Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Where Oh Where Has My Little Pet Gone?

Pet Column for the week of October 22, 2002

Related information:

Services - Human-Animal Bond

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

I am the proud owner of an escape artist. This small, fuzzy, 10-year-old tabby has given me more than his share of anxiety by running out the front door and disappearing into the neighborhood. Being a veterinary student, I am all too aware of the many perils that await unsuspecting wayward house pets in the wild, so whenever he pulls one of these stunts, I panic. I have, however, become an expert ready to swing into action when an escape occurs.

"When a pet gets lost, many pet owners become very distraught. This is not the ideal time to have to organize a plan to recover the pet," says Dr. Merle, an Extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. "Gathering information about the pet in advance can make locating a lost pet much easier, and it's a good idea anyway."

One step is to keep a current photo of your pet on file as a print or digital image. It might also be wise to prepare a generic flyer that describes the pet in detail. Examine your pet carefully and include distinguishing markings or other physical attributes that might aid in identification. You may want to include medical conditions the pet has. While including the pet's name in the flyer is probably a good idea for completeness, pets that are not used to being outside may not come when called if they are lost and frightened.

Because dogs are required to wear a rabies tag at all times, it is a good idea to get an identification tag too. "Many dogs have been reunited with their owners simply because they had an identification tag," says Dr. Merle. Keeping an identification tag on a cat is much trickier, however. If the collar with the tag is too tight and will not give when tugged, then the cat could get stuck somewhere. "Cats have been known to get their collars caught on fences and accidentally suffocate," says Dr. Merle. "This is why it is important to use collars that will stretch or break when pulled."

Microchipping as a means of pet identification has become more popular recently. "The microchip is a small electronic chip that is easily inserted underneath the pet's skin, usually at the back of the neck," says Dr. Merle. "It provides permanent identification about the pet, including the location (vet clinic or shelter) where the pet received the microchip injection. Most shelters and many clinics have microchip scanners that will identify the presence of the chip, which can help reunite the pet and owner."

In the event that you do lose a pet, it is important to take immediate steps to find the pet. "The longer you wait to try to find your pet once it has been lost, the less likely it is that the pet will be found," says Dr. Merle. One of the first things you should do is to contact your local shelter and leave a description of the pet that has been lost, including the microchip number if the animal has one. Many shelters have a program in place to match lost animals with owners who are looking for them.

"It is also a good idea to actually go to the shelter and look for your pet yourself," says Dr. Merle. "While the shelter employees will try to match your description with the right animal, you are the one who knows your pet the best."

In addition to these tactics you can also look around the neighborhood and visit places that are familiar to the pet. Ask neighbors to watch for the pet and post lots of flyers with the pet's "mug shot" and information. You may also want to post flyers at local veterinary clinics.

"Without a doubt, the hardest part is waiting to see if you will be reunited with your pet, but if you prepare a little in advance and take a proactive approach to recovering the pet, you can give yourself the best chance possible," says Dr. Merle.