I Found a Lost Pet – Now What?

lost dog tag

found on pinterest

Social media abounds with pictures and posts of lost and found pets.  What should you do if you find a pet?

First, never assume a skittish or ragged looking animal was abused, neglected or abandoned and therefore must not be returned.  It does not take much for well cared for pet to lose condition within a few days of being lost.  A well-groomed pet can become matted within a short time.  My old Great Pyrenees would go from beautifully groomed to grungy and beginning to mat within a few days of grooming of bathing.  Within days of not eating well, a pet can lose weight.  Even friendly pets can become scared when alone.  I have seen pictures of a very well cared for dog that got lost the day after a grooming,and three days later recovered.  The pictures posted of the found dog looked like the dog had been on the streets for months.

Second, just because you do not see “lost” signs posted, does not mean no one is looking.  What if the pet was stolen or wandered further than the owner assumed he would range?  A few years back, a lost Woodbridge, VA dog (ran out of an open door) was recovered several counties away – close to the WV border.  Another local dog was stolen from his yard.  The owner was home at the time and awake.  The dog did not bark at the strangers and someone saw the theft (dog was lifted over a low fence).  Luckily he was recovered – three states away!

Third, if you find a pet and do not make serious attempts to find an owner, this could be considered theft.

If you take custody of a lost pet, you must take action.

  • Alert animal control and veterinarians not only in the area the pet was found but surrounding areas.   Send them pictures.
  • Collars can come off. Always check for back up identification such as a microchip or tattoo. Most vet clinics and animal control officers are able to scan for a chip.
  • If you are travelling and find a pet, do not take him home! Take him to local animal control.  If this is not an option, at least notify all animal control facilities and vets in the region and make sure you are willing to get the animal back where you found him if an owner is located.
  • Alert social media and all newspapers in the region.
  • When you post about finding the pet, leave some information off and make sure it is something an owner should know.  For example a dog having one blue eye.

Keep up your attempts to find an owner.   Owners may search for months and years for a lost pet. Always be willing to return the pet when an owner is found.  Ask yourself “How would I feel if this were my animal?”

If you are unable to keep the animal while searching for the owner, surrender him to animal control.  If you surrender the animal to a group that fails to hold and look for an owner and instead puts the animal up for adoption, both you and the rescue could be in trouble. Not all rescue groups will try to find the owner.  Animal control in many areas is required to hold found pets for a specific time before placing up for adoption, releasing to a private group or even putting down if the animal is not adoptable (and no, time up does not mean immediate death – many shelters will hold adoptable animals longer).  Private rescue groups may not do this.  This is why knowing local laws is important.

There have been too many cases recently of lost dogs ending up at private rescue groups whose volunteers refuse to return the dogs to their legal owners.  One case involves a person who did this and the rescue moved the dog out-of-state.  The owner is fighting to get the dog back.  It is currently going to court.  The finder meant well because he did not want to risk the dog being put down at a public shelter.  However, now the owner is fighting and spending huge amounts of money to recover the beloved dog.  In my area by law animal control has to be involved if you find a pet.

Please remember: this is not your pet to do with as you please.  This animal you found may be the beloved pet of a caring person.

Visit www.animallaw.info and check your local city/town/county laws for more information on your responsibility if you pick up a lost animal.  Now, the info on this site may not be 100% up to date therefore also check out for community’s websites for the most specific laws.

Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, a published author, wife, mother and the manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.

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