How do you know if a found pet is actually lost?
November 9, 2007 10:23 AM   Subscribe

If you see a cat or dog wandering around outside, how can you tell whether it’s lost or just hanging out in its own neighborhood? If you can’t tell, should you act as though it’s lost or just leave it alone?

I was walking in a residential area a few nights ago when a cat ran up to me and started meowing. She was one of the friendliest cats I’ve bumped into; she let me pick her up and even licked my nose. The cat obviously had a home somewhere, considering how clean, healthy, and at ease she appeared, but she had no collar or identification and I could not tell whether her home was nearby or whether she was lost. I eventually decided that if she followed me for more than a block, I would take her home and try to find her owner, but if she didn’t follow me I would assume she was a neighborhood cat, since most outdoor cats I’ve known don’t like to go outside their territories. She walked with me for half a block and then sat down on a lawn, so I left her alone. I suppose I made the right choice, but I have no idea. I didn’t want to steal a happy pet from her home, but on the other hand, what if the cat couldn’t make it back home?

If a cat or a dog has no visible identification, looks well-kept, and is in no obvious distress, is there any way to figure out whether it’s lost? I’m sure there’s no universal sign or test, but I’m wondering if there are any common cues that could help someone decide what to do when they see a pet roaming alone? And if you can’t figure it out, is it better to assume the animal is okay or to treat it as a lost pet?

I’m guessing the rules are slightly different for dogs versus cats; few owners let their dogs outside on their own, so I would have certainly been more concerned if it had been a lone dog coming up to me instead of a cat. And I know the absence of a collar does not necessarily mean anything, since most cat collars are designed to come off if the cat snags it on something.

I know dogs and cats often have great senses of direction and that “not all who wander are lost,” but I have also experienced the heartbreak of a pet simply disappearing without a trace. I’d like to help other pet owners avoid that experience if I ever have the opportunity.
posted by Metroid Baby to Pets & Animals (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Leave them alone, unless they're sick, injured, or represent a hazard to people (e.g. a ferocious dog).
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:27 AM on November 9, 2007

Yes, please leave them alone. My mother is one of those people who dies a little inside every time she sees a wandering animal. Especially if said animal is near a busy road or intersection.

When I was six, one of these poor animals, a little mutt mop dog, took a calculated risk and ran across a very busy street and right in front of us. My poor mother, frazzled from the experience of almost hitting it, stopped the car and retrieved the scared and helpless animal. Unfortunately we were on our way to vacation so a friend of ours gladly accepted the dog and placed an ad in the paper, "Found Puppy."

When our two-week vacation was up we came home and found a check for $30 as a reward for finding the little lost dog. My mother was very proud of herself for having rescuing it until she saw the address of the checkwriter. It was the address of the house that we had stopped in front of to grab the little thing. She never did cash the check and to this day she refuses to stop and pick up animals, afraid of being called a petnapper.

Animals that are loose always look lost, but unless you can read their little minds you never know just how lost they are.
posted by M Edward at 10:37 AM on November 9, 2007

Buy an inexpensive cat collar and attach a note to it with your contact information, etc. Put it on the friendly cat. If you're lucky, the cat will deliver the note to her owner and they'll call you (and get tags for their beloved pet). Hopefully you'll continue to see the cat around, so in the absence of contact from an owner you will be able to provide her a home.
posted by mumkin at 10:42 AM on November 9, 2007

I can't count the number of times one of our pets got loose - I'd have been devastated if some stranger had found them and taken it in. Most of the neighbours in our street would recognise our animals and bring them home or (if it was one of the reptiles) come let us know it was loose and where it was.
posted by missmagenta at 10:45 AM on November 9, 2007

I have definitely had a number of situations where I've picked up a collarless pet, turned it in to a lost-and-found, and had an owner thanking me for rescuing their dog or cat that had jumped out of the car at a stoplight or been gone for weeks or what-have-you. If the pet seems OK and unafraid and it is in a residential area, then leave it. But if it is wandering around, say, city blocks, or a seriously rural area and there are no houses or front yards in sight, then the pet is probably lost.
posted by Anonymous at 10:53 AM on November 9, 2007

Some cats that live on the street are marked with a notch on the ear (or removal of the very tip of one ear) to indicate they've been neutered, had their shots, and (possibly) are being cared for by people who live in the neighborhood. This sign is meant to suggest that the cat is part of a colony and not in need of rescue.
posted by itstheclamsname at 11:05 AM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

cats I wouldn't mess with, but -- depending on the neighborhood -- most dogs aren't allowed to roam free.

If you find one of these, I suspect you'll be doing the owner a favor by taking it in and calling:

1. The number on the tag, if any.
2. The pounds.
3. craigslist.
4. The police.

Our pug managed to get out in Alameda without her collar two years ago because of an oversight of a cable guy, and some wonderful lady took her in and drove her all the way home to Napa. She contacted the Alameda police and we were able to recover her the same day. I can't think of what we would've done if we never found her, and I suspect if someone hadn't taken the time to take care of her, we would have never got her back.
posted by fishfucker at 11:20 AM on November 9, 2007

I don't know what would convince me a cat was lost vs. an outdoor cat, but every time I've seen a dog wandering and stopped to help it has worked out well.
posted by mikepop at 11:27 AM on November 9, 2007

If an animal is at its proper weight, you should be able to feel its ribs, but not see them. When I encounter an uncollared, free-ranging cat in my neighborhood, that's the guideline I use to decide whether the cat is getting regular meals. Obviously this isn't going to help me turn in a cat who's been lost for a day or two, but I know a cat whose ribs are showing is in need of my help.
posted by vytae at 11:27 AM on November 9, 2007

I don't know common this is, but my cats have RFID chips in their neck that can be read by devices owned by animal shelters. If they are lost and someone takes them to a shelter, they stick the zapper at their neck and my phone number comes up.
posted by look busy at 11:33 AM on November 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

This summer, a new cat began to hang around outside the back door of my sister-in-law's new home. It had no collar. She was afraid it was hungry, so she began to feed it. It began to hang around more. After a week or so, she decided it was a stray, and that she should take it to the no-kill shelter.

I grew up in the country. I've seen a lot of stray cats. Though you can't always tell, most strays have a certain demeanor and a certain look. This cat didn't have any of those things. It seemed perfectly content with life and with people. It was at ease.

"What makes you think it's a stray?" I asked my sister-in-law.

"It keeps hanging around outside my back door," she said.

"You're feeding it," I said.

"But it seems hungry," she said.

But she decided to wait a week. After a week or two, she again started making noises about taking the cat to the no-kill shelter. "It doesn't have a collar," she said. "And it stays outside my door all the time."

"Are you still feeding it?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

"You do what you want," I said, "but I don't think that cat is a stray. It looks like somebody's pet."

Finally, a few days later, she was talking with a neighbor and brought up the subject of the cat. "Oh, that cat lives in that house over there," her neighbor said. "Everyone around here loves it." My sister-in-law was a little shaken up that she'd almost taken the thing into a shelter.

Moral: Don't assume a cat is a stray unless you're sure. How can you be sure? Ask around. Watch the cat for an extended period of time. (In my sister-in-law's case, it wouldn't have taken much effort to watch it until it returned home.) Don't feed the cat unless it is obviously starving.

If a cat seems relatively at ease with its environment, it is likely not a stray.
posted by jdroth at 11:48 AM on November 9, 2007

I was in this situation the other day. A cat wandered up to me on the sidewalk. It had a collar & a tag with a phone number on it, so I called the number to see if the cat was missing. It turned out to be the number for Animal Control... Don't ask me why you'd go through the trouble of getting a tag and not put your own phone number on it.
posted by designbot at 11:48 AM on November 9, 2007

(In case you can't tell from my story, cats like food. If you feed them, they will eat, regardless of whether or not they are stray.)
posted by jdroth at 11:50 AM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: look busy, are you able to feel the chips under the cats' skin? That would be useful to know, especially if I'm not able to bring the animal to a shelter right away.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:05 PM on November 9, 2007

An indoor-outdoor cat who once owned me roamed all over the neighborhood. One time I followed it to a house a few doors down, where I observed an animal-friendly guy feeding a second course to several neighborhood cats. So that's why the vet said my cat was getting fat.

I put a collar on my cat which said "Please Don't Feed Me." This collar disappeared.

The story continues, but the moral is as jdroth describes.
posted by Rash at 12:09 PM on November 9, 2007

I tend to call the number on the tag with my cell phone and ask if it's an outdoor cat/dog or not. Though once, this dog shot out in front of a bunch of cars and nearly got run over. It turned out the dog had gotten out of the backyard and the owner never noticed. It could have been hit by a car if my boyfriend hadn't stepped out into traffic to stop the car from hitting the dog. Poor dog wasn't used to being out of its backyard and went wandering.
posted by onepapertiger at 12:17 PM on November 9, 2007

Also, we once found a cat, real friendly, on a trail near our apt. The cat was declawed, which was weird to us (or else we might have left it in the woods) and nobody answered the phone when we called, so we picked it up and took it to its neighborhood and knocked on doors until someone could tell us if the cat was lost or an outdoor cat.
posted by onepapertiger at 12:20 PM on November 9, 2007

RE: the Animal Control tags.

I volunteer at an animal shelter. After a pet is adopted out but brfore it leaves the shelter, we give it a collar with our shelter info on it, along with an ID number of sorts. That way, if the animal does get lost between the time they've left the shelter, and the time their new owners get a collar with their own ID tag, the pet has some sort of identification. If the shelter is called, they can look up the info and reunite the pet with their new owners.

Nowadays, you can get tags printed on the spot at pet stores, but not so long ago, you had to mail order them - and wait the week or so it took for them to get to you.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:26 PM on November 9, 2007

If an animal is chipped, you can't feel it (it's injected with a needle & is very tiny) but most vets and shelters will be able to scan for it. Usually it's placed between the shoulder blades.
posted by tigerjade at 12:44 PM on November 9, 2007

What if the cat is missing a leg? That's the kind of cat visitor I'm dealing with now.
posted by emelenjr at 1:01 PM on November 9, 2007

The appropriate response to your question depends on a lot of variables, related to how urban/rural your area is, the physical condition of the animal, and what is considered culturally appropriate where you live.

Personally, I think it's irresponsible not to try and get a dog that's run into the street recklessly, because that's a dog who is not used to dealing with streets and so is likely one that's gotten loose (and will have a very short lifespan if you don't grab 'em.)

Having said that, there are some places, even heavily urban ones, where dogs roam free. If you feel threatened by a dog like that, call animal control, but if you don't, watch their behavior. You'll often see dogs that cross streets after waiting and watching for all cars to clear, or who stick to their block and just circle endlessly.

The bottom line, though, is that if you elect to do something about a wandering animal, post notices in the region you found it before you throw it in a shelter (no-kill or otherwise.) Pet owners who let their pets run around without ID are irresponsible, but they likely still love their pets and deserve a chance to get 'em back.
posted by davejay at 1:49 PM on November 9, 2007

Also, consider the weather. If it's cold out I'd go ahead and take it in.

Why can't people just put tags on their pets with addresses so those of us who care about animals don't have to constantly go through this?
posted by Jess the Mess at 2:51 PM on November 9, 2007

Some animals, especially cats, are masters at shedding their collars. Also, cat collars tend to be 'breakaway', e.g. if it gets caught on something, the collar breaks open rather than strangling the cat.

I go by the condition of the cat rather than a collar (or lack therof) to judge if they're strays or not.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:51 PM on November 9, 2007

In my town very few dogs wander around unaccompanied; if it's loose and not obviously extremely comfortable I involve myself.

This happens probably every two months. Tags or ringing a few doorbells has been enough to figure out where the dog belongs almost every time, and on only one occasion was I not met by an extremely grateful person. Also, if you can get the dog on a tether (a towel, jacket, or even a t-shirt tied around a tag-less collar will work fine as a temporary leash) you can often get them to lead you in the right direction.

There's only been one occasion where I couldn't quickly (less than 20 minutes) figure out where the dog belonged. I brought that dog to the local shelter for a chip-scan (he wasn't chipped), made sure the shelter had relevant info in case someone called, and then brought him home (I have an instinctive fear of animal shelters -- seems like bad things can happen to a dog that starts that process). After 2 days the dog's person finally called the humane society. She was very thankful: the dog had wandered several miles in the middle of a cold winter.

So - leave cats for the cat people, but help the dogs to stay out of traffic.
posted by genug at 5:24 PM on November 9, 2007

I've never understood why outdoor cats aren't required to wear tags as dogs are. I have a lot of thoughts on outdoor cats, most of them opposed to their being outdoors unsupervised, but mostly, as a pet owner, I'd want to know my pet is safe and can be brought home if needed.

Most of the uncollared outdoor cats in my neighborhood have owners and homes.
posted by Riverine at 7:41 PM on November 9, 2007

Seconding vtyae's advice for cats. Cats are generally very self-reliant and will regularly wander quite a long way from their homes. If it's a healthy cat it's probably OK.

Regarding dogs though, broadly speaking an unaccompanied dog is 'lost' by definition, but if it looks happy, there's a good chance it's in its own territory (albeit outside its yard) and is probably fine. Still check it out, though. You asked about obvious signs: the most obvious sign of lostness is anxiety, and an anxious dog will display wide eyes, fast movement (especially in the head), hesitant movement, will startle at noises, may whine, probably has a wagging tail, and a few other signs that are, generally speaking, what you might expect. Dogs attach very strongly to their pack and to their territory and strongly prefer not to be away from both at the same time.

Look for a phone number on the collar, obviously, but as a second step, just ask the neighbors. If there's no-one to ask or they don't recognise the dog, and the dog's got a registration tag from your local government, then ring the council - they should be willing to ring the dog's owner and give them your number. Vets or shelters, as others have pointed out, will be able to detect a chip under an uncollared dog's skin, if one is there; the closest vet to where you are might even recognise the dog.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:35 PM on November 9, 2007

I asked a similar question here awhile back and got some good answers.
posted by dhammond at 1:07 PM on November 10, 2007

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