What to Do If You Find a Loose Dog or Cat

Black cat found as a stray

If you've found a loose dog or cat, remember this: Most lost pets are found close to home. And they are much more likely to get back home if we take a few simple steps to help their people find them. 

When lost pets are brought to shelters, reclaim rates by their families are typically low. (The shelter might be miles away, the families might not know to check that shelter, etc.) So before bringing the animal to the shelter, first use the tips below as a guide to reunite a lost pet with their owner. 

If you have exhausted all options and have complied with your local government's stray hold requirements (which your local shelter or rescue groups can advise you on), it may be time to find the pet a new home.

Found a dog?

If you find a loose dog outside, the dog might simply be lost rather than a stray, and someone could be frantically searching for them. If a lost dog has been on the run for weeks or months, they're probably going to be dirty and skinny, even if they escaped from a wonderful home. In fact, Mission Reunite developed its Think Lost, Not Stray campaign to dispel the assumption that every roaming animal is unwanted.

Found a cat?

Many cats whom you notice outdoors aren’t actually lost. The cat might be someone’s pet and have an indoor/outdoor life, or they might not belong to anyone and simply live outdoors. If the cat seems comfortable and confident outside, they're probably doing just fine and don't require your help. However, if the cat seems ill, injured, or stressed, they might indeed be lost. 

If you find a cat missing the tip of an ear:

If the cat appears healthy and has an “ear tip” — i.e., the tip of one ear is missing — it means they're a stray or outdoor cat (aka community cat). Ear-tipping is a surgical procedure to indicate that the cat has been sterilized and vaccinated against rabies through a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) program. Some community cats are friendly; others are unsocialized to people. It’s not necessary to bring a community cat to a shelter because they're most likely being looked after by people in the area. Please leave ear-tipped cats who appear healthy right where they are. 

If you find kittens:

If you find a litter of kittens outdoors, don’t assume they’ve been abandoned by their mom. In most cases, mom will be back soon and the kittens do not require help from humans. In fact, taking kittens to a shelter puts them at risk because most shelters don’t have the resources to provide the intensive care that young kittens need. The kittens’ best chance for survival is staying with their mother. Plan to monitor the kittens for signs of danger or distress, and then have the whole family spayed or neutered and vaccinated when the kittens are around 8 weeks. A shelter or community cat program can help you determine whether you should intervene.

Tips to find the lost pet's person

Check for pet ID tags and microchips:

  • If the pet has no ID tag, put on a temporary one. Include your name and phone number so that if the pet gets lost a second time, they will be returned to you.
  • Take the animal to be scanned for a microchip. Your veterinarian or local animal shelter likely has a scanner to check for microchips. In some communities, the local firehouse might have a scanner. Also, check the animal’s ears for a tattoo, which is sometimes used as a form of pet identification.

Reach out for help in your community:

  • If you've found a dog, leash them up and walk them around the neighborhood. The dog's person might be out looking for them, or a neighbor might know where the dog lives. Other folks, such as mail deliverers, might also help crack the case.
  • Notify your local animal shelter that you have found the animal. There are different laws in each municipality regarding lost or stray animals. In some communities, finders of lost animals are legally required either to surrender the animal to the animal shelter or to report it to the shelter. Check with the animal control or animal services department in your community to find out what your legal obligations are.
  • Even if you’re not legally required to notify the shelter, you’ll still want to let the staff know that you have found the animal. Provide a photo and relevant information about the pet. If the animal's family is looking for them, they will most likely call the shelter. So it’s very important that the shelter staff know you have found the pet.
  • If you do take the pet to the shelter and you wish to adopt them if they're not claimed, be sure to let the staff know that. After the stray hold period is up, you will have adoption privileges. It is a good idea to call the shelter daily to let the staff know that you are interested in the animal’s welfare.

Look outside of your neighborhood:

  • Check the lost-and-found section in local newspapers and in the newspapers of nearby towns. Lost pets sometimes travel some distance — either on their own, by hitchhiking on a vehicle, or by being rescued and then lost again in a new location.
  • On NextDoor.com and other online community groups, search for lost-pet postings for various neighborhoods in your community.

Spread the word about the pet you’ve found:

  • Create a flyer. Take a good photo of the pet, write a basic description, and then use the free flyer-making program at PetBond.com to create your flyer.
  • Post the flyer on your social media, neighborhood sites like NextDoor.com, sites like Petco Love Lost and PawBoost, and lost-and-found pet groups on Facebook. You can also post a free listing in the Community > Lost and Found area on your local Craigslist site.
  • Print out copies of the flyer and post them throughout your community, especially in the area where you found the pet. Attach the printed flyers to brightly colored poster board, and write "found dog" (or "found cat") in large letters across the top to ensure that the flyers are noticed. Mission Reunite has some additional tips for creating highly visible flyers.
  • Email the flyer to your friends, family, and other contacts in the surrounding area, and ask them to alert others.
  • Place an ad in the lost-and-found section of local newspapers. A typical ad describes the type of animal, where the animal was found, coloring, and other distinct characteristics. You might want to leave out one characteristic about the animal so that when a person calls claiming to be the owner, you can verify that the animal really belongs to that person. Don’t forget to put your contact information and times you can be reached in the ad.