newspaper. This likely led to an underestimate of lost dogs found in the neighborhood or due to ID tags.
They also found that owners were significantly more likely to recover their lost dogs when they called or visited an animal agency, and posted signs in the neighborhood. Dogs wearing a license and ID tag when lost were more likely to be recovered. Dogs believed stolen were less likely to be recovered, even though the search effort was not different.
Literature Cited with Abstracts, Notes and Tables
Do you still want to learn more about lost pet statistics? The following articles were researched to write this article. This bibliography includes abstracts (summaries), additional notes, and tables.
Huang, L., M. Coradini, J. Rand, J. Morton, K. Albrecht, B. Wasson, and D. Robertson. 2018. Search methods used to locate missing cats and locations where missing cats are found. Animals 8(1): 5. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani8010005
Abstract: Missing pet cats are often not found by their owners, with many being euthanized at shelters. This study aimed to describe times that lost cats were missing for, search methods associated with their recovery, locations where found and distances travelled. A retrospective case series was conducted where self-selected participants whose cat had gone missing provided data in an online questionnaire. Of the 1210 study cats, only 61% were found within one year, with 34% recovered alive by the owner within 7 days. Few cats were found alive after 90 days. There was evidence that physical searching increased the chance of finding the cat alive (p = 0.073), and 75% of cats were found within 500 m of the point of escape. Up to 75% of cats with outdoor access traveled 1609 m, further than the distance traveled by indoor-only cats (137 m; p ? 0.001). Cats considered to be highly curious were more likely to be found inside someone else’s house compared to other personality types. These findings suggest that thorough physical searching is a useful strategy, and should be conducted within the first week after cats go missing. They also support further investigation into whether shelter, neuter and return programs improve the chance of owners recovering missing cats and decrease numbers of cats euthanized in shelters.
Visit the Lost Pet Research blog for a full review of this article.
Lord, L.K., T.E. Wittum, A.K. Ferketich, J.A. Funk, and P.J. Rajala-Schultz. 2007a. Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost cat. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 230(2): 217-220.
Abstract: Objective: To characterize the process by which owners search for lost cats and identify factors associated with time to recovery. Design: Cross-sectional study. Sample population: Owners of 138 cats lost in Montgomery County, Ohio, between June 1 and September 30, 2005. Procedures: A telephone survey was conducted. Results: 73 of the 138 (53%) cats were recovered; median time to recovery was 5 days (range, 0.5 to 81 days). Most cats (48 [66%]) that were recovered returned home on their own or were found in the neighborhood (5 [7%]); most other cats were recovered through posting of neighborhood signs (8 [11%]) or calling or visiting an animal agency (5 [7%]). The highest success rate for any of the search methods that were used was only 12% (posting neighborhood signs). Only 26 of the 138 (19%) cats had some type of identification at the time they were lost (ie, identification tag, rabies tag, or microchip). Owners allowed 82 (59%) cats to spend at least some time outdoors. The percentage of sexually intact cats recovered by their owners (4/16 [25%]) was significantly lower than the percentage of neutered cats recovered (69/122 [57%]). Conclusions: Results suggest that the percentage of lost cats recovered by their owners is low, possibly in part because of the lack of use of traditional identification methods and the general acceptance that cats may roam. Veterinarians can help educate owners about the importance of identification and the need to keep cats indoors.
- Biased sample – only included owners of lost cats that either placed an advertisement in the lost-and-found portion of the local newspaper or that contacted one of the county’s 3 animal agencies.
- 53% (73/138) recovered. Conclude that traditional search and identification methods are largely ineffective.
- 35% of all cats returned home on their own. 66% of found cats returned home on their own.
- Median recovery time = 5 days (range 0.5 to 81 days)
- See Table 1 for how found. Most found cats (66%) returned home on their own.
- 66% (73) found at home, 29% (21) were found less than 1 mile from home, 3% (2) were found 1-5 miles from home, and 3% were found more than 5 miles from home.
- The percentage of sexually intact cats recovered (25%) was significantly lower than the percentage of neutered cats recovered (57%) (P = 0.02).
- 41% (56) of lost cats were indoor-only cats.
- Lost before: 78% of cats had never been lost before, 17% had been lost 1-5 times previously, and 5% had been lost more than 5 times before.
- Identification: 10% of cats were wearing ID tag, 6% wearing rabies tag, and 7% had a microchip. Overall, 14% were wearing some type of visible ID and 19% had any type of ID. Only 1 cat recovered due to ID tag. Having identification did not increase the likelihood that the cat was recovered. (Probably because so many cats returned home on their own.)
- Shelters: Only 7% of cats were found by calling or visiting an animal agency. RTO rate in this county was 1.5% for cats. No mandatory hold period, but most held for 72 hours. Medium time to visit/call shelter was 3 days, and median time between visits was 8 days.
Lord, L.K., T.E. Wittum, A.K. Ferketich, J.A. Funk, and P.J. Rajala-Schultz. 2007b. Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost dog. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 230(2): 211-216.
Abstract: Objective: To characterize the process by which owners search for lost dogs and identify factors associated with time to recovery. Design: Cross-sectional study. Sample Population: Owners of 187 dogs lost in Montgomery County, Ohio, between June 1 and September 30, 2005. Procedures: A telephone survey was conducted. Results: 132 of the 187 (71%) dogs were recovered; median time to recovery was 2 days (range, 0.5 to 21 days). Dogs were recovered primarily through a call or visit to an animal agency (46 [34.8%]), a dog license tag (24 [18.2%]), and posting of neighborhood signs (20 [15.2%]). Eighty-nine (48%) dogs had some type of identification at the time they were lost (ie, identification tag, dog license tag, rabies tag, or microchip). Owners had a higher likelihood of recovery when they called an animal agency (hazard ratio, 2.1), visited an animal agency (1.8), and posted neighborhood signs. Dogs that were wearing a dog license tag also had a higher likelihood of recovery (hazard ratio, 1.6). Owners were less likely to recover their dogs if they believed their dogs were stolen (hazard ratio, 0.3). Conclusions: Results suggest that various factors are associated with the likelihood that owners will recover a lost dog. Both animal agencies and veterinarians can play a role in educating dog owners on the importance of identification tags, licensing, and microchips and can help to emphasize the importance of having a search plan in case a dog is lost.
- At the time of the study, each county had a dog warden and a dog license was required. Required to hold unlicensed dogs for 3 days and licensed dogs for 14 days.
- RTO 19%
- Biased sample – only included owners of lost dogs that either placed an advertisement in the lost-and-found portion of the local newspaper or that contacted one of the county’s 3 animal agencies.
- 71% of dogs recovered.
- Median recovery time was 2 days (range 0.5 to 21 days)
- See Table 1 for Methods found.
- 8% returned home, 71% found less than one mile, 14% were found 1-5 miles, and 7% were found more than 5 miles from home.
- 54% had never been lost before, 28% had been lost 1-5 times previously and 18% had been lost more than 5 times before.
- ID: 43% were wearing some type of ID tag, and 48% had some form of identification. Only 8% had a microchip. 53% of dogs with ID were found vs 35% of dogs without ID.
- Shelters: 28% of dogs were found by calling or visiting a shelter. Median time to call or visit was 1 day (0-14 day range). Owners that found their dogs visited or called the shelter sooner and checked more frequently than those that did not.
- Significance: Owners were significantly more likely to recover their lost dogs when they called an animal agency, visited, and posted signs in the neighborhood. However, posting signs did not become effective until the dog was lost for > 7 days. Dogs wearing a license when lost were more likely to be recovered. Dogs believed stolen were less likely to be recovered, but search effort was not different.
Lord, L.K., T.E. Wittum, A.K. Ferketich, J.A. Funk, and P.J. Rajala-Schultz. 2007c.
Search methods that people use to find owners of lost pets. Journal of the American
Veterinary Medical Association 230(12): 1835-1840.
Abstract: Objective: To characterize the process by which people who find lost pets search for the owners. Design: Cross-sectional study. Sample Population-188 individuals who found a lost pet in Dayton, Ohio, between March 1 and June 30, 2006. Procedures-Potential participants were identified as a result of contact with a local animal agency or placement of an advertisement in the local newspaper. A telephone survey was conducted to identify methods participants used to find the pets' owners. Results: 156 of 188 (83%) individuals completed the survey. Fifty-nine of the 156 (38%) pets were reunited with their owners; median time to reunification was 2 days (range, 0.5 to 45 days). Only 1 (3%) cat owner was found, compared with 58 (46%) dog owners. Pet owners were found as a result of information provided by an animal agency (25%), placement of a newspaper advertisement (24%), walking the neighborhood (19%), signs in the neighborhood (15%), information on a pet tag (10%), and other methods (7%). Most finders (87%) considered it extremely important to find the owner, yet only 13 (8%) initially surrendered the found pet to an animal agency. The primary reason people did not surrender found pets was fear of euthanasia (57%). Only 97 (62%) individuals were aware they could run a found-pet advertisement in the newspaper at no charge, and only 1 person who was unaware of the no-charge policy placed an advertisement. Conclusions: Veterinarians and shelters can help educate people who find lost pets about methods to search for the pets' owners.
Weiss, E. M. Slater, and L. Lord. 2012. Frequency of Lost Dogs and Cats in the United
States and the Methods Used to Locate Them. Animals 2: 301-315.
Abstract: A cross-sectional national random digit dial telephone interview was conducted between September and November 2010. There were 1,015 households that had owned a dog or cat within the past five years. Of these 817 households owned dogs and 506 owned cats. Fourteen percent of dogs (95% Confidence Interval (CI): 11–16%) and 15% (95% CI: 12–18%) of cats were lost in the past five years. No owner demographic variables were associated with losing a pet. Ninety three percent (95% CI: 86–97%) of dogs and 75% (95% CI: 64–85%) of cats were recovered. For dogs, searching the neighborhood and returning on their own were the most common methods of finding the dog; 14% were found through an identification tag. For cats, returning on their own was most common. Dogs were more likely than cats to be lost more than once. Cats were less likely than dogs to have any type of identification. Knowledge of the successful methods of finding dogs and cats can provide invaluable help for owners of lost pets. Since 25% of lost cats were not found, other methods of reuniting cats and their owners are needed. Collars and ID tags or humane trapping could be valuable approaches.
- 14% (11-16%) of dogs and 15% (12-18%) of cats went missing at least once in the past 5 years.
- 93% of dogs in the study (86-97% in US population) and 75% of cats in the study (63-84% in the US population) were found
- Not a set definition for "lost"; owners were allowed to define lost in their own way. Best interpretation would be any time that the owner was concerned about the absence of the pet.
- Dogs were more likely than cats to be lost more than once. P=0.05
- Cats were less likely than dogs to have any type of ID or even a collar. 11% (6-19%) of dogs and 56% (44-68%) of cats had no form of ID when lost (P<0.001)
- Found that lost neutered pets, those belonging to respondents with more education, and lost cats belonging to respondents with higher income were more likely to be found.
- Most dogs were found by searching the neighborhood (49%, 38-59%). Followed by 20% (13-29%) returned home on their own. Only 6% (2-12%) were found by visiting or calling animal control and 15% (9-23%) were found with in ID or microchip.
- Most cats returned home on their own (59%, 45-72%). Followed by 30% (18-44%) found in the neighborhood. Only 2% (0.04-10%) were found due to ID or a microchip and the same were found due to visiting or calling animal control.
RTO Rates from Various Studies:
- 1.5% for cats and 19% for dogs in Montgomery County, OH. No animal control laws at county level for cats.
- 3% for cats in San Mateo County, CA. Increased to 4.5% when ID and licensing of cats was required.
- 5.2% in Honolulu where cats are required to wear ID.
- 10-30% ROI for dogs and 5% for cats in US (HSUS online)