What to do if you find a lost pet - Who to call, where to go, & more

Whether you saw a lost pet poster and are actively helping with the search of a missing dog or came across a lost cat on your evening stroll, there’s a lot you can do to help them get back where they belong. Even if you are unable to approach the animal, a reported sighting can be the key to helping desperate owners locate their pet.

Read on so that the next time you come across a lost dog or cat, you’ll know exactly what to do.

What should I do if I find a lost pet?

First things first, your safety should be number one priority. Even the friendliest pets can react unexpectedly when in fight or flight mode. They may be scared, hungry, injured, and exhausted, so approach with caution. If the pet is growling, hissing, cowering, or showing other signs of fear or aggression, contact your local animal authorities for assistance.

If you think it’s safe to approach, go slowly to avoid spooking them. Never chase a loose pet, as this may cause them to feel threatened and begin to run. It’s best to remain calm and avoid making direct eye contact so you are not seen as a threat. Sit on the ground or crouch down low and speak in a gentle voice to coax them your way. Offering small bits of food or treats can be a helpful tool for gaining their trust.

What if I cannot safely approach the animal?

If you do not think it’s safe to approach the animal, or if they are not responding to your attempts:

How do I safely and carefully capture the animal?

If the dog or cat is responding to your coaxing, look for something you can use to secure them. Do you have a leash on hand? Is there someone walking their dog in the vicinity who you could enlist to run home and lend you supplies? Or is there a vet clinic or pet store nearby where you could pick up a crate?

Cats are elusive by nature and can be incredibly difficult to catch without a special crate or live trap. If the cat is friendly, and allows you to approach, you’re in luck! However, if they are scared and responding to your attempts by running further away or burrowing into a potentially dangerous situation, it’s best to back off. Take a picture if you can, and note the location and time. Report the sighting and get in touch with your local animal services or rescue group who can set up humane live traps.

Dogs vary drastically in personality and temperament, so you’ll need to approach each situation individually. If they seem friendly and are responsive to your gentle approach, then proceed with caution. If your efforts are causing obvious signs of stress, or if the dog is in danger of running further away, it’s best to call the experts in for backup. Be aware of your surroundings, like traffic, bodies of water or uneven terrain to avoid either of you getting injured.

What identification should I check for?

If you’re able to approach the dog or cat, check to see if they are wearing a collar and if their owner’s contact information is on a tag. If the information is kept current, this is the most direct route home. There are a number of tags that may be on a pet’s collar that can point you in the right direction, such as:

If the pet has a 24Petwatch tag, the good news is, we’ll do the legwork for you, reaching out to the owner on file and/or their emergency contacts. You can call 1-866-597-2424 or file a found pet report here. Our Lost Pet Recovery Specialists are available 24/7, 365 days a year to help reunite lost pets with their people.

What do I do if the pet has no identification?

If the pet is not wearing any tags, bring them to the nearest vet clinic or animal shelter. Even if they aren’t wearing a microchip tag, it’s very possible that they have a microchip. An animal care facility will be able to use a special scanner to check and get in touch with the microchip provider (such as 24Petwatch) to see if there is any owner information on file.

In the unfortunate situation that the animal has no tags and is not microchipped, you’ll need to rely on found pet posters, online listings or word of mouth to help track down their family.

Where can I get the word out about a found pet?

In your search for the owners, a number of online spaces can be a helpful starting point. Firstly, try to get a clear, identifying photo of the found cat or dog, noting any unique markers or characteristics. Post a picture and description on your local neighborhood and lost/found pet groups on Facebook. If using Twitter or Instagram, be sure to include location hashtags and tag any local pet search accounts. You can also consider neighborhood based apps such as NextDoor or Kijiji.

Don’t underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned poster as well. Create a ‘Found Pet’ poster to distribute around your neighborhood or the area where you found the pet. Many vet clinics, pet stores and animal care facilities will also allow you to hang up a copy on their notice boards.

If ownership has not been verified through an ID tag or microchip, do your due diligence before releasing the animal to their supposed family. Ask for vet records, photos, or an identifying feature to prove that this is in fact their pet.

What authorities should I contact?

Whether you need advice on how to help a found pet, assistance getting a microchip scanned or information on where to take a found pet, there are a number of organizations that can help:

And in some cases, you can also try:

What do I do while waiting for the owners?

If the owner cannot be immediately contacted or is unable to immediately pick up their pet, the decision to take the found pet home or take them to your local animal care facility is a personal one.

Shelters are incredibly busy places, taking in dozens to hundreds of pets in need every month. If you are able to provide temporary care to a found animal, this alleviates extra strain and allows shelters to focus on the pets already in their care and leave space open for emergencies. However, whether due to allergies, the temperament of the animal, your availability or comfort level, it’s okay if you are not comfortable bringing the pet into your home. If that’s the case, it is always better to bring them to a facility than it would be to leave them unattended in your yard, or put them back where you found them.

How do I care for a lost pet?

If you are able to provide temporary care, there are a few things you should consider. Firstly, the animal will be incredibly stressed after the ordeal of becoming lost and found. Avoid overstimulation and limit the number of people in contact with the dog or cat. Although young children in particular may be eager to greet this new guest, avoid unnecessary interactions. Offer them a quiet sanctuary space to recoup, such as a bathroom or spare room. If you have resident pets, keep the animals separated. You do not know how the found pet may react, and you’ll also want to avoid spreading anything they may have picked up during their time on the run, like fleas, ticks, or parasites.

When should I go to a vet?

This may go without saying, but if the animal is in distress or has any obvious signs of injury or trauma, bring them to the nearest vet clinic or animal care facility immediately for medical assistance.

Can I keep a found pet?

Although it’s easy to fall in love with the pet you just rescued (especially if they are friendly!), they may have a devastated family searching for them. Make sure you thoroughly look for their owners before making the decision to adopt.

What do I do if I’ve found a deceased pet?

It is incredibly upsetting to come across a pet who has crossed the rainbow bridge. Sadly, lost pets face all kinds of dangers like traffic, wildlife or exposure to the elements. If you see a deceased pet, take a moment to call your local animal control or humane society to report it. Although it’s a call that no pet parent wants to receive, knowing what became of their beloved pet can help give them closure.

Whether you catch a found pet, or simply report a sighting, it's thanks to caring pet lovers like you that lost pets are able to make their way back to their loving families. Our Lost Pet team reunites ~3,000 lost pets with their people every month, and the first step of this process is a call from a finder. Thank you for taking a moment to help a pet in need!