What to Do when Your Pet Goes Missing

By Morieka Johnson, Mother Nature Network

Lost dogLost dog

From his first day of obedience class, Champ stood out from the crowd. The fawn-colored pit bull already had mastered basic commands and seemed content showing his four-legged peers how to properly heel, sit and tune out distractions. During walks around the neighborhood, kids were drawn to the well-behaved 9-month-old puppy. Working as a team, Champ and his owner Deandre Weaver tried to set an example for other dog owners.

But nobody's perfect.

"I did what I shouldn't have done. I tied him to a pole in front of the store," saysWeaver, a dog trainer and owner of K-9 Train to Go in Atlanta. "I kept looking out. At the last moment, I went out and he was gone in just a split second."

Weaver canvassed the neighborhood, frantically retracing routes away from the store. Somehow, a dog everyone knew and loved had vanished without a trace. Weaver, who worked as an anti-dogfighting advocate with the Humane Society of the United States, called his colleagues for advice. They suggested that he post a $500 reward. Once again, Weaver canvassed the area distributing cards and photos of Champ.

"As soon as I went back to the house, before I went back to the house, there was a call," Weaver says. "I'm glad I got him back as fast as I did. That was like a miracle. In most cases people don't get their dogs back." (That's Deandre and Champ at right. For details on their accomplishment, keep reading.)

We all have seen flyers of lost pets strewn across neighborhoods, and even a few remarkable cases of pets reuniting with owners several years later. But many lost pets do not have happy reunions with their owners. According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), less than 2 percent of cats and up to 20 percent of dogs that end up in animal shelters reunite with their owners. But there are measures you can take to improve your chance of finding lost or stolen pets.

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Updated ID tags are essential
Even if it's a quick potty break, make sure your pet doesn't set foot outdoors without a collar and up-to-date ID tags that list your contact information as well as other key info. Amber Burckhalter, a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of K-9 Coach in Smyrna, Ga., invests in comfy yet sturdy dog collars and makes sure her three dogs wear them at all times. Each has detailed info that could serve as a deterrent for people hoping to steal a well-trained pooch.

"If you fix your dog, most people won't take it," she says. "My pit bulls, it says on their collar 'fixed and neutered.'" Burckhalter also has a deaf dog, which is clearly noted on the ID tag.

Invest in a microchip - and keep the info updated
Microchips add another layer of insurance if your pet is lost. Veterinarians insert microchips around the pet's shoulder blade, and each chip has an ID number that owners use to register contact information with the manufacturer. Prices can vary widely, from $20 to $50, depending on the veterinarian.

If your pet is ever lost, shelters or veterinarians use a hand-held scanner to obtain the chip ID number. In a recent study conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 15 percent of lost dogs were found thanks to ID tags or microchips. Some companies, including HomeAgain, offer more proactive measures. For a $17.99 annual membership fee, the company will alert animal shelters, vet clinics and volunteer rescuers within a 25-mile radius of where the pet was lost. But those nifty chips are useless if your information is not up to date. To check on the information currently on file for your pet, ask your vet to scan the chip and provide the ID number.

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A picture truly is worth a thousand words
A simple flyer with one up-to-date photo of your lost pet can make a big difference, says pet detective Carl Washington (below), who has been locating lost animals across the country for more than 16 years. In addition to cool gear such as fluorescent lights and detailed maps of the area's topography, Washington's pet-sleuthing arsenal includes Coco the poodle and Rocky the Jack Russell terrier. He notes that a clear photo of lost pets can speak volumes.

"Always have one picture," says Washington, who adds that many distraught pet owners make the mistake of posting too many photos. "Nobody wants lots of pictures. Just say, 'Lost cat' and add a bold number."

It's not uncommon for Washington to set up shop in a gas station parking lot, armed with a large photo of the missing pet. Over the course of a day, he says that people will walk up offering information. If you cannot find an image that shows the dog or cat's identifying features (my Lulu's ears are hard to ignore), Washington recommends conducting aGoogle search for a pet with similar features.

"Find a nice, clear lookalike to use on the flyer," he says.

Flyers should be short, sweet - and strategically placed

When it comes to flyers for lost pets, Washington says to keep it simple. All you really need is a photo and key contact information. Make sure it's a number you can answer at any time. "People are passing through, jogging, and they are not going to call you twice," he says. "You need to pick up in three to four rings and have a pen and pad ready."

Also, avoid the urge to saturate your neighborhood with flyers. Instead, focus on areas that get a lot of traffic, such as main entrances to your neighborhood, and extend the radius from there. Washington says that most cats roam until they find cover and a safe place to stay, typically maintaining a 400-yard radius from home. With dogs, it depends on the size. Lap dogs normally travel no more than a half-mile from the house. Medium-size dogs may travel up to a mile, while larger dogs can go up to 2 miles.

Place flyers in areas frequented by pet owners, such as nearby animal shelters, dog parks, pet stores and veterinary clinics. The ASPCA also recommends posting flyers at a kid's eye level near schools. Again, focus on strategic placement instead of volume.

"Don't trash up the neighborhood," Washington says. "People selling houses are going to take your stuff down."

Related: How to approach a stray dog

Consider a reward
Good Samaritans will do their part to help recover lost pets. But Weaver quickly learned that rewards can help grease the wheels. Washington says that rewards may be helpful in areas frequented by contract workers.

"In my experience, $500 is what has activated people," says Burckhalter, who notes that one pet owner posted reward info and promptly received a call from an animal control officer. "The dog had been there the whole time."

Work the Net
Deirdre Anglin of Ireland reached out to friends and family online when her dog Patch went missing on the evening of July 3. The next morning, Patch boarded a Dublin-bound commuter train. Good Samaritans ushered the pooch to Irish Rail officials, and the transit system tweeted a "lost dog" alert to its network of 18,000 followers. Five hundred retweets and 32 minutes later, Anglin spotted her dog and arranged a reunion.

You, too, can harness the power of Facebook and Twitter to find lost pets. Many neighborhood associations, pet stores and veterinary clinics have Facebook pages and active members. Also, ask rescue groups in your area to help spread the word. Petfinder.org offers a handy search tool to locate rescue groups in your area. If you do receive word that your pet has been located, be prepared to show proof of ownership such as photos of you with the pet, Washington says.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
If your pet tends to bolt at the first opportunity, it may be worth investing in high-tech gear to monitor its activity. In a previous roundup of cool pet problem solvers, I included the Tagg Pet Tracker ($99.95), which incorporates GPS technology to keep an eye on wandering cats and dogs. Attach the device to your pet's collar and set a defined boundary. If your pet starts roaming too far, Tagg will send text message alerts. The system requires a $7.95 monthly subscription service. (I also recommend a few obedience classes, which may be a less expensive option.)

Training courses strengthen the bond between pets and their people, making it easier to retrieve a dog that slips out of his leash during walks or dashes out the door when neighbors drop by unannounced. Training also can be especially important with newlyadopted rescue dogs that have been accustomed to life on the street. Priority No. 1: Teach the dog to come when called. (We know cats will ignore you either way.) In a previous column, trainers offer tips to accomplish that life-saving command.

Weaver also stresses the importance of monitoring pets closely when they are outside. During walks in the neighborhood, visits to the corner store are off limits - no matter how short - and he never leaves Champ outside unattended.

"He filled a place in my heart that really needed to be filled," says Weaver, noting that Champ returned with a few bruises and scrapes but recovered quickly from the experience. "I can't think of not having this dog."

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