I love dog and cat transformation videos on YouTube.
You know the ones: Where a do-gooder rescues a stray dog from the side of a highway, and we watch his post-rescue evolution from a frightened, malnourished animal to a happy, tail-wagging cuddle monster.
Let’s say you’re put in the position of finding a lost cat or dog who needs rescue. What do you do when you find an animal without an owner? It’s more complicated than you might think, especially if the animal in question is aggressive or hostile.
Here’s everything you need to know about capturing (and maybe keeping) a stray animal:
Get a sense of the animal’s demeanour
So you’ve spotted a stray dog or cat. According to Steve Gruber, the director of communications for the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, you need to be aware of the potential risks if you try to capture it. “Anyone attempting to rescue a stray dog or cat needs to be super careful that you don’t put yourself at risk of being bitten or scratched,” he said. If you do feel any degree of uncertainty, that’s OK, too! We’ll get to that in a minute.
So you’ve chosen to capture the critter. Ideally, you’re in an area with an enclosed fence, so they can’t run away. If not, you could lure them with food to coax them in a particular area where they can’t escape, like a fenced-in back yard.
You should approach the animal slowly and keep your voice quiet (so you don’t scare them).
If it’s a dog and responding in a friendly demeanour (which means they’re not trying to bite you or are not visibly scared), you should be able to slip a leash around his or her neck and walk them to your home or car. If you don’t have any kind of restraint in your car (say, a secure carrier), call your local animal control to catch the animal, instead.
Capturing a cat, however, is either very easy or very difficult, according to Gruber. “In my experience, you’re far less likely to easily catch a cat outdoors, unless he/she is just so friendly that she walks right up to you and goes into a carrier,” he said (a feral cat is very likely to resist a carrier).
If it’s an aggressive dog, you can contact your local animal control and report its whereabouts. They’ll catch the animal, and if you want, they’ll likely give you the option of fostering.
Unfortunately, some animal control organisations will only catch a cat if it’s injured. If that’s the case, Gruber recommends calling a local cat rescue who will do the deed for you, or at the very least, help provide a humane cat trap (which usually consist of a simple cage and some bait. You can find these at places like Petbarn.
Check the animal for ID
A dog or cat very well may have a tag with their owner’s contact information. If they have one, voila! All that’s left is to contact the owner.
File a “found” animal report with your local animal shelter, in case the owner’s unavailable. Shelters usually keep a database of found animals in their area. You can provide a photo of the animal to the shelter, too. It’ll make it easier for an owner to find their pet.
If they don’t have a tag, you can bring the animal to a veterinarian who can scan them for a microchip (according to Gruber, most vets shouldn’t charge for the process. If you’re concerned about the bill, he added that local shelters can likely do it for free).
If they do have a microchip, it will likely trace the animal back to an owner or a shelter. And if they don’t, well, the odds that you’re a new pet owner have suddenly risen. Some shelters will offer to take the animal for you, if you’re not ready to be a parent.
Post on local websites
So the dog or cat in question has no microchip or tag and you’ve filed a report with your local shelter. The next step is to post fliers, both physically and digitally.
Post fliers with the photo of the animal at local veterinarians’ offices along with a method of contacting you (unless you want strangers spamming you, create a burner email address). Also, post on local websites, like Craigslist or NextDoor, where an owner or their neighbours might recognise the animal. Meanwhile, check these websites in case you find any lost-animal listings and recognise the critter in question.
Accommodate the animal as best you can
So: a strange animal’s spending the night with you! If you already have a pet, it’s best to keep them separated to avoid any confrontation, even if they’d look great in an Instagram together. Provide food and water, a heavy blanket, and a large, shallow box (filled with litter) to serve as a litter box if it’s a cat, and continue to check animal listings in case you find the owner. Check in on the animal regularly, and if the animal is frightened or aggressive, call your local shelter who can take over on your behalf.
Consider adoption or a shelter
The animal’s now spent a few nights with you and you’re wondering what to do next. For one, you can’t stake claim to them just yet. Ask yourself if you’re willing to commit the time and effort necessary, and whether the animal fits your lifestyle (if you’re gone all day, is it the best decision for them?) And understand the costs involved, too, like vet fees, vaccinations, food, and a dog walker, if you choose to hire one.
If you can’t make it work, that’s fine. Find a local, no-kill shelter who can find them a good home (do an online search for reviews of shelters, too). The RSPCA is always the best bet for taking in the animal and rehousing them safely. They also have in house vets to keep them all healthy.
No one goes into pet ownership expecting to have to give up their animal companion, but sometimes unexpected life changes make the decision unavoidable. As someone who was forced to relinquish a dog in the past, the emotions of loss, guilt and heartbreak are overwhelming.
That, combined with the implied time constraint, can make you overlook key steps in the rehoming process. It’s hard, but it doesn’t have to be as stressful as it seems. With some proper steps taken beforehand, you can reduce the likelihood you have to surrender your pet. If keeping your furry companion isn’t an option, you can follow these tips to make sure they find a home that is both amenable and accommodating to your animal.
You can list the pet on websites like LostPetFinders, but be sure to properly vet prospective owners. Ask for references, if they have another pet, their experience with animals, their living situation, and how long the pet would be crated if necessary. Also, have them commit to a home check (where you can check in on the pet’s future living conditions). It’ll take a lot of extra time, and yes, it won’t be easy saying goodbye to Rover or Felix, but it’s for their well-being, not just yours.