Humane Society of Central Illinois

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Lost Pet Behavior

The following information is excerpted from the article "Lost Pet Behavior:  How to Provide Recovery Tips that Save Lives", published in the Summer 2005 issue of PAWS TO THINK. Permission to reprint this article was given by the author, Kathy "Kat" Albrecht.

Missing Pet Partnership provides the following tips for successfully locating a missing pet. The methods that should be used to search for a lost dog, an outdoor-access cat that has vanished from its territory, and an indoor-only cat that has escaped outside are entirely different. Dogs travel and are picked up by rescuers who determine their fate. Understanding human and animal behaviors will increase the likelihood that lost pets will be found. Here's what we know so far:

Lost Cat Behavior

Outdoor-Access Cats:

Cats are territorial. When an outdoor cat suddenly vanishes, it means that something has happened to the cat to interrupt its normal behavior of returning home. The cat could be injured, trapped, chased from its territory, or transported by a human. When this happens, the temperament of the cat will influence how it behaves.

Indoor-Only Cats:

The territory for an indoor-only cat is the inside of the home. When an indoor-only cat escapes outdoors, it is "displaced" into unfamiliar territory. Usually they will look for the first place to hide in silence as protection from predators. Using baited humane traps is highly effective for recovering displaced, panicked cats that are hiding.

Temperaments that Influence Distance Traveled:

The primary technique to recover a missing cat should be to obtain permission from all neighbors to enter their yards and conduct an aggressive search for the missing cat and to set humane traps when necessary. Simply asking a neighbor to look for the lost cat is not sufficient!  Neighbors are not going to crawl around on their bellies under their decks or houses to search for someone else's cat.

Lost Dog Behavior

Dogs are more difficult to recover than lost cats because they travel farther and are picked up by rescuers who determine their fate. There are six major factors that influence the distances that lost dogs travel:  Temperament, Circumstances, Weather, Terrain, Appearance, and Population Density.

Temperament of the dog

Circumstances surrounding the disappearance

Human Behaviors

Guardian Behaviors

Guardians often behave in ways that inhibit their chances of recovering their lost pets. Some develop a "wait and see" attitude and by the time they start looking, the first vital hours to locate their pet or a witness who saw their pet are gone. Others focus on wrong theories or quickly give up the search because they believe they will never see their pet again.

Rescuer Behaviors

People who find stray dogs with skittish temperaments often misinterpret the dog's behavior as a sign of abuse. Dogs found in rural areas are often assumed to be "dumped" and dogs found without collars are assumed to be "homeless." Therefore the rescuer works to place the dog instead of looking for its owner. In addition, the first place where the owner of a lost dog will search for their dog - the local shelter - is typically the last place that someone who finds a loose dog will take it (due to the fear of euthanasia)!

A Final Word

Missing Pet Partnership's website ( lists lost pet recovery tips based on the analysis of lost pet behavior.

Kathy "Kat" Albrecht is a former police detective-turned-pet detective and author of "THE LOST PET CHRONICLES: ADVENTURES OF A K-9 COP TURNED PET DETECTIVE." Kat is the founder of Missing Pet Partnership and is the CEO of Pet Hunters International ( the first ever pet detective academy that trains and certifies technicians and search dogs to track lost pets.

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