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What To Do When You Find a Stray

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Not sure what to do if you see a stray? The following are some tips from the experts about how to handle picking up a stray dog or cat.

Even though an animal may look friendly and sweet, if it's lost, injured, or frightened, it may be more likely to bite or scratch if you reach out to touch it. "Always consider your safety first,'' said Nancy Peterson, an issue specialist and program manager with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). "Even if a stray looks like it's come from a good home, you don't know for sure.''

Instead, she and others recommend approaching the stray dog or cat with care. That means:

  • Being ready to rescue by keeping an extra leash, cardboard box, and gloves in your car, along with important phone numbers, blankets, water bowls, non-perishable snacks, etc.
  • Never cornering an animal or chasing it on a busy road.
  • Luring the animal with food and gentle coaxing, tossing snacks to the side of the animal and avoiding direct eye contact.
  • Winning the animal's trust by crouching down, speaking softly, and holding out a (if possible, gloved) hand for the animal to sniff before petting.
  • Restraining the stray (in a box or your car) or getting it somewhere safe and, if less comfortable with animals, contacting animal control.

Find the owner via tags and shelters

If you prefer to find the owner on your own, first check for identifying tags and collars. If you find them, contact the owner to figure out a time and safe place (eg, in public with a friend) to return the animal.

"Ask the owner to bring proof that the animal you found is indeed theirs,'' said Peterson, such as a picture of them with their pet versus the pet alone.

If there's no identifying information, take the stray to the local animal shelter since it's the first place most will go to search for their missing pets. You can find one by calling directory assistance or going to Pets911.com or Petfinder.com.

Once there, place a "found notice'' for owners who may be searching, and check for any "lost'' notices that might be a match. Also, have the shelter check to see if the pet has been microchipped.

In addition to the shelter, you can also:

  • Take the stray to a veterinarian, who can also check for a microchip.
  • Search lost and found databases, like the one at Lostpetsos.com.
  • Check "lost'' advertisements in the newspaper and place a "found'' one.
  • Post signs with the animal's photo around the area you found it, withholding some information to ensure whoever calls is the actual owner.

The point is to do whatever you can to find the owner before relinquishing the stray to a shelter for good -- or deciding to adopt it yourself.

Adopt after holding period expires

Finally, if you want to keep the stray nobody claims, it doesn't automatically become yours. That's because there are holding periods for strays and only after they've expired can you start the process of adopting.

A few caveats:

  • If you've taken the pet to a traditional or municipal shelter, it may be put down if nobody claims or adopts it. So claim "First or Last Rights'' at the time of drop off, said Leslie Wilson on Maddiesfund.org. This gives you the right to reclaim the animal if the owner doesn't.
  • At other shelters and rescues, you can put a "finder's hold'' on the pet and then keep in touch with the shelter for updates. "Daily calls and even visits will ensure you get the pet back if no one comes to claim it as well,'' Peterson said.

Finally, if you do adopt the stray, be sure to take it to the vet immediately. He or she can help you not only identify its breed and ensure its good health, but help you come up with a plan for making sure it never gets lost again.

Credit: Reveiwed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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