Learning how to effectively check potential sightings is an important skill for finding a missing cat or dog.  Around 40% of missing cats (indoor-only and outdoor-access) and more than 50% of lost dogs are found due to advertising such as posters, flyers or online posting. If you are very lucky, you will receive a call where the person actually has your lost dog or cat.  However, in most cases, especially with lost cats and skittish lost dogs, you will receive a call about a potential sighting and then need to determine IF it was your lost pet and HOW to find and catch them.  It is not unusual to receive multiple potential sightings of your lost pet, and you will need to determine which ones are most likely and where to focus your search time.  If you take the time to learn how to effectively check the validity of sightings, you can reduce the time that you spend following false leads.

Be prepared to receive sighting calls at all times.  Keep a small notebook and pen on-hand.  Don’t trust yourself to remember everything that you are told.  Many people only remember to ask a few questions, fail to get the caller’s contact information, and then run off in search of the sighting.  Then when they get there, they cannot find any animal, and realize too late that they need more information.

When You Receive a Call or Potential Sighting:

  1. First find out if they are seeing the animal right now or at a previous time.
    • If they are looking at the animal now, try to convince them to stay there and keep the animal in sight but not to approach them.  If they are reluctant to do so, first try an emotional appeal – tell them how much the pet means to you or long/hard you have been looking.  If they are still hesitant, remind them about the reward if there is one and/or offer them a small bonus (maybe $20) if they can keep this animal in sight until you get there.
    • If you cannot get there immediately or the person cannot stay, ask if they can send you a photo of the animal that they are seeing now.  If your pet is skittish or a dog missing more than 24 hours, ask them not to approach, but just take the photo from a distance.
  2. Be sure to get the caller’s name and phone number in case the call is dropped or if you need to call back for additional information.
  3. Try and get as much detail as possible:
    • Ask them to describe what the animal looked like (see below for more details)
    • Exact location of sighting including nearby landmarks.
    • When was the sighting?  Hopefully they just saw your pet, but in many cases they are calling about an animal they saw at another time.  Try and get both the day and the time (at least morning, night or daytime).
    • What was the animal’s physical condition, especially did they appear sick or injured?
    • How were they behaving (e.g. walking, running, exploring) and how did they respond to the person reporting the sighting (e.g. approached, accepted food, ran off quickly)?
  4. You may also receive calls from people that are not calling about a sighting.  They may want more information (such as the amount of the reward or where the pet went missing) or they may want to offer support or advice.  Take any advice with a grain of salt, but thank the caller anyway.  If they sound like they really want to help, take their name and phone number for future reference.

How to Determine if the Sighting Might Be Your Lost Pet

Remember that many people WANT the animal they saw to be your missing pet AND you do too.  If you’re not careful it can be easy to convince yourself and the witness that it is your lost pet even when it’s not that likely.  Also be aware that some people will call in sightings for animals that don’t look at all like your lost pet and you can easily rule these out with the right questions.

  1. Do not provide too much detail about your pet’s appearance, and don’t use leading questions.  Remember that the caller really wants this to be your lost pet and will probably agree to your description even when it doesn’t entirely match what they saw.  Whenever possible, ask the caller to describe something instead of you describing it and them just agreeing or disagreeing.
    • Don’t ask “Did you see a red collar?”  Instead ask “Was the dog you saw wearing a collar?”  If yes, “What color was it?”
    • Don’t ask “Did the cat you saw have white paws?”  Instead ask “Can you describe the color and markings of the cat you saw?”
    • You can even try adding a false leading question.  Ask “Did the cat have a white tail tip?” when your cat does not.  Just explain afterwards that you have been getting a lot of false calls about a similar looking cat with that characteristic.
    • The goal is to get the caller (and not you) to describe the animal that they saw in as much detail as possible.
  2. If possible, withhold at least one identifying characteristic of your pet’s appearance.  This can help you rule out any potential scammers that claim to actually have your lost pet.  This can often be a physical feature that is only visible if they actually had your lost pet in-hand.  For example a black spot on your dog’s tongue or your cat’s eye color.  This feature could also be a behavior if your pet has any distinct behaviors, but be aware that they might not display this behavior if stressed.

Using a Photo Line-Up

Often the best tool for confirming sightings is a photo line-up.  This is similar to the line-ups used in law enforcement.  You want to provide a series of photos that look similar to your lost cat or dog and see if the witness can pick out the right photo.

Example Photo Line Up for Lost Cat

To create a photo line-up, copy a series of pictures including your pet and other pets that look somewhat like him/her.  You can get these other pictures off the internet (just do a search of Google Images for a animal like your own such as “small white dog” or “black and white cat”).  See if the potential witness can correctly pick your pet out of the line-up of pictures.  Don’t make them too similar, and don’t use the same picture of your pet that is on the posters or flyers.  You just want to rule out sightings that are clearly not your pet.

  • If you cannot meet the caller in person, you could also send a series of photos to the person and ask them to pick out the one that they saw.
  • As you check more sightings, try and get photos of animals from false sightings, and add these to your photo line-up.
  • Some people prefer to also bring along a collection of additional pictures of their dog or cat to further confirm identity.

Going On-Site to Check Out Potential Sightings

If the sighting sounds like it could be your missing pet, then visit the location as soon as possible.

  1. If possible, meet the potential witness where they saw the lost dog or cat.
    • Show them pictures of your pet to help confirm identity and/or use a photo line-up.
    •  Make sure to leave them with a flyer or business card.
    • Ask them to contact you immediately if they have another sighting and NOT to try and catch your dog or cat themselves.
    • You might ask them to try and get a picture of your dog or cat if they can’t get in touch with you.  Many people have cameras on their phones.  However, if your dog or cat is extremely skittish, tell them not to attempt to approach him/her.
  2. Walk and/or drive around the area and see if you can find your lost pet or see any other loose dogs or cats.
  3. Distribute flyers in the area to see if anyone else has seen this loose pet.  Also ask if anyone has a dog or cat that looks like yours and runs loose.  However, also keep in mind that this does not rule out that your pet may also be in the area.
  4. Put up some posters in the immediate area.

If You Think the Sighting May Be Your Lost Pet

  1. If there have been multiple sightings of the dog or cat in the same area, then see if the caller or someone nearby will let you put out a surveillance camera and/or feeding station.
    • If they are resistant, remind them of the reward if there is one.
    • If they refuse the camera, then first try asking one of the immediate neighbors.  If no one will let you put out a camera, then see if they will at least let you put out some food AND they will call you again immediately when they see the lost pet again.
    • You generally do NOT want a bunch of different people just putting out food in the same area.
  2. If you are really confident that the sighting is your missing pet AND there have been multiple sightings in one area, you might also consider putting out a humane trap.  But make sure that you are able to monitor the trap and check it frequently.  See Trapping for more information.
  3. Put up more posters in the area

Supplies for Checking Sightings

Make sure that you are prepared for checking sightings and especially if you see your lost pet.

  • Posters, flyers, and/or business cards.
  • Treats to entice your pet if you see them.
  • For lost dogs – A leash, preferably a slip lead that is easy to put on.  If you don’t have one, you may be able to create a loop with the handle end of a regular leash.
  • For lost cats – A towel, bag or cat carrier to safely secure your cat if you are able to pick them up by hand.  A humane cage trap in case you see your cat, but they will not approach you.