There are few things worse than losing your cat or dog.
Sadly, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. According to the American Humane Association, over 10 million dogs and cats are lost or stolen every year in the United States alone, and one out of every three pets will become lost at some point during their life.
The good news is that most of those pets eventually come home, and by taking fast action, you can improve your chances of a happy reunion. Here’s what you need to know.
Ideally, you’ve already got a pet recovery plan.
We know that this isn’t very helpful if you’re actively looking for a pet, but it’s worth mentioning: If you microchip your pet, you’ll stand a much better chance of getting them back safely.
However, make sure you’re getting the right microchip. According to the Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, there are three types of microchips used in the United States. The chips vary by frequency, and some scanners won’t read certain chips. Assistant professor Linda K. Lord explains that most U.S. microchips function at 125 kHz, but vets are moving towards 134.2 kHz microchips.
Some universal scanners can read all of the chips, but know which type of microchip you have. That way, you’ll be able to tell local shelters what to look for if they don’t have universal scanners. Likewise, make sure to register your pet’s microchip. If you’re not sure whether your pet is microchipped or registered, ask your vet during your next visit. Make sure that your registration is up to date with your current phone number and address.
Lord writes that the median return rates at shelters is 2.4 times higher for microchipped dogs and 21.4 times higher for microchipped cats, as opposed to the rates for other strays. However, she notes that visual identification is key. Get custom identification tags and collars so that you’re prepared if your pet ever goes missing. Put your phone number on the animal’s tags. Metal tags are ideal, as they don’t degrade as easily over time, but make sure the tags are easy to read.
Check with your city before putting up “Lost Pet” signs.
Many cities have ordinances against certain types of postings, and if you post photos of your pet on every telephone pole in town, you might face hefty fines. Contact your city hall and ask about the proper protocol for pet flyers.
Provided that you get the okay to post your flyers, it’s time to get to work. Choose a clear photo of your dog or cat. Write the word “Lost” in large letters using a font that’s clearly legible from a distance. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends putting two phone numbers on the flyer, along with the pet’s breed, color, sex, weight, distinguishing features, and anything else that might help someone make a correct identification.
Put the flyer around where the pet went missing. Other good places for posters include dog parks, veterinary clinics, animal shelters, and high-traffic commercial areas. If you have kids, have them take a few flyers to school and tell their friends; the ASPCA notes that children can be more observant than adults in these types of situations.
Use similar methods on social media.
Social media can be more valuable than paper flyers, since you can reach a larger audience very quickly. Try posting a few pictures of your pet, along with the aforementioned identifying information. Ask friends, neighbors, and family members to spread the pics around.
Make sure to include contact information on the photo. That way, if someone shares your photo without your original post, a helpful stranger can still reach out to you after locating your dog or cat. As you might not want your phone number on the internet, it’s okay to simply include an email address (you can even create a temporary email specifically for this purpose).
Check to see if your town has a lost pet messageboard. You can also contact administrators from your town’s social media pages and ask them to help you spread the word.
Get out your phone and start dialing.
Call animal shelters, animal control agencies, rescue groups, veterinary clinics, and hospitals in your area. Be prepared to give them a detailed description of your pet. Let them know whether the animal’s microchipped, whether it’s had its vaccinations, and how to contact you. Unfortunately, animal shelters are often extremely busy places, so don’t assume that the staff will remember you. Plan on making in-person visits every day until your pet comes home.
And while you’ve got your phone out, consider downloading the ASPCA’s mobile app. It offers a personalized missing pet recovery kit to help you make flyers and take appropriate actions as soon as your furry friend goes missing.
While searching for your pet, understand their instincts.
Dogs navigate by scent, moving among “overlapping circles of familiar scents,” per science writer Jeffrey Kluger in an article for Time.
As such, dogs can sometimes respond to powerful familiar scents. Try leaving out an article of clothing you’ve recently worn near the area where your dog was last seen. With any luck, the canine should pick up on the smell and make his way back home.
Cats probably navigate via magnetism (no, seriously), and they’re more likely to be drawn back home by a promise of food, water, and shelter. However, it’s inadvisable to simply leave out food, as this can attract wild animals that could scare your pet away.
Instead, try walking around the area where you last saw your pet. Bring the pet’s bowl and put some dry food into it, moving it back and forth to get the animal’s attention. If you see your dog or cat, don’t rush to pick it up, as this will often trigger a fight-or-flight reaction. Instead, stay calm and speak reassuringly to your pet.
Both dogs and cats want to be comfortable, so try putting their bedding outdoors near your home. Provide shelter—PetMD recommends a cardboard box with a hole cut to your animal’s size. Cats can also recognize the scent of their litter boxes (no surprise there), so put the litter box nearby.
Tell people who walk the neighborhood frequently.
You know that neighbor who’s always walking his dog? Let him know that you’re missing your pet. Tell your mailman, UPS driver, and anyone else who spends a lot of time outdoors.
Speaking of which, you should plan on spending a good deal of your time outside. Your pet may identify your scent or hear your voice, so even when you’re not actively searching, you should try to stay outdoors for as long as possible. Remember to stay calm. If you sound angry or upset, your animal might feel unsafe, and they’re less likely to return home on their own.
Finally, don’t give up on your pet.
Unfortunately, your chances of a successful reunion go down with time, but there’s always a chance. According to the ASPCA, 93 percent of dogs and 75 percent of cats reported lost are eventually returned safely to their homes.
Even if your pet has been missing for several weeks, keep searching and checking in with local animal shelters. When you eventually find your furry companion, be sure to get them microchipped and registered to prevent the situation from happening again.