Most animal lovers want to help lost and homeless pets when we see them on the street — but many of us just don’t have the experience or training to handle a lost pet when we come across one. This quick guide should help you know how to react if you come across a stray dog, cat, or small animal.
First, try to figure out if the animal has an owner or not. If you run into a stray dog, it’s a safe bet that it’s probably someone’s lost pet — and they may have an ID tag or microchip to help you contact the owner. With cats, it’s not so easy to tell. Most cat owners don’t bother with collars, and the number of pet cats which are allowed to roam freely outdoors can make it tough to tell if the cat is homeless or lost.
In general, a pet cat enjoying some outdoor time will have well-groomed fur that is relatively soft and clean. It will also have soft footpads, where a cat that’s lived exclusively outdoors will have callouses on its feet. Another way to tell if the cat is being cared for is its overall health and weight.
Next, approach the animal carefully, and only if the situation seems safe. If you’re caught in the middle of traffic, don’t swerve or brake suddenly to try to get to an animal along the side of the road. If the animal seems aggressive or you’re not able to restrain it, contact animal control instead of approaching it yourself. Try to stay on the scene until help arrives so you can direct them to the animal.
You’ll want to walk up to a lost dog or cat slowly and cautiously, while speaking in a gentle voice. Watch for any signs that it may bite or scratch, and back away if it growls or hisses. If the animal is frightened, you may need to coax it with food or treats. You can secure a stray dog by slipping on a leash, but a cat will be easiest to contain with a carrier or a box with air holes.
Take the stray pet to a safe place. At this point, you have a few options. If the animal doesn’t have any ID, you can take it to a shelter. While many people may be reluctant to turn the animal over for fear it may be euthanized, this is actually a pet’s best chance at being reunited with its owner. You can always let the staff of the shelter know that you’d be willing to foster the animal if its owner can’t be located.
If you decide to take the animal home and try to locate the owner yourself, please contact your local shelters anyway with a description of the lost pet — so if the owner calls looking for their dog or cat, they’ll be able to get in touch with you. You may be able to provide the shelter with a photo of the animal as well, to help with identification.
If you already have pets at home, keep the new animal separated from them. You have no way of knowing if a strange dog or cat has been vaccinated, is carrying an illness, or if it might be aggressive toward other pets.
Take care of the animal’s physical needs. Offer it water and a little food. If it seems thin or hungry, try not to feed it too much at once — it may gorge and make itself sick. You’ll want to take the animal to a vet as soon as possible to have it checked for illness or injury, and to have it scanned for a microchip.
Search for the owner online and off. There are so many things you can do to put out the word that you’ve found a lost pet. Put up fliers in your neighborhood and in community areas. Post the animal’s details on Craigslist. You could take out a classified ad in your local paper. You might even want to go door to door in your neighborhood asking if anyone knows the owner of the animal. Keep an eye out for lost pet posters and listings as well — respond to any that sound like they might be a match.
So how long should you keep searching for the pet’s owner? That’s a bit of a touchy topic. Most shelters will have a certain holding period before a pet goes up for adoption, but if you’re searching on your own, it’s a call you’ll have to make.
If all else fails, help the animal find a new home. If you’ve bonded with the pet and you’re able to take care of it, great! Otherwise, you’ll have to find someone willing to adopt it. This is when you might want to talk to your local shelter about fostering the animal while they look for a suitable match. You could also team up with a local rescue group if you’re unsure about screening potential adopters yourself. If you’d like to handle the adoption yourself, the Cat Care Society has some suggestions for how to go about it.
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