Are Stray Cats and Dogs Potentially Lost Pets? | Petco Love Lost
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Are Stray Cats And Dogs Potentially Lost Pets?

By Andrea Quarracino | September 21, 2021

If you spot a cat or dog outside without a pet parent in sight, odds are that you've just met someone's family pet. Even if you're not sure whether you've encountered a lost pet, a stray dog, or a community cat, it's always best to err on the side of caution and allow every potentially lost pet to return to their loving home.

What can you do if you find a lost pet? Take a photo of them if you can, upload it to Petco Love Lost, and search our database for matches. You can also create a found pet listing to let our network know that you've spotted a roaming dog or cat.  

Remember: Every Roaming Pet Could Be a Lost Pet

It's important to remember that every cat or dog that appears to be a stray could be someone's missing pet. Although it may be second nature to conclude that a thin, skittish dog has been abandoned or abused or a cat with mange has been neglected and left outdoors, the truth can be more complicated.

A pet could be receiving treatment for a medical condition when they go missing, a well-socialized lost cat may be scared and hiding in silence, and even a happy dog can be terrified when they get lost.  

If a dog typically has a fearful or shy temperament, that can lead their rescuer to conclude, incorrectly, that they've been mistreated. "Due to their cowering, fearful behavior↗, people assume these dogs were 'abused,' and even if the dog has ID tags, they will refuse to contact the previous owner," says pet detective Kat Albrecht of Missing Animal Response Network. 

The same may be said of lost, scared cats: fear may be incorrectly attributed to abuse when the truth is that the pet is afraid because they are away from the safety of home.  

If your instinct is to just bring home a pet who seems to need help, pause before you act. See if a neighbor recognizes the wandering pet, post a picture of the lost dog or cat on Petco Love Lost, and call your local animal shelter to see if someone is looking for the pet you've found.

What Is a Community Cat?

Sometimes referred to as feral, community cats are cats without pet parents who live outdoors with their feline families. Some go through trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs↗ to keep themselves and their communities healthy. A community cat who has been spayed or neutered and returned to its outdoor environment is often identifiable by its ear tip: a missing piece at the top of one ear.  

What's the difference between community and domestic cats? Technically, a community cat is part of the domestic cat species. The difference lies more in how domesticated they've become. Community cats are generally not as socialized or people-friendly, unlike house cats.

"An outdoor cat may not always align with our vision about where a cat should be, but that doesn't mean they're not happy and healthy," says Alison Kleibor, vice president of animal sheltering at Wisconsin Humane Society↗. If the cat is lost, "it may even have a greater chance of going back home on its own than it would if it entered the shelter system."  

If there's a new cat in your community who doesn't have an ear tip or seems to be out of place, snap a picture and add it to our lost and found pet database to get the word out. It's essential to check if the cat is someone's lost pet before assuming that you've spotted a community cat. If someone is missing their feline friend, they'll thank you for taking steps to help get their cat back home.  

Are Stray Dogs Possibly Lost Dogs?

In most areas, it's not typical to see dogs living in outdoor packs like community cats. With that in mind, a dog roaming without a pet parent in sight is very likely a lost dog, and it will be crucial to take steps to help them find their pet parents. Check out our tips for how to catch a shy lost dog.

That said, some dogs do not have pet parents to go home to. They may have been born to a homeless pack or otherwise came to live outdoors, fending for themselves and finding food and water where they can. Just because you've found a dog who seems to have been living outdoors for a while, don't assume it's a stray.

As mentioned above, even pets who seem malnourished or scared could have undergone medical treatment before they got lost or could have a shy, skittish temperament. It's always a good idea to report a dog sighting through Petco Love Lost and your local animal shelter↗. If the dog comes to you willingly and you feel safe, bring the dog to a veterinarian, animal shelter, or Petco location to scan for a microchip.  

What Is a Stray Hold?

A stray hold is a minimum period in which, by law, a pet has to be kept at an animal shelter or animal control facility before it can be adopted by a new family (or, in some cases, euthanized). The idea is that the stray hold can help give pet parents time to track down and reclaim their missing family member.

Stray holds vary by state or municipality; the state sets the lost hold time frame, but cities can have more stringent ordinances.

"If an animal is found, it needs to be legally held by the municipality (and municipalities can contract out that service — that's where we step in) for the duration of the stray hold," says Kleibor. "In Wisconsin, we have two clocks for that stray hold: the first is if the animal is going to be adopted, it's a four-day hold. If the animal will be euthanized at the end of the stray hold, it's a seven-day hold. The animal cannot be adopted out within those time frames."

Ask your local animal control organization about their policies to learn about stray hold durations in your area.

To get an animal in and out of a shelter quickly, some animal rescue facilities (like the Wisconsin Humane Society) have pre-adoption programs where a prospective pet parent can walk animals or socialize with them during the stray hold time frame. In some instances, it's also possible to get on a list of prospective adopters if you're hoping to adopt a pet who is on their stray hold.

Keep in mind that stray holds can be very short, and it's crucial to give as much time and effort toward reuniting pets with their parents as possible.

Imagine a scenario where a family traveled out of town, and their beloved pet got lost while in the care of a sitter. If the family is away for a week and a stray hold only lasts for a few days, a well-intentioned rescuer could adopt someone else's pet. So be sure to respect the stray hold and go the extra mile to try to track down a roaming animal's possible family.  

Can I Keep a Lost Cat or a Lost Dog?

No, it wouldn't be right to keep a lost cat or a lost dog without following the proper protocol to ensure that they get every opportunity to reunite with their pet parents. As Kathy Pobloskie of Lost Dogs of America↗ says, when it comes to pets, finders is not keepers↗. For one, pets are considered property. But moreover, behind each furry face, there may be a family who desperately wants them back home. 

Before jumping to conclusions, it's best to explore every avenue to help a potentially lost pet find their way home. Look to Petco Love Lost to upload a pet picture to see if you can find a match or create a found pet listing that will reach animal shelters and rescuers nationwide.


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