How Can You Help A Stray?

help a stray

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A lot of great stories begin when our hero is approached by a mysterious stranger. Will they bring love? Adventure? Or just a whole lot of trouble? Well, when that stranger has four (or three) legs, the answer is usually “a bit of each.” 

So your story begins. A little cat walked out of the bushes while you were on your morning run. You stopped your car to wrangle a panicked dog who was zigzagging back and forth across the highway. And now, you’re staring at their big eyes in your rearview mirror thinking how can you help a stray get back to their family? There are lots of methods to helping a stray pet reunite with their families.

Check for tags. 

If the pet has an ID tag with the owner’s phone number on it, awesome! Your new pal may be back home with his family in no time. But what if the tags are more cryptic? Lots of pets don’t regularly wear name tags, but may have other types of tags– rabies tags, microchip tags, tags given by the rescue where they were adopted or by the veterinarian who sees them, or others. While it may seem like a dead end, it’s not! Call any and all phone numbers you find on the tags. There’s a good chance whoever issued the tag will keep a record of which tags belong to which animals and can connect you with the pet’s humans. 

Scan for a microchip. 

No tags? All is not lost! Many pets are implanted with an RFID microchip, which should be registered with the contact info of both the pet owner and whoever bought the microchip from the company. 

To have the pet scanned, call the nearest vet clinic, animal shelter, or police station and ask if they have a universal chip scanner. Scanning for a chip takes only a minute and shouldn’t cost anything. If there is a microchip, whoever scanned will contact the company who manufactured the chip. Ideally, the chip will be registered and up to date with the owner’s current phone number and information. In the real world, it often takes a little bit more digging or detective work. 

If the chip is unregistered, asking the chip company who purchased the chip from the manufacturer may give you another lead. Whoever implanted the chip in the pet likely has an internal microchip record and can look it up.

A little information can go a long way when tracking a chip. Out-of-date phone numbers may seem like a dead end, but a first and last name and the pet’s name can still get you places. For example, if you call local veterinarians to report that you’ve found a dog named Spiderman registered to a person named Peter Parker, it will be a lot easier for them to look up in their systems than telling them you found a sort of medium kind of brownish dog. 

Don’t make assumptions. 

Have you ever let your freshly-bathed dog outside and watched them promptly find a mud puddle to roll in? Or taken your meticulously-cared-for cat to the vet and had them panic-poo in the carrier so that when the vet tech pulls them out, they’re dripping and furious and smell like a sewer? It doesn’t take long for a well-cared-for pet to start looking like an unloved street rat.

A lot can happen when an animal is out in the world and it can happen faster than you might think. Animals can lose weight, get dirty, and get injured in all kinds of accidental ways. They may also be elderly or have an athletic or slim build, which can look alarming if you’re not used to it. 

People often get caught up in the drama of it all- the idea that the animal they’ve found isn’t just lost. They’re abused and abandoned and picking them up was an act of heroism. 

The problem with that way of thinking is that these animals do indeed often have homes and families who love and miss them. Assuming a pet is abandoned means you don’t see any reason to help a stray look for their family or take steps to give them a chance to get back home and that’s just not fair. 

Make use of social media. 

Social media can reach a whole lot of people with fairly minimal effort and is often instrumental in reuniting pets with the people who miss them. Snap a few good, clear photos of the pet. They don’t have to be glamor shots, but the face should be clear and visible. You can leave out a few key details if you’re worried about someone other than the pet’s owner trying to claim them, but make sure to include the location and date where they were found. 

Facebook and NextDoor are the best platforms for finding a lost pet’s home. Facebook is teeming with local groups- both lost & found pet groups and general “local news/events/discussion” type groups. Cross-post your new friend to all of them. The bigger your audience, the better your chances! 

Post flyers

Yes, it’s old-school, but you know who loves pets and hates technology? Old people. Ask before posting anything anywhere, but if it’s okay with the business owners, post flyers in high-traffic areas near where the pet was found. Consider the kind of places a variety of people would visit, such as gas stations and grocery and convenience stores.

Drop some off at local pet-related businesses, such as vets and groomers. If you’re planning to hang on to the pet until an owner is found, drop off a flyer with your contact info with any shelters or animal controls local to where you found the pet in case someone comes looking for them. 

Stay local

So you’re two counties away from your home and- what’s this? A dog! She jumps right in your car and you take her home. You call your local vet, put flyers at your local gas station, and eventually take her to your local animal control. Or worse, you do none of that, discover that your local animal control is closed for the weekend, and just release the dog back onto the streets… 40 miles from his home. Meanwhile, the owner is still two counties away looking at THEIR local vet, animal control, and gas station. If you take a pet you found physically away from the place where they were found, remember that your search efforts should still be focused in that area. Pets can travel some distance, but more often than not, they’re not too far from where they live.  

Don’t bank on shelters

When you pick up a pet, the plan might be to drop them off at a shelter. You’re an animal-loving person who already adores this furry little guy, so you’re adamant about going to a no-kill shelter. 

What people with little experience around shelters don’t always anticipate is that shelter space is very limited. In a no-kill shelter, that means that if they took every pet they were asked to take, they would very quickly have thousands upon thousands of animals- more than anyone could responsibly care for. What that means for you is that there’s every chance your stray will be turned away. 

Open-intake shelters should, in theory, take every stray. However, that’s what makes them “kill” shelters. When the shelter is full, those animals have to go somewhere in order to continue taking more in. Nobody wants that, including the staff and leadership at those open-intake shelters. So, along with networking their animals and taking all kinds of measures to get adoptable animals to safety, even open-intake shelters will often turn people away if they’re packed. 

Ideally, you shouldn’t pick up an animal if you have nowhere to go with them. In reality, for most people, “I’ll pick him up and take him to the shelter” is the entire plan and being turned away from the shelter (or finding that they’re actually closed for the day) leaves them twisting in the wind. 

If that happens, you have a few alternatives. One is the police non-emergency line. They may be able to help after hours or if animal control is closed. Another is a local vet clinic. They’re not really set up to house animals long-term, but they may be able to give them a safe place for the night and may have some rescue connections. You can also look on for local shelters and rescues you may never have heard of. 

Try to think like someone looking for your pet.

Think about where you would look and whom you would ask if you were searching for your own lost pet. And then step back and think about where you would look if you were less clever, less experienced, less educated, less driven, or had less access to resources. 

For example, if you pass the pet off to a small rescue, what are the chances the person looking for them will have heard of that rescue and think to look for their pet there? If you take them out of the area, how wide do you think your average person’s active search radius will be? Most people will look a few blocks around, not a few dozen miles around. 

Ask for proof of ownership.

Congratulations, you’ve found someone who says the pet you found is theirs! But hang on- if the pet has no ID at all, anyone could claim them. The large majority of the time, there isn’t really a huge danger of this happening. All animals are beautiful and perfect, but people are not often driven to lie, cheat, and steal in order to get their hands on the average-looking adult mutt or nondescript cat you found. The equation changes when it’s a French bulldog or a corgi puppy or some little frufru thing that might be a cavamork or pooweenie or something. 

The simplest kind of proof of ownership, aside from the pet actually having ID to begin with, is a photo. Most people have at least one photo of their pets and can pull it up on their phone. It’s easier to access than vet records and easier to tell if the animal in their photos and the animal in your care are the same animal. 

Whether you paid thousands of dollars for your pedigree puppy or kitten or your beloved pets became yours when you spotted them eating out of the dumpster behind Taco Bell, they deserve to live a life in the lap of luxury! Another way to help a stray is to spoil them- consider booking a long walk for your little adventurer today! 

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