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How to Find a Lost or Missing Pet Dog or Cat

Updated on July 19, 2015
DC Ziese profile image

Denise is a freelance writer of many genres, an animal rescuer and advocate, and a spirituality and paranormal enthusiast.

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If you have a lost or missing beloved pet dog or cat—time is of the essence. Begin your search immediately, as soon as you notice your pet is missing. The more time that passes, the farther away your lost animal companion can travel, and the more dangers he or she can encounter. Keep in mind that lost or missing pets can become so frightened and confused that they may wander a great distance and/or hide in precarious locations. Therefore, your search should reach far and wide.

Above all, do not lose hope or give up your search. There are many accounts of pets being lost or missing for months, even years, who have been found and reunited with their owners.

The following tips offer in-depth, practical advice and resources that may help you find your beloved pet dog or cat quickly and safely. (For direct assistance with finding your lost pet, please view the Resources section at the end of this article.)

Some reasons why pets run away

There are several reasons why a pet dog or cat might run away, as well as why they may choose not to return home, even if they are able.

  • To answer the romantic call of nature - if they are not spayed or neutered
  • To answer the predatory call of nature - if they are hunters
  • Loneliness or boredom - if they are seeking interaction with other animals or people, or wish to explore
  • Curiosity - if a door, window or gate is left open or is broken
  • Fear - if something frightened them, or they are (or were) routinely abused

Chained Dog
Chained Dog | Source
  • Neglect and/or abuse
  • Freedom - if they are continuously chained or confined
  • Overcrowding and/or competition for resources - if there are too many pets in the household (Note: you are also a resource.)
  • Homing instinct – if they are new to the household and are searching for their former home or habitat
  • Privacy and safety - if they wish to hide from meddlers or predators in order to give birth, or to die in peace
  • Maternal instinct – if they wish to return to a location where they recently gave birth, or are searching for their litter

Tethered, Neglected Dog
Tethered, Neglected Dog | Source

Some pets may not wish to return home

Domestic dogs and cats are generally social creatures who desire, and deserve, interaction and affection, activity or stimulus, and to be cared for properly. People who keep a pet dog or cat continuously tethered, chained, or confined to a limited space, and deprive the animal of exercise or positive stimulation, interaction, affection, and proper care, simply should not own a pet. Denying an animal appropriate mobility, attention, affection, and proper care is actually considered neglect and/or abuse. Pet dogs and cats who run away from negligible and abusive situations will probably not wish to return home. And, quite honestly, they should not be returned to such an environment.

If your lost or missing pet dog or cat is microchipped

Immediately notify the microchip company that your pet is lost, and make sure that your contact information is up-to-date. Animal control officers, animal shelters and veterinarians routinely check stray animals for microchips in an effort to return lost pets to their owners quickly. Some individuals who find lost pets will take them to a veterinarian or animal shelter in order to have the animal scanned for a microchip. A few microchip companies, such as HomeAgain®, provide a lost pet alert service that notifies local animal shelters, vet clinics and area residents about lost microchipped pets in their community.

Although the chances of your lost or missing pet being found and reunited with you are much greater if the animal is microchipped, do not rely solely upon a microchip to recover your lost or missing pet. For various reasons, microchips can occasionally fail. And, not all brands of microchip scanners can detect or read all brands of microchips. Plus, not all individuals who find a lost pet will know to have the animal scanned for a microchip. Therefore, you should be proactive in the search for your lost or missing pet dog or cat.

Thoroughly search your home and property

“Leave no stone unturned.” Thoroughly search your home, your property, community property, including any and all buildings or structures on the property. Remember to check under beds, in closets, under vehicles, bushes, in alleyways, crawl spaces, attics, compartments, cubby-holes—inside, beneath, overhead and behind any and all potential hiding places. If your pet is hiding or sleeping somewhere, shaking a food bowl with a little pet food in it, or a container of treats, might lure your pet out of hiding. Also, ask your family members or roommates where and when they last saw your pet.

If your pet is not found at home, you should still search your home and property periodically. Even if you are notified that your lost pet was seen in a distant location, if he or she is on the loose, continue to search your home and property regularly in case your lost or missing pet dog or cat is willing and able to return home on their own.

Immediately contact all local, and neighboring, animal shelters

If your pet dog or cat is apprehended by an individual or an animal control officer, he or she will most likely be surrendered to an animal shelter or rescue organization. Many animal shelters house stray animals for a very brief period of time before offering the animal for public adoption or, unfortunately, eliminating the animal. So, time is of the essence! Call or visit each animal shelter to register your pet as lost by filing a lost pet report. (You may be able to register with some shelters online.) Provide the shelters with a photo of your lost pet and identifying information, or a lost pet flyer. Be sure to contact all the animal shelters in all surrounding or adjacent counties within a 60-mile radius. Pets can wander a tremendous distance, or be picked up and transported by another person. But also, animal shelters service limited jurisdictions and, unfortunately, there is no central database connecting all shelters and their inventory of animals.

According to the ASPCA...

Approximately 10 million pets are lost in the U.S. each year.

Fortunately, approximately 85% of lost pets are recovered by their owners each year.

You may need to call or visit the animal shelters every day, or as often as possible. It is best if you can visit the shelters every day to personally view the animals they have on-hand, and to inquire about animals who "did not make it.". Animal shelters receive many animals every day, and they are generally under-staffed, over worked, and overwhelmed. Information about your lost pet dog or cat will probably not be communicated to every staff member and volunteer at the shelters. Even the staff and volunteers who are informed about your lost or missing pet may not recognize your animal and make the connection. So, do not expect, or rely upon, the animal shelters to contact you. Take the initiative in your quest. (For assistance with notifying animal shelters, please view Resources, below.)

When to contact the police about a lost pet dog or cat

Immediately contact the police if you believe your missing pet dog or cat has been stolen!

If there are no animal shelters or rescue organizations within the community or region where your pet went missing, then you should contact Animal Control at the local police department to initiate a lost pet report, or obtain further instructions.

Create lost pet flyers to post in your community

Your lost pet flyer should be printed on brightly-colored paper, and contain a clear, color photo of your pet, as well as a brief description, such as breed, color, age, gender, weight, and any identifying markings, or apparel, i.e. collar, sweater, etc. (The Humane Society recommends that you leave out one identifying characteristic and ask the person who finds your pet to describe it.) Also include the date and address or name of the last known location, and your contact information. (If the last known location was your home, for safety DO NOT include your house or apartment number, only the street name and/or building name.)

To increase the chances that someone will pay attention to your lost pet flyer, and be motivated to assist with locating and returning your lost pet, you should place the word “REWARD” at the very top of the flyer in big, bold letters. You do not need to advertise the amount of the reward, or disclose it to anyone until your lost pet is found and reunited with you. If possible, it is best to laminate the lost pet flyers that you will post at any outdoor locations. (For assistance with creating and circulating lost pet flyers, please view Resources, below.)

Example of a Lost Pet Poster
Example of a Lost Pet Poster | Source

Create large lost pet posters to display at intersections

Your lost pet posters should be printed on brightly-colored paper, laminated, and large enough to be visible and readable from a vehicle traveling through the intersection. Since drivers will have limited time and attention to devote to reading your lost pet poster, you should keep the information brief and direct. At the top of the poster, place the word “REWARD” in big, bold letters, then state “Lost Dog” or “Lost Cat”. In the center of the poster, display a large, clear picture of your pet, and below that list your telephone number in big, bold numbers.

Search your neighborhood and surrounding areas

Walk or drive around your neighborhood and surrounding areas. If you are driving, DO NOT call out your pet’s name. If your pet is within hearing range, by the time they reach the location they think your voice originated from, you will have moved on, and they may be reluctant to respond to your voice again.

Inquire with all neighbors, businesses, and any people you may encounter on your search. Show a photo of your pet, or better yet, hand a lost pet flyer to everyone you speak to, so they will have your information on-hand, and may be able to share it with others. Get permission before searching a neighbor’s property. If a neighbor is not at home, leave a lost pet flyer at their door. Ask local businesses to post a lost pet flyer in their establishments, especially vet clinics, pet supply stores, grocery and hardware stores.

You may want to carry a little of your pet's favorite food or treat with you in case you do encounter them on your search, because food could motivate them to come to you. (For assistance with creating lost pet flyers and alerting your community about your lost pet, please view Resources, below.)

If you happen to see your lost pet during your search

DO NOT yell out your pet’s name or run toward them, as this may cause them to run away from you. DO NOT scold them, or hit or kick them. DO NOT grab them. Your pet may become frightened and run away from you. Instead, slowly and calmly approach your pet. If you do speak to them, do so in a soft, calm, loving voice. If possible, squat or kneel near your pet, and they might come to you, especially if you have a favorite food or treat to offer. Slowly and gently attach a leash or pick them up. Once you have your pet in your possession, or in your car or home, DO NOT yell, scold, hit or kick them then, either. Not only is such behavior abusive, unnecessarily cruel, and counter-productive, but the emotional and psychological trauma could cause them to want to run away again.

Advertise in your regional newspapers and classifieds circulars

Most newspapers and general classifieds circulars offer a free listing for lost and found pets in their classifieds section. Even if there is a cost involved in advertising your lost pet, it may well be worth the expense. If possible, title your ad “REWARD:” for the same reasons as your lost pet flyer. Utilize the circulation expanse of as many newspapers and classifieds circulars as possible, because animals can become so frightened and confused that they wander far from home. And, if they are picked up by someone along the way, they could end up many miles, or several cities away.

The Humane Society recommends...

When describing your lost pet on flyers and in advertisements, omit one identifying characteristic. Ask the person who claims to have found your pet to describe your pet thoroughly, and if they fail to mention the identifying characteristic you omitted, they may not really have your pet.

Make a note of each newspaper and classifieds circular that you advertise in, and their individual publication dates. Some may be willing to run your lost pet ad indefinitely until you request that they discontinue the ad. But, for most publications you will have to resubmit your lost pet advertisement periodically according to their classifieds publication schedule--be it 5 days, 7 days, 10 days, bi-weekly, etc. And, don’t forget to also routinely check the Lost and Found Pets classifieds section of the newspapers and classifieds circulars in case someone listed your lost pet as being found.

Utilize the power of free online advertising and networking

Free online Classifieds, such as Craig’s List, eBay Classifieds, ClassifiedAds.com, etc., offer another venue for advertising your lost or missing pet dog or cat within your region.

And, never underestimate the power of social networking. Send descriptive emails about your lost pet to your local family, friends, and associates, and ask that they share the email with anyone they can. You can create a descriptive digital card about your lost pet and share it on all your social networks, such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc. Ask your friends to share the digital card with all their friends. You could also create a temporary Facebook page dedicated to finding your lost pet, and enlist the help of, potentially, hundreds of people. Also, consider listing your lost pet on established lost and found pet pages on Facebook. Search for a Facebook page that services your state and/or city or region. As examples: Lost & Found Dogs – Virginia; Lost & Found Dogs – Richmond, Virginia; or Virginia Lost and Found Cats, etc.

Once your lost or missing pet dog or cat is reunited with you, remember to delete your temporary Facebook page and/or update your social networks, and your posts on any established lost and found pet pages so that people do not continue to search for a pet that is no longer lost or missing.

Enlist help from a lost pet alert service or lost pet locating service

There are several companies and organizations dedicated to reuniting you with your lost pet dog or cat. In addition to free advice, many companies provide free, or inexpensive, assistance with creating and circulating lost pet flyers, posting classified ads, lost pet database listings, and alerting neighbors and community pet businesses and organizations, as well as provide professional lost pet locating and recovery services. (For a list of some such companies and organizations, please view Resources, below.)

Remember to make a list of any companies and organizations that you enlist help from so when your lost or missing pet is found, you can quickly and easily update your pet’s status as found, or cancel your listing with each company and organization. Otherwise, your community’s resources, time and effort will be wasted continuing to search for a pet that is no longer lost or missing.

Set a humane animal trap

Humane, catch-and-release animal traps can be very effective in capturing cats and small dogs. Set a trap on your property and/or in the area of the last known location of your lost pet. Place several layers of newspaper, or cardboard, or an old towel or blanket in the bottom of the trap(s) for comfort, to prevent injury to an animal’s paws, and for easier clean-up should an animal relieve themselves while trapped. To camouflage the fact that the trap is a trap, you can hide the trap between bushes, or arrange tree branches or straw on the top and sides of the trap, or drape a towel or blanket over the trap. Bait the trap(s) with your pet’s favorite food or treat, and an item that has their scent, or your scent on it, such as a favorite toy, or a shirt you have worn. The bait used in the trap(s) should be changed daily, or as often as necessary to prevent it from becoming saturated, spoiled, or moldy.

Traps should be checked at least once a day, but ideally various times throughout the day and evening. It is possible that other unexpected, uninvited critters may land themselves in your trap(s). Should this happen, they should be compassionately released by you, or an animal control officer, as soon as possible. If the trap is successful in capturing your pet, but is left unattended for a long period of time, your pet will be without food or water, and exposed to the elements during that time, as well as other potential dangers.

Some animal welfare organizations, such as a local Humane Society, will loan or rent humane animal traps to individuals. If you decide to purchase humane animal traps and, after procuring your pet, you choose not to keep the traps, please consider donating the traps to a local Humane Society, an animal shelter, an animal rescue organization, or a wildlife preservation organization.

Be wary of pet-recovery scams

When talking to a stranger who claims to have found your pet, ask them to describe your pet thoroughly before you offer any information. If they do not include the identifying characteristic you left out of your lost pet flyers and advertisements, then they may not really have your pet.

Be particularly wary of people who insist that you give or wire them money for the return of your pet if you have not offered a reward. If you have offered a reward, it would be wise to wait until you actually have your pet in your possession before paying the reward money.

Do not lose hope or give up your search

As previously mentioned, there are many accounts of animals being lost or missing for months, even years, who have been successfully reunited with their owners.

Once you have recovered your pet, take precautions to not lose your pet again

  • Have your dog or cat spayed or neutered!
  • If there is an ID tag on your pet’s collar, make sure your contact information is up-to-date.
  • If there is no ID tag on your pet’s collar—get one, even for indoors-only pets.
  • Consider microchipping your dog or cat.
  • Have your pet’s microchip scanned periodically at vet visits to ensure it is always working properly.

  • Consider equipping your dog’s or cat’s collar with a GPS pet tracking device to help locate your pet anytime, anywhere.
  • Make sure your pet’s collar fits properly—not too tight, but not too loose.
  • If your dog routinely slips out of his or her collar during walks, use a humane harness instead. A harness may be more comfortable for your pet, and allows greater control for you.
  • Periodically inspect your pet’s collar, or harness, and leash to ensure they are in good condition and not likely to tear or break.
  • Be sure your dog’s leash is of the correct thickness and durability to accommodate his or her size, weight and strength.

  • Make sure your above-ground fence or kennel is high enough to prevent your pet from jumping or climbing over it, or reinforce the boundaries with a wireless fence, such as a radio-fence pet containment system.
  • Conduct periodic maintenance checks on all your fencing or kennels. Check for breaks in underground wire fencing, and check above-ground fences, gates and kennels for gaps, holes, etc.
  • If your property is not fenced, consider an inexpensive, hassle-free alternative fence, such as a PetSafe® wireless radio-fence pet containment system.

RESOURCES to help find lost pets

The following resources provide additional tips to help find lost pets, as well as (free or inexpensive) assistance with creating and distributing lost pet flyers, and notifying the community about your lost or missing pet dog or cat, or professional lost pet locating and recovery services.

  • Center for Lost Pets -- TheCenterForLostPets.com
  • Pet Finder -- PetFinder.com/dogs/lost-and-found-dogs and PetFinder.com/cats/lost-and-found-cats
  • Lost & Found Pets in the USA -- LostFoundPets.us
  • Missing Pet Partnership -- MissingPetPartnership.org
  • PetAmberAlert.com
  • LostMyDoggie.com
  • LostMyKitty.com
  • FindToto.com
  • FidoFinder.com
  • TabbyTracker.com

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    • DC Ziese profile image
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      DC Ziese 2 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Hello Bryan. Thank you for your comment. I did invest a lot of time and effort in the research and composition of this article, but if it helps even just one person to find their beloved pet, then it is worth it.

    • DC Ziese profile image
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      DC Ziese 2 years ago from Virginia, USA

      catlady, thank you for your comment. I did try to be thorough, and I do hope the info will be helpful.

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      Bryan 2 years ago

      I know it took a lot of time and effort to write this, and I want you to know it is truly appreciated! Contains tons of helpful advice. Many folks will not think of some of these tactics on their own, especially while consumed with concern and grief for their lost pet. Thanks so much for composing this article. :-)

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      catlady 2 years ago

      Very thorough and helpful. Thank you for writing this!