Losing a pet is traumatic for the animal and its owner. A lost dog or cat faces a world full of uncertainty and danger, one of possible injury, starvation or death. Pet owners, many of whom have never lost a pet before, may wonder if they will ever be reunited.
Two studies published in the Jan. 15, 2007, issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) contain valuable information for mounting a successful search for a dog or cat that has wandered from home. The original studies, the first of their kind according to the authors and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), were conducted by a team of veterinarians and researchers from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Columbus, Ohio.
According to the studies, the chances of making the family whole again improve if owners make sure their pet is wearing identification tags and if they call or visit a local animal agency soon after the pet is lost. The studies' authors hope that more owners will be able to safely recover their animals by knowing ahead of time which search methods are most effective.
The results are mixed, with dog owners experiencing more success than cat owners in recovering their pets, but the findings can benefit both dog and cat owners alike, says Dr. Linda Lord, DVM, the study's lead author.
"A lot of people talk about lost-and-found issues, but no one has ever really approached it from a scientific standpoint," Dr. Lord said. "None of it is really rocket science, but it is important information."
The studies show that pet owners can use a variety of methods to find their dogs and cats, but it also reveals that many pet owners fail to follow the most important guideline of all – that of placing some type of identification on the animal.
Of the 187 lost dogs included in the study, 132 of them, or 71 percent, were recovered, while 73 of 138 lost cats, or 53 percent, were reunited with their family. The researchers interviewed owners of dogs and cats lost in Montgomery County, Ohio, between June 1 and September 30, 2005.
A call or visit to an animal agency led the list of ways in which owners recovered their dogs, with 46, or about 35 percent, of the dogs being reunited with their owners after ending up at a shelter. The helpful information contained on a dog license tag was the second most effective avenue to reunification, with 24 of the dogs, or about 18 percent, being recovered because of the ease in which owners were contacted. Rounding out the top 3 ways to recovery was the posting of neighborhood signs, which helped in the recovery of 20 dogs, or about 15 percent.
The message, Dr. Lord said, is simple.
"On the dog side, the sheltering system can really work, and if people provide proper ID for the animal and use the shelters, many dogs are recovered," she said. "The single biggest thing is identifying your pet."
Pet identification, however, isn't as prevalent as it should be, Dr. Lord said.
"You are looking at a group of owners who made an effort to find their animal, but yet only 43 percent had an identifiable tag on the dog when they were lost. It is critical to remind people of the basics of keeping a tag on their dog."
Cats are harder to recover, Dr. Lord said, because few cat owners use identification tags. Only 26 of the 138 cats in the study, or 19 percent, had some type of identification – an ID tag, a rabies tag or a microchip – when they were lost. Cat owners, for a variety of reasons that range from safety concerns to cats refusing to wear collars, aren't as likely to place identification tags on their cats.
"If people aren't willing to hang a tag on their cat, then microchipping their cat is critical," says Dr. Lord. "If those cats end up at the shelter – and with people only visiting the shelter on average every 8 days when a cat is lost – the odds of finding their cats are slim."
Recovering a lost cat is more complicated than finding a lost dog, which makes identification tags even more important.
"It may be that people reach out less to help them," says Dr. Lord. "That may make the identification process of cats harder."
While the study focused on animal search and identification in Montgomery County in Ohio, Lord said the assumptions can be applied around the country.