What to do if your dog or cat goes missing (and how to avoid it)

Here are some precautions every pet parent should take to make your dog and cat is safe — and tips for what to do if they get lost.
Lost dog walking with loose leash on ground happy to find its owner
If an initial search by car or on foot doesn't work, quickly share a photo and the area where the dog was lost to your local lost and found pages on Facebook. alexei_tm / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Dana McMahan

It's every pet parent's worst nightmare: your dog or cat is nowhere in sight. Maybe you didn't realize they'd slipped out until you called and they didn't come, or you watched in horror as they bounded off after whatever just took their fancy. Either way it's a sickening lurch in your gut as you wonder ... what now?

July is Lost Pet Prevention Month and a good time as we get into the swing of summer to take stock of precautions any pet owner should be taking to make sure their furry family is safe. It can happen to anyone: our dogs are the center of our lives but my husband and I found ourselves standing on a sidewalk frozen with fear when our Pomeranian Truffle popped out of a neighbor's fence (a fence they swore was escape-proof) and dashed away. All I could think was “what do we do, what do we do!?” as seconds slipped away.

Very fortunately we found him within minutes, happily ensconced on a new friend's porch snarfing down treats.

In this case our carelessness — we should have thoroughly inspected the fence — led to the runaway Pom. But there are other situations that can easily be prevented. For tips on how to avoid that nightmare I talked with veterinarian Dr. Lori Bierbrier with the ASPCA and CanineJournal.com co-founder Michelle Schenker.

Pet-proof your home and yard

“My first thought is making sure people are very aware of where their pet is,” Dr. Bierbrier told NBC News BETTER, “especially with visitors or a family barbecue or anything with doors opening and closing, it's just so easy for pets to slip out.”

And since you can't keep your eyes on them at all times, “make sure your fences are secure,” Schenker said, and check them regularly to be sure there's nowhere to escape. (And as I learned, check any fence where your dog will be; just because the neighbor's Collie couldn't get out didn't mean it was safe for my toy-size pup!)

Your pets need to wear ID

Of course your pet should have identification that includes your contact information. Microchipping is ideal, because tags can be ripped off, Schenker pointed out, and animal shelters and veterinary offices can scan pets to get their ID.

Now's a good time to check to be sure yours is up to date. Have you moved or changed phone numbers? Do you know where your pet is even registered? Are they registered? Don't assume your vet or clinic did it for you (mine didn't). Do you have to pay an annual fee? Better to find all this out now and not when you're in search mode.

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Train everyone, not just your pup

While on a walk in our park a while back I heard the unmissable sound of a frantic pet owner calling for her pup. I took my dog over to see if we could help and learned that a contractor had opened the gate and her dog ran. (Fortunately she found him later that day.)

While contractors — anyone from cleaning crews to repair or home improvement professionals — can be a culprit, another big issue can be kids, Schenker said. “Make sure they are trained to understand that if the door is open the dog may go out.” Have that conversation with your kids' friends, too, she said. To take it another step, or if you aren't 100 percent certain everyone is on the same page, it may be best to put the pet in a secured room or crate when people are coming and going.

Since I don't trust that all people can be trained, we trained our younger pup not to go out an open door without permission.

Your pet is missing ... now what?

If, despite all your precautions, you find yourself in that moment where you don't know where your dog or cat is, it's important to act quickly. I won't bother telling you not to panic, because it's terrifying. But take heart in knowing the vast majority of lost pets come home. An ASPCA survey found that 74 percent of lost cats and 93 percent of lost dogs were recovered.

So where do you start and what do you do first?

Bethany Billick of Kentuckiana Lost & Found Pets Network shared the steps to take when a dog goes missing.

Start your search nearby by car and foot first, she said, “to see if you can spot the dog before it gets too far away. Call your friends and family, get as many people [as you can] out on foot to see if they can spot your dog. If your dog is scared and running from everyone then your helpers should stay in their car and call you as soon as it's spotted.”

Forty-nine percent of dog guardians found their dog by searching the neighborhood, and 15 percent of the dogs were recovered because they were wearing an ID tag or had a micro-chip.

ASPCA Survey

Next, Billick said, “quickly share a photo and the area [where the dog was] lost to your local lost and found pages on Facebook. List your phone number for quicker replies.” Post to other websites as well, she said, including Next Door, Craigslist and Pawboost.com.

Call the microchip company to be sure your contact information is correct. If they offer the service, “have them put a lost alert out for your lost pet,” Billick said.

Then, she recommends getting flyers and posters up as soon as possible. "The signs can just be large neon signs with 'Lost Dog', description of dog, and your phone number," she said. Billick recommends using plastic sleeve protectors to protect the signs from rain.

The network also suggests putting a sign in your own yard with a phone number as well as in the window of your car.

After this initial response, “another extremely important step is to check the shelter every few days, and make a lost report with the shelter,” Billick said. “You can't trust the shelter to call you if an animal comes in that looks like your lost pet, they are extremely busy and you don't want to chance them missing the connection. So make sure to check every kennel in person.”

Billick also shared the following advice for lost cats from the network:

"Put the litter box, some wet cat food or tuna fish and some clothes or bedding with your scent on them, all outside. Cats traditionally don’t go too far. Look in garages, sheds, under decks and crawl spaces. Look under bushes. Ask the neighbors to do the same. [The] best time to look for a cat is late at night with a flashlight when it’s very quiet. Again we recommend putting a 'lost' sign in the front yard with your phone number."

And when you finally find your pet?

Bierbrier has some advice then, too. When you do, “the first thing is, don't punish them,” she says. “Your dog doesn't have a clue.”

If they've been gone for an extended period of time, if anything seems off, or if there's potential for dehydration or exposure to toxins, “take them to your regular veterinarian,” she urged, for a once-over and to make sure there are no wounds or infections.

But if they've only been gone for a few minutes she says you can probably just “kiss and call it a day.”

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