What to do if you find a lost or stray dog
If you find a stray dog, don’t immediately assume that the dog is homeless, abused or abandoned based on its current condition. Some lost dogs can get injured or lose a lot of weight. They may also act fearful, but this doesn’t generally indicate abuse. Many stray dogs may still have a loving family out there looking for them. Please make an effort to reunite the lost dog with their family! In many states, you are required by law to report the dog found to your town’s Animal Control Officer.
- If possible, keep the dog while you attempt to find the owner. Shelters are often very stressful places for dogs, but they are also the first place an owner is going to look for their lost dog. So only keep the dog if you are going to make sure that Animal Control/Shelters know that you have the dog AND you are going to make an extra effort to find the owner.
- If the dog is wearing a collar, check for any ID tags or a phone number embroidered on the collar. See below for information on tracking down an owner through a license or rabies tag.
- If the dog is friendly and looks in good health, they may not have traveled far. Try knocking on some doors and see if anyone recognizes the dog. You can always go back later and distribute flyers in the neighborhood.
- Check for permanent identification such as a microchip or tattoo. You’ll need to bring the dog to a vet or shelter to get them scanned for a microchip. See below for more information. Also check the dog for other forms of permanent ID like a tattoo. These are usually placed on the dog’s belly or inner thigh but could also be in the ear.
- If you cannot safely keep the dog, then bring them to your local shelter or animal control. Look online or call the police to get in touch with Animal Control.
- If you keep the dog, call your local Animal Control Officer and/or Police Station to report the found dog.
- Also contact any local shelters or rescue groups to let them know and see if anyone is looking for the dog. Try PetFinder.com for a list of groups.
- Create florescent Found Dog posters and put them up in the area that you found the stray dog.
- Create Found Dog flyers and send them to local vets. Also put them up at local convenience stores and pet-related businesses.
- Post the found dog online. See this page for Online Posting sites.
What to do if you find a lost or stray cat
Many people have outdoor-access cats so it can be difficult to determine if a roaming cat is homeless, lost or abandoned. In some places, there are also outdoor-only cats such as barn cats or managed feral cat colonies. If a cat starts showing up at your house, it could just be a new cat living in the neighborhood. Even if a cat is in poor condition, don’t be too quick to assume that they are abandoned or homeless. Before adopting, re-homing or bringing the cat to the shelter, see if you can find the cat’s owner.
Unfortunately, very few cats are ever found by their owners once at the shelter. Shelters generally see a return-to-owner (RTO) rate of less than 5% for cats compared to 10-30% for lost dogs. Most cats also get extremely stressed in the shelter environment and are likely to develop upper respiratory infections. For these reasons, it is not recommended to bring a found stray cat to the shelter unless it appears in need of medical attention.
- If the cat is in a safe situation (such as hanging out in a neighborhood) and does not appear ill or injured, you may choose to leave the cat outside while you search for the owner. If you want to keep the cat coming around, give them some food.
- Try the Paper Collar Method. If the cat is friendly, create a thin paper collar for the cat and write the following message: “Is this your cat? (Your phone number.) We’re going to take him to the shelter. Please call!” The owner may not know that their cat is wandering and/or trying to get in other people’s homes. Hopefully, they will call you. If the cat comes back without a collar, try again because you don’t know if the cat lost the collar or someone else removed it. You can also try this method with an actual cat collar, preferably the “break-away” safety kind.
- If you are concerned for the cat’s safety, but the cat otherwise appears in good health, you might choose to keep the cat inside while you search for the owner.
- If that cat appears ill or injured, either call Animal Control or safely catch the cat yourself and bring them to a shelter or rescue group. Be aware that in many small towns, Animal Control may not deal with stray cats, but they should be able to refer you to someone that will help.
- If the cat is wearing a collar, check for any ID tags or a phone number embroidered on the collar. See below for information on tracking down an owner through a license or rabies tag.
- Bring the cat to a vet or shelter to scan for a microchip. See below for more information.
- Call your local Animal Control Officer and/or Police Station to report the found cat. Also contact any local shelters or rescue groups to let them know and see if anyone is looking for the cat. Try PetFinder.com for a list of groups.
- Many lost cats don’t travel far. Create Found Cat flyers and distribute them in the neighborhood at least 1/4 mile out. Also send them to local vets and put them up at local businesses, especially pet-related ones.
- Create florescent Found Cat posters and put them up in the area that you found the stray cat.
- Post the found cat online. See this page for Online Posting sites.
If you catch a cat and it panics when trapped, this does not mean that the cat is feral. Many cats, especially skittish escaped indoor-only cats, will panic when trapped. Because stray cats don’t get the same attention as a loose dog, a lost cat can easily be missing for months before they are found and taken in. Fortunately, most lost cats do not travel far. Even microchipped cats found years after they went missing are often found within one mile of their home.
How to Safely Return a Found Pet to their Rightful Owner or Guardian
If you choose to find the owner yourself, make sure to keep yourself and the found pet safe. Don’t just hand the dog or cat over to the first person that claims to be the owner.
- When someone calls claiming to be the owner, ask them to describe the pet in detail. Are there any identifying markings or unique behaviors? You could even try letting the person talk to the pet on the phone and see if they act excited. This will probably only work for a found dog.
- Prior to meeting, request some proof of ownership such as photos of them with the found pet. If possible, also request to see vet records (e.g. receipts are often provided after vet care that include a description of the pet), adoption papers or town license registration.
- Meet the individual during the day, in a public location and don’t go alone.
- Lastly, pay attention to the lost dog’s behavior. Most likely, they will be very happy to be returned to their owner, but very distressed pets may not show immediate recognition.
- If you’re returning a lost cat, don’t take them out of the carrier unless in an enclosed building or car. The last thing you want to do is lose someone’s lost cat again.
How to Find the Owner Using Only the License or Rabies Tag
Sometimes a dog won’t have an ID tag, but they may have a rabies and/or town license tag. These tags can also be used to track down the owner. For a rabies tag, call the vet listed and give them the number and year of the tag. For a dog license, call the Animal Control Officer or Town Clerk of the town listed on the tag and give them the number and year of the tag. In either case, they will either give you the pet owner’s phone number or more likely ask for your contact information and attempt to contact the owner themselves. If the found pet has a microchip ID tag, there is usually also a phone number to call and report the pet lost. If not, see the instructions below on finding an owner using a microchip number.
How to Check for a Microchip and Find the Owner
In order to check a found pet for a microchip, you need to bring them somewhere they can be scanned such as a shelter, veterinary office or vaccination clinic. If a microchip is found, the vet or shelter may be able to look up the microchip information, and help you locate the owner. If they just give you the microchip number, then you can enter this into the AAHA Universal Pet Microchip Lookup to determine where it is enrolled or registered. Once you know where the microchip is registered, you need to contact that company and give them the microchip number. They will either give you the pet owner’s number (if they have permission to do so) and/or contact the pet owner themselves and give them your contact information.
Unfortunately, many people do not properly register their microchips or keep the contact information up-to-date. Be aware that you may end up finding a previous owner and not the most recent owner via microchip information. If the found pet has an unregistered microchip or one with incomplete or inaccurate information, you may be able to track down the owner with a little detective work of your own. Check out this article to learn more. Or try contacting Microchip Hunters, a volunteer group which provides assistance in tracking down unregistered microchips or ones with out-of-date contact information.
Microchip Registries and Look-Up Directories
There are many different companies selling microchips and many microchip registries on the internet. Not all registries include all registered microchips. You may need to try several before you can find where a microchip is registered.
AAHA Universal Pet Microchip Lookup – not a microchip registry itself, but allows you to search by microchip number to determine where the microchip is registered. Contains many but not all microchip companies.
PETMAXX – contains links to international lost pet microchip databases
If you cannot find a registered microchip using one of the search tools listed above, this InfoPet page provides information on how to determine where a microchip is manufactured. However, just because a microchip was manufactured by Home Again doesn’t mean that it is registered with that company. It probably is, but it may also be registered on one of many free or paid microchip registry sites.
Most other registries will only bring up pets registered with that particular company!
AKC Reunite (800-252-7894)
Avid EuroChip (800-336-2843)
Avid (Canada) (800-338-1397)
Digital Angel (800-328-0118)
Found Animals (855-PET-CHIP)
Microchip ID Systems Inc. (985-898-0772)
M4S ID/PetIDGreen (877-738-4384)
24PetWatch Pet Protection Services (866-597-2424)
Petstablished (855-684-3184 Ext.103)
Save This Life (855-777-CHIP or 855-777-2447)