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Happy tails: How to find a lost pet

With a little planning and a fast response, your furry friend can be home before you know it

Posted: July 20, 2008 12:15 a.m.
Updated: September 20, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Dozens of flyers about lost pets crowd the bulletin board at Canyon Country Animal Hospital on Soledad Canyon Road in Canyon Country. Dozens of flyers about lost pets crowd the bulletin board at Canyon Country Animal Hospital on Soledad Canyon Road in Canyon Country.
Dozens of flyers about lost pets crowd the bulletin board at Canyon Country Animal Hospital on Soledad Canyon Road in Canyon Country.
As much as we love, pamper, and provide for our pets, they sometimes escape and get lost, despite our best efforts. Few of us are truly prepared for that terrible moment, which requires us to be efficient and organized when we are often tense and anxious.

When Lori Westley’s dog Flaps escaped from her Saugus home a few weeks ago (minus his collar and tags) through an unfortunate set of circumstances, she was panic-stricken and heartsick. Not sure how to go about finding him, she and her family went through a trial-and-error process that consisted of posting signs, calling the animal shelter on a daily basis, and going door to door, among other things.
“This has been a real life experience for us,” Westley said.

Though she still hasn’t found her beloved dachshund, Westley did learn a lot about the ins and outs of finding a lost pet – which she hopes can benefit others who may, unfortunately, find themselves in the same situation.

One of the first things Westley did was call the Castaic animal shelter. Then she looked at their Web site, and eventually went to visit in person. However, she said that she learned that visiting in person is the best strategy.

“The shelters say they list all the animals on their Web site, but they don’t,” she said. “That’s why you have to go down in person.” Sgt. Carlos Pineda of the Los Angeles County Animal Shelter in Castaic says that they generally post photos of all their animals online, but it’s still best to make a trip down to the facility at 31044 N. Charlie Canyon Road.

“We do post photos of all found dogs on our Web site, but we encourage people to always come to the shelter in person,” he said.

Another staff member warned that calling can be ineffective, because your own description of your dog may not be enough to help staff identify it.

“People often call and say ‘I’m looking for a small brown chihuahua,’ but we’ve probably got 10 dogs that fit that description already,” said Brian Dluzak, an employee of the Castaic shelter.

If you do use the shelter’s Web site, Pineda advises pet owners to look both in the “Lost Pets” category as well as the” Adoptable Pets” category, because unclaimed pets without identification are put up for adoption after five days. Pets with ID tags on their collars or microchips are held for 10 days while staff members try to locate owners, and then they are released for adoption.

Westley and Pineda both encourage pet owners to not confine your search to just your local area. Look at shelters outside your immediate neighborhood, because animals can wander far from home, or get picked up and transported out of the area by non-local people who find them.

“Be sure to visit other animal shelters in communities near where you live, as shelter areas border one another and your pet could be in [one of] several different shelters depending on where he or she was lost,” the Department of Animal Care and Control’s Web site suggests.

Animal rescue groups

The greater Santa Clarita area is also home to numerous animal rescue organizations such as The Brittany Foundation and A New Leash on Life that may have ended up with your pet by one means or other, so it is worthwhile to check these out as well. Look online or in the Yellow Pages for a list of rescue groups.

After you’ve scoured all the shelters and rescues, the next step is to put signs up around your neighborhood and beyond. Describe your animal in general terms, and if possible, use a current photograph of Fluffy or Fido.

“Get signs up as fast as possible. The more eyes that see your poster, the better,” Westley said.

Though this can be an effective strategy, be careful where you put your signs, because some cities (including Santa Clarita) impose fines on those who post unauthorized signage on public property. Try posting them at veterinary offices or on supermarket bulletin boards if you are uncomfortable posting them on the street.

Placing a “lost pet” ad in the local paper is also a good idea. Put as much information in your ad as you can about the size, color, gender of your pet, the  place and date that it went missing, and whether you are offering a reward.

“It’s similar to looking for missing children,” said Westley, who is offering $1000 for the return of Flaps. “The more information and the faster you get it out there, the better.”

Craigslist, a free ad site on the Internet, is also becoming an increasingly popular alternative to paid ads in conventional newspapers when it comes to finding lost pets, as is the Petfinder Web site, which offers ad space to owners of lost pets nationwide.

Don’t forget to look at “found pet” ads as well, in case someone is holding your animal and is trying to find you!

If you are really energetic or want to make a more significant financial investment, you can consider pounding the pavement and going door to door, or hiring a “pet detective.”

Westley thinks that walking the neighborhood where your pet was last seen will increase the likelihood of finding it, especially if your pet is confused and disoriented. “Walk around and put your scent in the neighborhood so the animal will smell it and follow it home,” she said.

Pet detectives, which can cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars to hire, usually use bloodhounds or other scent-tracking dogs to try to trace the path your pet took when it escaped from your house or yard. Their success rate is not particularly high, but it is a viable last resort for desperate owners of lost pets.

Obviously, the best way to retrieve a lost pet is to make sure it is easily identifiable before it ever goes missing.

“Eighty five to 90 percent of pets with ID get reunited with their owners,” said Sgt. Pineda. “But only 40 percent with no ID get found.”

In addition to buying a sturdy collar with ID tags attached, Pineda suggests getting your pet microchipped for extra insurance.

“When we find a dog with a microchip, it makes our job extremely easy,” he said.

A microchip is an implantable device about the size of a grain of rice that is injected under your dog or cat’s skin. It stays there permanently, and is encoded with a unique number that can be read with a special scanner. The ID number on the chip links the pet back to the owner, who must register the chip with the company that provides it.

Microchips are easy and inexpensive to obtain, and can be injected either at your local vet’s office or at the Castaic shelter, which performs the service for free on Wednesdays between 2 and 3 p.m.

If you do choose to get your pet microchipped, don’t forget to update your contact information with the registration company when you move. It would be a shame if the only thing preventing you from being reunited with your lost pet was an out-of-date phone number.

Emotional ordeal

Westley hopes that every pet owner can benefit from what she has learned, so they never have to go through the difficult and emotional ordeal she has suffered while trying to recover her lost pooch.

“You don’t want to be in my position,” she said. “Never take your dog’s collar off, even for a bath. And get them microchipped.

“I tell this to everyone I know. I’m like an evangelist.”


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