How to Care for a Stray or Lost Pet

Have you found a stray or lost pet and are wondering what the next step is? Besides working to reunite the pet with their family (if they have one), the animal also will likely need some care and a comfortable place to stay until they either are returned home or go to a new home.

If you're open to providing foster care for the pet (and if you're interested in adopting the pet, too), here are some tips to care for stray and lost pets. 

Getting the word out about the found pet

First things first: You'll need to take appropriate steps to see whether the stray pet has a family looking for them. Remember that even stray pets who look a little worse for the wear might have come from a loving family.

Here are some suggestions to help you locate the pet's family:

  • Knock on doors in the area where you found the animal and ask people whether they know to whom the pet belongs.
  • Contact local shelters and veterinarians to find out whether anyone has reported a lost pet.
  • Put up flyers in the area, announcing that you’ve found a pet.
  • Have the pet scanned for a microchip at your vet’s office or animal shelter.
  • Put an ad in the “lost and found” section of the local newspaper.

Seeking medical attention for a stray pet

A stray pet also might need urgent medical attention. Medical attention is especially important if the animal is acting wild or aggressive or looks sick or injured. All animals who have been roaming as strays will need tests for diseases and vaccines. Animals will also need spay/neuter if they haven't been already. If an animal is weak, dehydrated, or sick, they might need to stay at the animal hospital until their health improves.

The vet can also scan the animal for a microchip, which can help you locate the animal’s person. If there’s no microchip and you’re considering adopting the animal, ask the vet to put in a microchip during your visit.

Bringing your stray home

Before you bring your stray pet home, you’ll need to do some preparation. You’ll want to house the animal in a safe, escape-proof environment. An enclosed space (such as a small spare bedroom or bathroom) without things to hide behind is recommended. Keep in mind that damage might occur and messes will probably happen. The pet might not be litter box- or house-trained, or they might have forgotten about proper bathroom habits. A litter box can be offered to dogs before they are comfortable walking on lead.

If you have other pets, you’ll want to keep the stray pet separated from them for a while. Once your new pet has been medically cleared as healthy, your own well-socialized animals can begin helping this animal become comfortable. Well-socialized pets can be great role models for demonstrating good relationship skills.

Escape is common among strays; they don’t know that your home is a safe haven yet, so they might try desperately to find a way out. Be especially careful when opening doors and windows. Make sure you’ve blocked all escape routes and hiding places that you can’t access. But do provide safe “hiding” places — a cardboard box or an open crate, for example — so the animal will feel protected to some extent.

Caring for your stray

If you haven’t previously cared for the particular type of animal you’ve rescued, please consult with your veterinarian. Expect the animal to be stressed for a while. Some stressed animals will remain silent; others will yowl, howl, pace, pant, or throw themselves against the walls. Speak to the animal in a soothing voice. 

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Also, many dogs will be so fearful or anxious that they will eliminate as you approach. If this happens, clean up the mess without displaying any anger toward the dog; if you are angry, you’ll only cause the dog more stress.

You’ll want to make sure the animal is eating and drinking water. Many animals won't eat or drink in front of you at first, so leave the animal alone with a small amount of food and water. Check periodically to see whether the food has been eaten. By giving small amounts, you can remove any uneaten food and replace it with fresh food often.

If the animal is not eating at all, contact your veterinarian. A couple of days without food might be OK for a dog if the animal is healthy, but keep your doctor informed. Cats, however, cannot go without food for very long. Cats who don’t eat for a few days can develop a serious liver problem called hepatic lipidosis.

Socializing your stray

If the pet appears to be unsocialized — fearful and/or aggressive around people and new situations — they will need to be taught how to have healthy relationships. If an animal seems fearful, do not corner them or try to handle them until they're a bit more comfortable around you.

If you haven’t worked with an unsocialized animal before, find someone with experience to help you. Contact animal services personnel, veterinarians, groomers, or relationship-based trainers in your area. Even if they can’t help, they might be able to refer you to people who work with unsocialized animals. 

A person who’s experienced in working with animals showing fear and aggression will know how to keep the animal from harming themself or others. A good trainer or animal behaviorist will work slowly and carefully to teach the animal to enjoy the company of people and at least to tolerate other animals. The person will know how to teach desirable behaviors and how to discourage inappropriate behaviors.

When choosing a trainer, behaviorist, or other person experienced in working with animals who need socialization, ask about their training philosophy. Some people feel that animals need to be taught to be submissive and that the way to do this is to use dominance, force, and punishment. At Best Friends Animal Society, we believe this approach creates unhealthy relationships that can be dangerous. 

Aggression by humans can cause or even teach aggression to the animals. Good human leaders do teach animals the value of good manners, and they reinforce wanted behaviors. This kinder, gentler method involves the use of positive reinforcement: changing the animal’s focus to prevent a negative reaction to a trigger and then rewarding appropriate behavior.

Learn how to read an animal’s body language to get clues about how they're feeling. Watch the whole body; animals are fast-moving, so look for warning signs of their next move. Reading body language accurately helps to keep both people and the animals safe. Use non-threatening body language yourself; for example, avoid direct eye contact because it’s interpreted as a challenge — a sign of aggression on your part.

Furthermore, even if they’re not aggressive, many animals will lack some social and basic life skills. Remember that every animal is an individual. Some animals make progress quickly, but others need more time. Look for small signs of progress, such as the animal showing curiosity and exploring their space without anxiety. 

Once the animal seems comfortable with having you around, try hand-feeding or staying close while they're eating. Bring out some toys and entice the animal to play. Animals of all ages can make progress, so don’t assume that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!

Introducing other animals as role models

To further socialize your stray, you can use other well-behaved animals as role models. Non-reactive animals can be a great help for animals who have inappropriate behavior. The new family member will watch your interactions with other animals and will hopefully learn from them. The presence of another animal will sometimes drastically speed up the new pet’s progress in terms of enjoying play, allowing you to be close and permitting touch.

Only introduce role models if your stray pet is healthy. Your role models should be adult animals who have been fully vaccinated. They must have wonderful greeting skills — that is, they should meet new animals in a friendly, nonthreatening way. Don’t use puppies and kittens as role models — they can be injured or killed — and avoid extreme size differences. Also, introduce animals of the same species first.

Here are the steps to follow to introduce other animals to your stray pet:

  1. Ask an experienced animal person to help you with the introductions. Start by allowing the animals to see each other at a distance. Watch the body language of your stray pet carefully. Are they interested, looking away, holding a hard stare? A hard stare into the eyes of another animal is not appropriate as a greeting. It is a challenge.
  2. If your stray pet looks interested but is not staring intently, you can move the animals closer together. Continue watching the whole body for signs of aggression as you move closer. In cats, fear aggression can manifest itself as hissing or spitting, back arched with a puffed-up tail, or lunging forward and then retreating. In dogs, signs of fear aggression can be charging forward, growling or snapping, hackles up, or tail tucked.
  3. If there are no signs of aggression, you can have the animals meet for a first sniff. Because nose-to-nose greetings can be very stressful, you might want to have them meet through a screen or gate panel for safety. Hold the stray pet (or have them on lead) as you allow them to sniff the role model’s body.
  4. If there are any signs of aggression, keep the animals a safe distance apart, and start teaching your new animal proper greetings. With you and someone else each holding an animal, allow the fearful/aggressive one to sniff the tail end of the social one. Try to prevent any nipping from dogs or swatting from cats. Muzzles can be used for safety. If your new family member attempts to injure the other animal or redirects aggression toward you, keep them at a safe distance from other animals and work on getting them more comfortable by gradually decreasing the space between them and other animals. Because strays often lack positive associations with other animals, practice is needed. Life out on the street was probably tough, and some people and other animals might have seemed unpredictable or aggressive.
  5. Be prepared to stop aggressive behavior if it happens when the animals are close together. A loud, quick sound from you (try a sound like “aaut!”) should be enough.
  6. Until your stray learns proper greetings, keep your role model at a safe distance. You can still use your role models, though, to demonstrate hand-feeding, to practice basic cues, to model healthy behavior, and to show how people and animals can have fun together.

Asking for help

Major progress can take weeks or even months. If you don’t have a lot of experience working with a challenging animal, progress will be slower. That’s OK — just stay safe yourself and keep learning. 

Sometimes, though, the cat or dog with whom you are working stops making progress or starts threatening you. If you are at this point, you might need to take a deep breath and admit that you need help. Call people you know who have more experience working with a challenging animal — your veterinarian, local rescue groups, an animal behaviorist, or a trainer. These people will try to walk you through whatever roadblock you’ve come up against.

Please know that you are not alone: Help is out there! Thank you for your willingness not only to rescue animals but also to help them get what they need to live happy, healthy lives.

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