What to Do If Your Pet Is Missing

Discovering your pet is missing is a traumatic, frightening, and nerve-wracking experience you never want to even think about—but you should, because the odds of quickly reuniting with your pet are in your favor when you follow these steps.

Countless pets go missing every year. Being prepared can help you answer the question of what to do if your pet is missing. Follow the steps below to find your furbaby faster.

What to do if your pet is missing: The first hour

Start looking in your neighborhood or the area where your dog or cat strayed, right away. Ask anyone and everyone you meet if they’ve seen your pet. Share your pet’s name and show photos from your phone. Ask your neighbors to check their yards, garages, carports, etc. where your pet might be hiding. Call local vets, as people might take lost dogs or cats there, especially if they’ve been injured. “Carry a leash or carrier with you, and make sure you have your cell phone in case someone calls you while you’re out looking,” says Temma Martin of Best Friends Animal Society.

Check animal shelters

If you don’t have luck with your initial search, call your local animal shelter. “Every day that passes could make it harder for you to be reunited,” says Amy Nichols, vice president of companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States. “File a lost pet report with every shelter within a 60-mile radius of your home.” Provide an accurate description of your dog, especially if you don’t have full body photos or ones with distinguishing features.

When it comes to cats, a missing cat is 13 times more likely to be found by a neighbor than in a shelter, Nichols shares, and their personality is a clue to where they might be. “Shy cats will hide out while highly curious cats will make friends and invite themselves into someones home.” Decoding your cat’s behavior could help you figure out why she ran off—and where she might be.

Get online

Use the power of social media to get the word out. Post on hyperlocal social media first, like your neighborhood Facebook page or Nextdoor. Nichols recommends using other databases like The Center for Lost Pets, Fido Finder, Lost Pet USA, and Craigslist, too. Be sure to include a few photographs of your pet, from all angles if possible. In the description include your pet’s name, age, sex, weight, breed, color, and distinctive markings. Don’t forget to include critical information like personality traits, for example, “if your pet is shy or fearful, adding language like ‘do not chase,'” Nichols suggests. And if your pet needs daily medication or has a medical condition, be sure to include that, too.

You should also check for “found pets” on Facebook or other local websites like Nextdoor, too. Someone in your neighborhood may have seen your pet and posted the location. Even better, they may have found your pet and are keeping him/her at their home until you can retrieve it. “Many happy reunions have occurred quickly because of the power of social media,” says Martin.

What to do if your pet is missing after a day

Visit the shelter the first day and every day to look for your pet. “People’s perception of breed and description can vary, so relying on someone who doesn’t know your pet to find it in the shelter may not be as effective as looking yourself,” says Martin. If you can’t get to the shelter daily, enlist family and friends who know your pet well to go for you. “Keep in mind that many shelters have a short holding period—sometimes less than a week, so it’s crucial to check daily,” adds Nichols. Shelters are often the beginnings of a beautiful new life for neglected dogs. Grab a tissue and check out these before and after dog adoption photos.

Create flyers to place in your neighborhood and at local businesses. It might seem old school, but they’re still effective because some people don’t use social media. “When you are making fliers for your missing pet, leave out an identifying characteristic. If the stranger who claims to have found your pet doesn’t mention this characteristic, they may not really have your pet, so be cautious,” advises Nichols. Offering a reward might be a good idea if someone found your pet and was considering keeping it. “Make it a modest reward to avoid attracting the attention of scammers and to make sure that people don’t chase down the pet just to get the reward and potentially put the pet in harm’s way,” Martin says.

What to do if your pet is missing after a week

Don’t give up! “Animals who have been lost for months and even years have been reunited with their owners,” says Nichols. In addition to the steps mentioned, Nichols suggests reading about lost pet behavior on the Missing Animal Response Network. For example, Kat Albrecht, retired police K-9 officer and lost pet recovery expert, advises pet parents not to call or chase their dog while looking for it. Dogs may be in a flight or fight mode and highly sensitive to sights and sounds. Albrecht says it’s more effective to sing a little tune and sit down and don’t make eye contact with the dog. Instead, be chill and open a crinkly package, which dogs associate with treats.

How to prevent the worst from happening

Being prepared can help you find your dog or cat, in the event it goes missing. First, your pet should always have a collar on with your current contact information and phone number. “A pet with tags is more likely to be approached by a good Samaritan because they know the pet has an owner who cares about it,” says Martin. Second, consider having your pet microchipped with your contact info. If a collar comes off or if your pet doesn’t wear a collar, a person can take your pet to a vet or animal welfare organization to have it scanned for a chip. Finally, keep taking those adorable Instagram photos, but make sure you include ones that show your pet from all angles, including close-ups and any distinguishing features.

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Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a freelance writer covering pets, home improvement, and lifestyle. She loves that her workday is interrupted by muzzle snuggles and walks with Archer, her rescue pup. In her downtime, she's either studying for weekly trivia night, doing a jigsaw puzzle, or watching too much British TV.