Tips for Finding a Lost Pet

What to do if your dog or cat is lost.

Medically Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on July 15, 2010
5 min read

When Jennifer Paterno of Belleville, N.J., learned that her 8-month-old Labrador retriever mix had let herself out of their new home and slipped a neighbor's grip on a frigid day last January, she did what experts advise panicked pet owners to do: She got busy, fast.

Paterno quickly made and distributed flyers with Jersey's photo and identifying information to area businesses, local police departments, and shelters. She posted notices on her Facebook page and on various online lost-and-found pets bulletin boards. A dozen neighbors and friends drove up and down streets calling Jersey's name.

The next day, employees of a local towing company who had a stack of the flyers spotted Jersey and called the police. The police called Paterno, and the group cornered Jersey a few blocks from home.

Paterno and Jersey were lucky. Jersey wasn't wearing a collar, so she had no tag. She also didn't have a microchip, which would have identified her if she had ended up at a shelter or veterinary clinic with a microchip scanner.

But Paterno otherwise did the right thing, experts say. She acted quickly and covered a lot of ground in her search.

WebMD asked experts for more tips on the best way to find a lost pet. Here's what they said.

Start your search right away.

"Get out immediately and start shouting and making a lot of noise," says Emily Weiss, PhD, senior director of shelter research and development for the ASPCA. "The simple 'lost' posters are often good ways to get the word out, knocking on doors, waving down cars... most dogs and cats stay fairly close to where they were originally lost."

Some shelters will euthanize untagged animals, especially cats, between 48 and 72 hours, depending on the hold period, she says.

Make up flyers with your pet's photo, age, gender, breed and color, and your contact information. Distribute them to neighbors, area businesses, veterinary offices, police departments, and animal shelters. You can also post them at traffic intersections and pet supply stores.

Offer a reward, if you want, but protect against scams by omitting an identifying trait in your pet's description. If someone claiming to have found your pet doesn't mention the omitted trait, he may not have your pet. Be wary of people who insist that you give or wire them money for the return of your pet.

Walk or drive through your neighborhood several times a day, showing neighbors, mail carriers, and delivery people a photo of your pet. Give out flyers.

File a lost pet report with every shelter within a 60-mile radius of your home and visit the nearest shelters daily, if possible. To find local shelters, check the phone book or do a search online.

Keep in mind that pets are often afraid when they're lost and find hiding places, usually nearby.

Dogs look for sheds or vacant spaces, and come out when it's dark to search for food, usually on roads, says pet detective Carl Washington of Augusta, Ga.

Cats typically won't stray more than 400 yards from the house, but their hiding spots may be harder to find and to access.

Washington says pets are typically found within 48 hours.

Weiss likes the old-fashioned ID tags that go on your pet's collar. At the very least, your cell phone number should be included on the tag.

"We know that dogs and cats that wear ID tags are much more likely to go home," Weiss says.

Estimating the number of pets that are parted from their owners is difficult, she says, because there's no central registry for lost pets.

"We don't know how many pets are strays or abandoned or lost," Weiss says. "There are a lot of lovely cats and dogs that appear to be lost, and then there are [people who] don't tag their animals and the animals are taken by somebody else," Weiss says.

The ASPCA is working on programs to save shelter animals and increase the number of animals returned to their owners, Weiss says. Research has shown that between 15% and 30% of the millions of dogs that end up in the nation's approximately 5,000 shelters are returned to their owners. For cats, the number is far lower - about 5% -- because they don't end up in shelters as often.

Microchips the size of a grain of rice can be implanted under your pet's skin, usually between the shoulder blades. They transmit an identification code and the phone number of the appropriate registry via radio frequency waves.

Most shelters and veterinarian offices can implant the microchip, and most have the scanners needed to read them. The cost of the chip and implantation is typically no more than $75. In addition, the owner of the dog must submit the appropriate documents and fee to register the chip with the parent company; if this step is overlooked, the microchip is useless if the dog is lost.

If a pet is found, the shelter or veterinarian will routinely scan for a chip and contact the registry. In turn, the microchip company will contact the pet owner.

According to one study describing stray animals in shelters, nearly 60% of microchipped dogs and cats were registered in a database. The majority of these owners were successfully contacted and the animals safely returned home.

But microchipping has its drawbacks.

Microchips using three different frequencies and two different communication protocols are sold in the U.S.

The Humane Society of the United States warns that despite the development of universal scanners, some chips may be missed. Proper scanning technique and repeat scanning may improve detection, but neither option guarantees success.

Also, the microchip provides little benefit if you move and fail to update the registry with your new contact information.

"With an ID tag, it's a quick call and the pet is back home," Weiss says. Fewer than 5% of all U.S. pets have microchips, says John Snyder of the Humane Society of the United States.

Microchip or not, "we can say without reservation the majority of American pet owners do not provide identification for their animals," Snyder says. Changing that is a good idea -- before your pet gets lost.