Effective Long-term Lost Pet Search Methods

When a dog or cat is missing for months or even years, the most effective search methods are not necessarily the same as those used in the first few days or weeks.  This is especially true when there are few to no confirmed sightings of the missing pet.  

This article is meant to help provide guidance on the most effective search methods for conducting a long-term search.  Some of these methods work best if maintained over time such as online posting and posters.  Others are perhaps new ideas to try when nothing else has worked so far.

I will be writing an accompanying article on how long to search and advice on keeping motivated.

How Long is a Long-term Search?

Most pet detectives considered a search long-term when the pet was missing for 2-4 months or more.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if most lost pet owners consider a search long-term when their pet has been missing for even a few weeks.  Unfortunately, many pet owners are likely to give up their search before it becomes long-term.  But there are that special minority that will persist in searching for months or even years. 

Most Effective Advertising Methods

Advertising is probably the single most effective long-term search method.  This can include online posting, posters, flyers, banners or media coverage. 

Online Posting and Social Media

Posting and searching online or on social media are among the easier search activities to maintain long-term and can be effective.  

Post on Local Community Sites

Make sure that you are posting and regularly checking any local community sites and not just lost pet sites.  People often post sightings of found or loose dogs or cats on community sites before posting them on lost pet sites. 

Examples of Local Community Sites

  • Community Facebook groups or pages in your town and surrounding towns
  • Nextdoor.com
  • Neighbors App by Ring (does not require a Ring camera)
  • Reddit communities
  • Some communities (most often apartment complexes or HOAs) may have an email list
Example Facebook Community Groups for Granby, MA

Example search of Facebook Community Groups for Granby, MA

Post on Local and Regional Lost Pet Groups or Pages

Posting to local and regional lost pet groups and pages is also important.  Find these by searching Facebook (e.g. "lost pet" plus your state or region).  The people that admin or visit these sites are also more likely to keep an eye out for found pets on community sites.  One of my longest lost cat searches was found after almost two years when someone who was feeding the cat posted to a local Facebook group.  The owner did not see the post, but a local admin for a lost pet group saw the post and contacted the owner. 

Facebook is probably most effective, but don't forget to check for other local and regional posting sites.  Craigslist (both the "lost + found" and "pets" sections) and Kijiji in Canada are ones to try.

Post on National Lost Pet Sites

Don't forget to also post on national lost pet sites.  There were fewer reports of these sites leading to recoveries, but they do occasionally work.  Some sites will also share their posts to their own local and regional Facebook pages.  

Create a Lost Pet Facebook Page

Some people even create a Facebook page or group specifically for their lost pet.  This can make it easier to provide updates and engage followers to continue keeping an eye out.  You can also pay to advertise from your page by boosting posts to people that live in the area the pet is missing.  Learn more here.  If you create a Facebook page, don’t forget to include a link on your posters and flyers.

Posters

In general, well-designed posters are one of the more effective methods for finding a lost pet.  However, it can sometimes take a long time for the right person to see your poster AND your lost pet.  Just because you aren’t getting a lot of calls from your posters, doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t working.  That said, the first most important step is to make sure that your posters are designed correctly so that people are noticing them.  Learn more here

I’ve had several lost cat cases where it took 5-6 weeks to get the first sighting, so I always recommend keeping posters up for a minimum of 6 weeks.  Several other cases took as long as six months for the posters to work.  

One such case was Jerry, an outdoor-access cat that went missing when a neighbor trapped him and then released him at a park 1.6 miles away.  In January/February they put up 40 large posters and 64 small posters over a 1 mile radius around where Jerry was released.  In June, they finally got the call they were waiting for.  A woman visiting her mother saw one of the posters and called to report that her mother had been feeding a similar looking cat for several months.  

Lost Cat Poster for Jerry

If possible, keep posters up for many months or even years.  If you can’t keep lots of posters up, then repost periodically and/or at least keep a few up near the point last seen and at some nearby locations with lots of traffic.  If posters on public property are not allowed or are removed, then get permission to put a few larger signs on private property.

Some other suggestions for keeping posters noticeable:

  • Replace old looking posters with nice new ones. 
  • Change the wording to “Still Missing” so people know that you are still looking, and these aren’t just old forgotten signs.
  • Change the colors or style of the posters.
  • Change the size of the posters.  Larger is usually better, but switching to smaller posters may be an option if larger ones are being removed.
  • Add a large, specific reward.  Note that this is only recommended in cases without sightings.  You never want to do anything to encourage people to chase a lost dog.

Sometimes a lack of sightings may indicate that the lost pet has left the search area.  Consider expanding the poster area as well.

Flyers

Some people use the terms posters and flyers interchangeably.  The main difference here is that flyers are either distributed to homes or to people individually rather than being posted somewhere.

Flyers were less often mentioned as an effective long-term search method.  Although flyers are one of the more effective initial search methods, it may be that fewer people try these methods long-term because they require more time and energy.  They also must be repeated periodically because people don't necessarily save the flyers.

While the most labor-intensive, actually going door-to-door and talking to people can often achieve the best results.  People will often tell you things when they wouldn’t make the effort to call or text.  I’ve had more than a few cases where people had seen the lost cat but hadn’t bothered calling in a sighting.  In a few of these cases, we even found the cat still on that person’s property. 

If you haven’t distributed flyers door-to-door, this may be a useful step even if your pet has been missing for weeks or months.  This is especially true of lost indoor-only cats because they are frequently still close to home. 

If you have already distributed flyers, consider a second distribution of flyers and/or expanding your flyer area. 

Other creative ways to distribute flyers:

  • Distribute flyers at events such as garage sales or fairs.  This can be done with just the flyer or attach the flyer to water bottles or snacks.
  • Ask a food delivery business to include flyers with their deliveries. 

The biggest drawback with flyers is that most people probably don't save them.  So if they see your pet weeks or months later, they often have no way to contact you.  Consider adding a note to flyers or posters asking people to take a photo with their phone so they have it on hand if they see your missing pet.

Postcards

If distributing flyers is too time consuming, you might consider mailing postcards instead.  These can get expensive, often starting around $500 – 1,000 in my experience.  If you can’t afford postcards, perhaps try to find a business that will sponsor your mailings by including your lost pet posting on their own advertising mailer.

Creative Advertising Methods

In some cases, finding a lost pet is not about maintaining search methods, but about trying something new.  These advertising methods aren’t for everyone, but they can generate a lot of attention.

  • Car tagging or a car wrap.
  • Intersection alerts
  • Banners or billboards.  Banners can be as simple as duct tape on a tarp or they can be professionally designed.

Media Coverage

This method can be very effective if you can create a compelling story such as something interesting or emotional about the missing pet, the situation under which they went missing or the recovery methods being used.  One woman in New Zealand found her cat by dressing up in a cat costume and standing at an intersection with a large lost cat sign.  A newspaper story covered the event leading to a sighting of her cat after six months. 

Other Effective Search Methods

Microchips

When all other search methods fail, a lost pet may eventually find their way home due to a microchip.  There are many stories in the news of lost pets found months or even many years after they went missing.  Make sure that your pet’s microchip is properly registered and that your contact information is kept current.  If possible, give permission for the microchip company to give out your contact information so that you are easier to contact. 

Keep in Touch with Animal Control, Shelters, Rescues, Feral Cat Feeders, Veterinarians, etc.

At the very least, keep checking found pets at shelters and rescues even if just online.  Check Petfinder.com and other adoption pages as well as Facebook pages for local shelters and rescues.  My longest lost cat case was recovered after three years due to a found cat posting on a shelter page.  Read Cosmo's story here.

Animal Control Officers, shelter staff and volunteers, feral cat feeders, veterinarians and admins for lost pet pages are all people that see a lot of lost, found, stray and adoptable pets.  If you can get them to help you look, this is much more effective then just you looking, especially since not all found pets are posted online.  

Try to create a relationship with shelters, rescues or feral cat feeders.  Call or visit regularly so that they know you are still searching.  Encourage staff or volunteers to join your lost pet's Facebook group if you have one.  Perhaps go as far as to become a volunteer.  If that’s not possible, consider helping at events or donating gifts periodically.

Surveillance or Wildlife Cameras

This is more often a long-term search method for lost cats since they are usually in a smaller area than lost dogs.  Not having sightings with lost cats is much more common.  Surveillance or Wi-Fi cameras are recommended around the home for a minimum of several months.  Lost indoor-only cats often return home at some point, usually in the middle of the night when no one is around.  Outdoor-access cats have also been reported coming home after months missing.  Surprisingly, some of these outdoor-access cats even visited their yard, but did not alert their owners that they were back.

Cameras can also be used to verify potential sightings or be placed in locations where a lost pet is more likely to show up.  This could be near a potential shelter or food source such as an abandoned building or a feral cat feeding station.  I once found a missing indoor cat after six weeks with a camera placed at a local feral cat feeding location. Prior to this, there were no verified sightings.

Surveillance camera photo of Leo

Surveillance camera photo of Leo at feral cat feeding station after six weeks missing.

There is some disagreement among pet detectives on the most effective methods of using wildlife cameras.  Some will keep them in a single location for longer periods of time while others will move them around every few days to try lots of different potential locations.

Work with a Lost Pet Recovery Team

This may not be an option for everyone, but it is much easier to maintain a long-term search with the support of a team.  This tactic is more commonly seen with lost dog searches.  If possible, work with an experienced Lost Pet Recovery Team.  When a team is not organized or uses questionable search methods, this can actually decrease the chances of finding your lost pet.

Physical Searches

In general, physical searches are not very effective after a lost pet has been missing for several months with no sightings.  Escaped indoor-only cats or displaced outdoor-access cats are a possible exception.  These cats may still be relatively close to home months after they escape.  The longest time that I had a successful physical search was for an indoor-only cat nearly two months after he escaped.  I saw him during the search and he was caught 10 days later. 

Dewey lost cat flyer

Search Dogs

A scent-specific tracking dog could be used in certain situations in a long-term lost pet search.  A search dog might be used to determine whether a lost pet is still in the original search area or near a previous sighting.  This is more likely to work with lost indoor or displaced outdoor-access cats since they don’t usually travel as far.  If you are getting sightings but have been unable to verify them with surveillance cameras, a search dog may be able to help verify if they are your lost pet.

Be aware that there is a lot of debate and little research on how long a scent trail lasts.  The goal here is to verify whether the lost pet was recently in the search area or near a sighting and not to follow a months old track.  In these cases, you definitely want an experienced search dog with a good negative trail indication.  This means that if the dog can’t find a scent trail, they won’t go for a walk.  The longer a pet has been missing, the more likely you are to get false tracks by poorly trained search dogs.

How Record Keeping Aids in a Long-term Search

Keep detailed records of search activities and potential sightings.  Even if you don’t do so in the initial (often more frantic) part of your search, it’s never too late to start keeping records.  These records can help you keep track of what search activities you have already done, determine what activities have been most effective, and figure out what else could be done.

Some items to keep in your records:

  • A search map showing locations and dates of potential sightings, feeding stations, security cameras, and traps.
  • Locations and dates of posters and flyers.
  • A list of sites and dates where you posted online.
  • Names, phone numbers, and sources of possible sightings (e.g. from a Facebook post or a call from a poster).

About This Research

This article is based on my 15 years experience in lost pet recovery along with surveys and discussions with pet detectives, pet trackers, lost pet specialists, etc.  Data was collected via surveys, Facebook posts, and a Missing Animal Response Network members meeting.  This article is based on preliminary research and data collection is ongoing.   

Learn more at LostPetResearch.org.

How to Learn More or Contribute to this Research

If you have found a missing pet after a long-term search, please consider sharing your story in the comments and/or completing this short survey about your experience.  

If you want to be sure that you receive updates on lost pet research projects like this one, join the Lost Pet Research Group or follow Lost Pet Research and Recovery on Facebook. 

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