What to Do When Your Pet Goes Missing

Get them homeward bound, faster.

Every year, 10 million pets go missing in the U.S. A propped open gate, a crack in the window, a moment with your back turned at the park—pets can slip away in a flash, leaving you panicked and scared while you desperately search and call for your best friend. 

If you’re going through this right now, take a breath. You’re not alone. 

We asked Danni Meyerson, founder of The Tiny Pet Rescue, to reveal her tips for keeping your pets safe and secure, and for finding your pet if they are lost.

Take them home, and keep them there 

The best offense is defense. When you welcome a new pet into your fur fam, diligently inspect your home for any vulnerabilities. Make sure, Meyerson notes, that family members (including kids) know to close doors behind them, and not leave windows open without screens. 

“A cat can slip out of any tiny opening, as can a scared dog,”  Meyerson warns, so you’ll want to identify all openings in your home and patch and screen where you can.

Outdoor areas also need to be considered. A backyard can be a great place for your pet to exercise, explore, and do their business, but unsupervised trips should wait until your new addition feels confident and at home. 

“Dogs and cats can’t be left in the garden until well after they’ve adapted to the new home and understand that they live there,”  unless you have a fully enclosed area, like a catio, Meyerson says. “No wall or fence is a match for a cat with the willingness to escape.” 

“No wall or fence is a match for a cat with the willingness to escape.” 

In general, Meyerson recommends you get your new pet spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and set up with easy-to-read tags ASAP. 

Your pet ran away—what’s next? 

Once the initial shock has worn off, there’s plenty you can do to mount a successful search for your missing pet. That includes both in-person and online outreach.

  • Call all regional and local shelters to report a missing pet. “Check the most remote and unlikely shelters and ‘found’ [pet] ads,” Meyerson says. “Lost dogs can travel far, fast, and cats regularly get transported when they hide in car or truck engines. Cross-country cat hitchhikers are not unheard of.”
  • Put up lots of lost signs—with color pictures. “People relate better and more quickly to images than to words, so use the best, most descriptive color photos you have, and then put arrows and text on them, indicating identifying features like special spots, collars, and tags.” If you’ve already gone through the trouble of making these signs, Meyerson encourages you to “email your signs to local vets, pet shops, nonprofit and rescue groups, and shelters to post in their windows.” 
  • Follow up immediately on every reported sighting, even if it doesn’t seem like an exact match. “I always laugh about finding my cat, Ruby. Someone called about a grey cat wearing a pink collar when she was grey and white with a red collar. But, sure enough, there she was.”
  • Offer a reward. “Most people won’t take it, but others will only care to help or call if there’s a financial incentive. It also encourages local kids to look, because it becomes a treasure hunt!”
  • Post and check found pet ads. “Post in all local and lost-and-found pet groups, and keep commenting or reposting until your pet comes home. Facebook posts can get buried quickly.  Also, look through all the ads [other] people have posted. Don’t just post and run.” 
  • Create a profile on the PetCo Love Lost found pet database. There’s over 100,000 lost-and-found pets on this nationwide database, with over 1,600 participating animal shelters who post animals that have arrived at their doorsteps.
  • Kick your efforts up a notch.  If your pet remains lost, “your search radius should expand, as should the cash reward,” Meyerson says. “Keep putting up more and more signs, and make sure the date your pet was lost is visible. That way, if someone has had your cat for a year, they might call you instead of assuming your cat was lost much more recently.”
lost dog
Get home safe, Macho

Take the search into your own hands, with some tools: 

  • Investigate your neighborhood. Call your pet’s name, and check every crevice or possible hiding spot.  “Lost cats tend to hide quietly and ignore us because they’re afraid,” Meyerson says. Bring along a bag of treats and rattle them around as you call for your pet.
  • Bring along supplies in case you find them. “When searching for a cat, always bring a bag to carry them home if you find them. I carry one of those big, lightweight, nylon shopping bags.” They definitely won’t like it, but at least they’ll be safe and on their way home. “When searching for a dog, bring a strong leash.  For searching for either cats or dogs, carry their favorite treats; a can of rad, stinky, wet food; a fully charged phone; and a bright flashlight.”
  • Leave a litter trail. It might sound a little gross, but cats often use their own scent to help guide them back home. “Cats might wander off and hide because their scent trails are lost. One way to recreate the trail is by putting their nasty, poo-filled litter in little piles around the yard.”

You’ve found someone else’s lost pet—what should you do? 

Sometimes, when you least expect it, a lost pet might find their way into your care. You check to see if there’s a license tag with a phone number, and take a lap around the block to see if you can spot a worried pet parent, combing the area. 

Nada. You’ve got nothing but two watery eyes looking up at you, wondering if you happen to have a can of something scrumptious and meat-based. 

Here’s what you can do next. 

“If you’ve found a cat or dog, the first step is to get them to a confined, safe place. That might be a closed bedroom, garage, or garden ( for dogs only!). Close and lock doors, windows, drain holes, everything,” encourages Meyerson. Once they’re secured, you can offer the ravenous critter a bit of food and water. 

“The next step is to take the pet to the vet ASAP to have them checked for a microchip. This is the fastest and surest way to locate an owner.”

If there’s no microchip, it’s time to get organized. “Post ‘found pet’ flyers and ads,” she says—but crucially, make sure to “leave out a few key pieces of information like gender, their collar’s color, or identifying marks.” That will prevent any opportunistic people from claiming a pet that isn’t actually theirs (sad, but true). 

If your efforts to reunite the cat or dog with their owners don’t pan out, and you’re unable to keep them yourself, Meyerson asks that you find an alternative, safe, and kind solution. 

Leaving the found animal with a shelter? Make sure that it’s a no-kill shelter. Leave your contact info, ask to be updated, and call them regularly to check up.

If you want to keep your new friend out of an animal shelter, and have time to help them find their new permanent home, follow Meyerson’s handy guide on how to interview a potential adopter

Before we go… 

The notion of losing a pet is enough to make any pet parent get choked up with fear. No matter what, don’t give up, and don’t despair. Meyerson has witnessed many happy endings to lost pet sagas.

Take the story of Barbra Jellybean, the wandering cat. 

“When he (yes, Barbra is a boy) disappeared, we spent weeks canvassing and searching,” Meyerson recalls. “We did absolutely everything we could to find him. Ultimately, some kids found him at a tennis court about 40 miles away, and called the number on his tag. It was miraculous. All thanks to his collar and tag!”

​​

lost cat
Barbra with his tennis pals, far from home

Besides gifting your pet with an easy-to-read collar with tags, getting your pet microchipped is a great way to help lost pets find their way back home, faster. In fact, a University of Ohio study found that microchipped dogs were 2.5 times more likely to be returned to their owners, and microchipped cats were 20 times more likely to be returned than their non-chipped counterparts.  

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Lemonade’s Puppy & Kitten Preventative package covers microchipping, as well as spaying and neutering, and a whole lot more. Apply for Lemonade Pet today, to get your free pet insurance quote.  

Eliana Sagarin

Eliana Sagarin is an Editorial Strategist at Lemonade. She writes about insurance, life hacks, and pop culture. Eliana has an MA in creative writing from Bar Ilan University.

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