How to Prepare for Finding Your Pet – Before They Go Missing!
By Mallorey Ross
The worst has happened. You came home and your beloved pet was not there to greet you. You look all over the house in a panic and no sign of them! What do you do? What can possibly be done? They’re out there somewhere; alone, scared, at the mercy of vehicles and strangers and wild predators.
Do you know the best places to post missing ads and what information to include? Can you describe your pet’s markings, breed and distinctive traits accurately? Is your pet micro-chipped? Spayed or neutered? Are they licensed? Are they wearing ID? Do you have clear pictures of your pet to show people? Do you know where people might report pets they find? Do you know the animal control agency for your jurisdiction? Do you know the names of the animal shelters in your area where found pets or strays may be taken? Do your pets have a history of wandering off in certain areas? Did you recently move? Sometimes lost animals will return to the place they’ve lived before, in search of their owners.
These are questions you will want to answer quickly. In stressful situations, like worrying that your best friend is gone for good, it can be very difficult to recall this important information. Everyone thinks it can’t happen to their pet. They are responsible owners because they always keep a leash on their animal when going out. They always close the doors and know that their pet loves them too much to wander off. But then it happens. One out of three pets will go missing in their lifetime.
As an animal shelter office employee, I take numerous lost pet reports in person and over the phone every day. Sadly, owners who are prepared for finding a lost pet are the exception rather than the rule. My coworkers and I have an arsenal of strategies we share to help owners recover their lost pets, but these strategies can actually be implemented before a pet even goes missing. Just as you are advised to prepare and practice for potential natural disasters so you can get through in one piece, you can prepare for the disaster of losing a fur baby and increase their chances of getting safely home. There is no need to wait until your pet is gone and you’re panicking. Be prepared before it happens.
The advice compiled here is based on over a year of full time experience working with pet owners to help recover lost pets, and helping to reunite found pets with owners. I want to share this to save you from the heartache and loss experienced by so many people and their pets.
Step 1: Get your pet micro-chipped, and keep the registration up to date!
What a microchip is:
- A tiny chip encased in plastic, about the size of a grain of rice, with a unique code attached to it
- A permanent and reliable form of ID for a pet, when registered and kept updated
- Usually fairly inexpensive (average cost is $45)
- Simple to implant – just like a vaccine
- A way to increase your chances of getting your pet back if it goes missing
- Heartily encouraged and endorsed by veterinarians and animal welfare experts
What a microchip is NOT:
- A way to track your pet’s location
- Very painful to implant (no more painful than a routine vaccination, and not painful at all if done during a spay or neuter surgery)
- Risky for the animal’s health
- A substitute for a dog license
How it works:
A veterinarian injects the microchip through a hollow needle, just under the skin between your pet’s shoulder blades. Implant facilities should either register the chip for you or provide instructions for registering the chip yourself. When you register the chip, your contact information will be attached to the unique ID number in the database for the microchip company that manufactured the chip. If your pet goes astray and someone takes it to a vet or shelter, staff will wave a universal microchip scanner over the shoulders and around the neck to find a chip. If a chip is there, the unique ID number will show up on the scanner’s digital readout. They can then type that number into a microchip database search online to determine the microchip company, call, and obtain whatever contact information is attached to the chip number. If your information is up to date, the vet or shelter can contact you immediately and reunite you with your pet!
Though the fact of having a chip can be an identifying feature, it is still important to make sure you update the registration every time contact information changes. We also strongly advise keeping a collar and tags with your contact information on your pet, but if you have a collar-eating or collar-hating pet, or the collar falls off or is removed, the microchip is there as back up.
Step 2: KNOW your pet
This might seem like a no-brainer, but many people really don’t know how to describe their pet accurately. We often get dogs and cats into the shelter that we cannot identify from the information on lost reports because the owner provided a less than accurate description.
Know the breed and coloring: If your pet is a mutt or you’re not sure of the breed, consult a veterinarian, trainer, shelter/rescue employee, or other person who has extensive experience identifying animal breeds. Even if you are pretty confident you know your pet’s breed or breeds, it doesn’t hurt to seek a second opinion!
Same goes for the coloring and markings. It can help a lot to know how animal experts label specific patterns, and characteristic patterns for specific breeds. For example, brindle and merle are both labels for similar mottled markings on dogs. If you have a dog with Australian cattle dog or heeler ancestry, it would be called a merle. If you have a mottled dog with mastiff or pit bull terrier ancestry, their pattern would be called a brindle. Calico and tortoiseshell cats also confuse people, but there are specific differences. Make sure you ask someone, or do a Google search to figure out how to accurately describe your pet!
Know your pet’s sex, and whether they’re fertile or fixed: You should know if your pet is male or female, that’s an important identifying characteristic. It’s not always obvious whether a female is spayed. Some ways to tell if she is spayed can include a scar or tattoo on her lower belly. If she is in heat, pregnant, or nursing, she is obviously not spayed. Also, when free-roaming cats are altered and released, it’s a common practice to cut off the tip of one ear (while they’re still under anesthesia of course!) to make them easier to identify as altered. For males, however, it is quite apparent if they’re not neutered, as intact testes are prominent on both dogs and cats. If your pet won’t let you look or you don’t feel confident making that determination, take it to a veterinarian who can give you a definite answer. If you have a calico or tortoiseshell cat, it’s safe to assume it’s a female. Males of these color variations are extremely rare. Bonus fact: Male cats and dogs have nipples too.
Know your pet’s past and present medical conditions and injuries, especially if they have any visible symptoms such as hair loss or shaved patches, tumors, missing teeth, limping, or scars.
Know your pet’s distinctive traits. What is unusual about them and sets them apart from others? Distinctive traits for cats can include a kinked or bob tail, polydactyly (more than five toes on the front paws or more than four toes on the back, or both!), declawed, etc. Distinctive traits for dogs can include docked tails, cropped ears, intact dewclaws, different colored eyes, spots on their tongue, etc. Very distinct and unusual markings can help with identification as well.
Know your pet’s weight, or at least their average weight. Small, medium, and large are subjective labels and each can cover a wide range of sizes, so knowing a reasonable weight estimate for your pet, especially if excessive fur makes a pet look larger than it is, can really help in identification.
Step 3: Take photos of your pet
Even the most detailed description can be challenging when attempting to identify an animal, without a current, clear photograph. At the shelter we spend a lot of time perusing lost pet posts online, hoping to find the owners of pets currently in the shelter. The most common mistakes we see are no photo at all, overly dark or unfocused photos, photos from just one angle or with only a small part of the pet showing, multiple pets where the missing pet is not specified, or photos of puppies and kittens when the missing pet is an adult. If you’d rather not fill your phone with adorable photos of your pet from every possible angle (please know this blows our minds), at least take two or three photos of your pet every few years. If the memory in your phone or camera is very limited, be sure to download these photos to a computer, upload to a website, or print the photos before you have to delete them. Current technology provides a multitude of ways to make sure you always have good, current photos of your pet on hand. Always feel free to ask for assistance at many of the community resources if you are not sure how to do this. You phone carrier can even help you or direct you to a resource.
Step 4: Create a pet emergency kit, and get any potential pet sitters and helpers on the same page
Do you anticipate any events or vacations where a relative, significant other, pet sitter, or boarding facility would care for your pet? A pet can get away from even the most trustworthy and responsible pet sitter. In fact, because your pet may not be as bonded with your pet-sitter as they are with you, and because your pet sitter is not as familiar with your pets shenanigans as you are, a pet is more likely to go missing while being watched by someone else. I’d estimate at least an eighth of lost reports we receive are from pet-sitters, and they often don’t know important details such as whether the pet is micro-chipped, altered, their age, or their weight. You can set your pet sitter up for success in finding your pet by writing down all the important descriptors from Step 1, and providing the list before you leave. Write it out by hand or better yet, type it up and print copies to keep near your phone and give out to pet sitters and potential helpers. Include emergency contact numbers for your main vet and an alternate vet in case of a medical emergency, local animal control and stray shelter numbers in case they go missing, phone numbers of friends and relatives who can help with the search, websites and local businesses where lost reports can be posted, and so on. Also provide copies of the list to anyone who may be recruited (or volunteer) to help search for a missing pet. Including multiple copies of photos or a flash drive containing photos of your pet can also be a great help.
Step 5: Educate yourself on the services available for stray animals in your area
Find out what police department or animal control agency might pick up your pet and where stray pets from your area are housed. Save all contact information, and hours, on your phone or on paper so you can access it quickly. Also find out what requirements, fees, and procedures these facilities have for reclaiming pets. Municipal and county shelters are required to verify any dogs leaving the shelter have current rabies vaccinations and licenses for their jurisdiction. If the vaccine and license are expired or can’t be verified, you will have to pay to get them updated before you can take your pet home. Shelters may have their own fees too. Making sure to keep your dog’s license and vaccines up to date can make it easier and cheaper to reclaim your pet if they are taken in to a shelter. If it’s your pet’s first time in the shelter and they’re wearing a current license tag and their rabies vaccine is also current, you may even get your pet back for free! Additionally, keeping ID on your pet such as tags or a microchip can extend the stray hold period, the period which a shelter has to wait before making the pet available for adoption, giving you a longer time to find your pet!
Step 6: Educate yourself on other resources available for finding a lost pet
Local print or copy shops may have special offers for creating lost pet fliers to hang up around your neighborhood. Make the most of fliers by including all of the information from Step 2 and use clear, accurate photographs! The Internet is also a great resource for expanding your posts’ reach to potential finders. There are Craigslist sites for most cities, and both the Lost and Found section and the Pets section are utilized for lost and found pets. Facebook users often create groups and pages for people in specific areas to share about missing or found pets. A similarly useful resource is Nextdoor.com, and a simple Google search can bring up numerous other online communities designed to reunite people and pets.