It was around midnight late last year when Gayle Mousis of Los Angeles noticed her house seemed unusually quiet and empty. Her son John was away on vacation and his Siberian Husky named Nashwan, his best friend and soul mate, was nowhere in sight.
Workmen had left the front gate to the house wide open that day and the dog had escaped.
Twenty-four hours later, a panicked Mousis called L.A. pet detective Landa Coldiron and her sidekick, a search-and-rescue bloodhound named Ellie Mae, of the Lost Pet Detection Agency.
Picking up Nashwan’s scent from his bedding, the team followed the runaway canine's trail to a coffee shop on trendy Melrose Avenue. Coldiron put up a poster at the coffee shop, not realizing that a friendly couple had already spotted Nashwan and taken him to their home.
When the couple returned to the coffee shop to put up a "Found Dog" notice, they saw Coldiron's poster. Three days later, Nashwan was reunited with his overjoyed family.
“By using Ellie Mae to track, I was able to search in the right direction and this helped to quickly locate the dog,” explains Coldiron.
Pet detectives to the rescue
Up to 8 million animals end up in shelters, though not all of these are strays, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Of stray animals that are brought to a shelter, up to 30 percent of dogs are eventually returned to their owner, while only about 5 percent of cats make it home.
"Lost Pet" posters featuring floppy-eared mutts and promises of big rewards tell the heartbreaking story of pets who've disappeared.
Whether an animal got lost, ran away or was stolen — to the distraught owner it seems as if the pet has vanished without a trace. That's when detectives step in.
Armed with high-tech gear and often working with a search-and-rescue-dog, this new breed of investigator is successfully reuniting scores of lost animals with their owners.
For frantic owners of a missing pet, there's a good reason to call a professional. Up to 50 percent of all unclaimed pets are euthanized, according to the Humane Society.
It's not only runaway canines that get tracked.
When Bernadette Palmer's 2-year-old cat Callie fell out of a second-story window last winter in her North Wales, Penn., apartment and disappeared into the night, Palmer was desperate.
A snowstorm had recently blanketed the city and temperatures were below freezing. After a week passed without any sign of the lost kitty, Palmer contacted Steve Hagey of Detect-A-Pet Lost Pet Services, based in Hatfield, Penn.
Using night-vision binoculars, motion-activated surveillance cameras and a bionic ear to amplify sounds thousands of feet away, Hagey spent a total of 34 nights out in the freezing cold in pursuit of Callie.
Nearly four weeks into the search, Hagey followed a tip from a neighbor, who claimed to have seen the feline while walking his dog, and discovered a feeding station for stray cats where he spotted Callie. He set up a humane trap and patiently waited another five days until he managed to catch the starving, now filthy and flea-infested pet and return her safely to her owner.
'Leave no stone unturned'
Fees for pet detectives can vary with some charging a set rate of around $300. Others demand a daily fee of up to $1,000 per day. Telephone consultations can range from $100 to $150. Most promise to keep searching until the owner decides all reasonable hope of finding the pet is lost.
"Only in the movies do dogs like Lassie always return home. In the real world, the scenario is completely different," says Kat Albrecht, a former police bloodhound handler, the author of "The Lost Pet Chronicles" and founder of Missing Pet Partnership, based in Clovis, Calif. "Begin searching sooner rather than later. Literally leave no stone unturned."
Oklahoma-based Karen Goin, of 7th Scent Investigations, is nationally known for tackling tough cases in which pets have been missing for six weeks or longer. Goin says she has a 60 percent to 70 percent success rate when it comes to locating lost animals.
Goin, together with her two search dogs, flew to New York to lead the search for Vivi, the missing Westminster Dog Show prize winner who bolted from her crate at Kennedy International Airport on Feb. 15.
Goin’s search dogs, Cade and Boone, picked up the scent of the missing whippet and followed her for three days over a distance of 15 miles, but Vivi was never found.
'The nose knows'
Not all search dogs are trained alike. Some are trained to detect cats, while others serve as “magnet dogs” to attract other canines and help reel in the missing pet.
"I trust my search dogs more than I do a sighting," says Goin. "There’s no doubt about it, the nose knows.”
Goin says most animals will return home on their own within 10 to 18 days if they are able to do so, although cats will sometimes disappear for longer periods.
The temperament of a pet is one of the biggest factors in determining how the animal got lost and what distance it likely traveled. Other factors include the weather, the terrain and the population density of the area.
Some breeds of dogs are more likely than others to become lost, particularly hounds and sporting breeds since they often have strong prey drives and are easily distracted by smells. Toy breeds are the least likely to wander and if they do become lost, they're the most likely to be rescued and returned to their owners, says Goin.
Don't give up too soon
A big mistake many owners make is to assume that a lost pet acts the same as it does when it is in familiar surroundings or at home.
"Out of familiar territory, pets go into survival mode, avoiding contact with people, hiding during the day and moving around looking for food at night,” says Hagey.
Another common mistake is giving up the search far too soon. A single poster placed in the local veterinarian's office or tacked on a few telephone poles usually isn't enough. Scour the neighborhood completely — even if you have to intrude on not-so-friendly neighbors.
When Deb Sullivan’s cat Slick went missing, she searched relentlessly, putting out 1,500 flyers and fluorescent posters in the area surrounding her home in Burbank, Calif. She also called pet detective Coldiron who located the cat under a house two blocks away a couple of weeks later.
"Pet detectives work on the search probability theory that you are going to have a higher success rate if you focus your efforts and resources in the area the pet is most likely to be first," says Coldiron.
Experts stress that there is no such thing as too much identification for your pet. All pets, even if they are indoors-only, must wear a collar in case they escape. Many pets were never re-united with their owners after Hurricane Katrina because they were not wearing any form of identification when the disaster struck.
Keep these other tips in mind:
- Your pet should wear a tag that says "Reward for Return" with a telephone number.
- Microchip your pet. Shelters and veterinarians are becoming more aware of how important it is to scan stray pets. Even if the collar and tag identifying the animal as micro-chipped is removed or falls off, you still stand a better chance of the pet being returned to you.
- Consider putting an LED-flashing device on your pet’s collar to help you locate it in the dark. Some offer visibility up to half a mile.
- The latest technology can also help keep track of your pet. GPS systems can send pet location reports to cell phones and computers.
- Subscribe to a 24-hour nationwide lost-and-found hotline such as 1-800-HELP-4-PETS.
- Make sure you have current color photographs of your pet that show any special markings.
Sandy Robins is a freelance writer and columnist based in Irvine, Calif. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States and internationally.