What to Do when You Find a Stray Pet
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What to Do when You Find a Stray Pet

What you need to know about finding a stray pet. What do to when you find a stray pet. If you have found a stray dog or stray cat, you need to follow the law. What to do if you find a stray cat? What to do if you find a stray dog? Can you keep a stray you found? How to help a stray pet to get back to its owner.

Believe it or not, but you cannot just simply keep a stray pet you find, no matter how cute it is. In fact in doing so you might put yourself at risk of being charged with theft, particularly if the owner has reported the pet as stolen.  There are some important things you should do when you find a stray animal, be it a cat, dog, or some other critter.

Do not assume the stray pet you found was abandoned by its owner. While this does happen, it also happens that people will take pets from their neighborhood and dump them elsewhere. This is particularly common in dogs who bark a lot and are allowed to roam the area loose. It happens even more often to cats who are not controlled and poop in peoples gardens. It is very common for people do to this even though it is illegal in most areas. As such a stray dog,or cat, that shows up in your part of town might be missing from the other side of town, or even a neighboring city.

Call your local animal shelter and report finding the pet. This is critical to protecting yourself from being charged with theft should that occur. They may have a lost report filed on the animal already. If not you can be sure to leave your information and a description of the pet. If you do not know where the shelter is in your area, call a vet. Some areas have more than one animal shelter that can be called.

tabby cat

photo by author.

Safely catch the pet.  If it seems aggressive, call the shelter or police, even a more experienced pet person might be able to catch the animal.  If you have other pets at home, keep the stray pet away from your pets.  You risk the spread of diseases as well as fights. 

A good option is to physically take the pet to the shelter. They can scan it for a microchip, a tiny implant that contains an identification code. They can check it for a tattoo, and can get a better description. For example you might have thought the stray cat was a female, but it might be a neutered male.

At this point you can make a decision. Either leave the stray pet at the shelter, or if you wish to keep it, you can take it home with you, but you are still not legally the pets owner. If you leave the pet at the shelter they will hold it the required amount of time in hopes an owner comes forward. Some shelters will let put the animal up for adoption, others might euthanize the pet if it is unadoptable. You may request to adopt the pet at the end of its holding period if you want, but will have to pay the adoption fee and follow their adoption procedure.

If you decide to take the pet home with you ask the shelter what the rules are in your area regarding how long you must wait until you are considered the pets owner. Often this is three weeks. As a member of the public you need to wait longer than the shelters do.

If you have kept the pet, when you are considered the legal owner of the animal, you should take it to a veterinarian for worming, vaccinations, and a check up. They will give you a written vet record which you can keep as proof of ownership. Attach a photo of the animal to the vet record. Also the filed found report will be kept at the shelter for usually six months. If an owner comes forward you can prove when you found the dog, and how long it has been in your care showing that they did not come for it sooner, and showing they were negligent in looking for the pet when it first went missing.

Never leave a stray pet to roam or it will become feral. Act immediately. Some people feel sympathy for strays and start feeding them, but do not do anything more. This can result in a huge problem if the strays are not fixed, eventually an area can have many generations of animals born. Strays have difficult lives, are at risk for disease and so forth. They deserve a chance to be reunited with their owners. If you are going to allow strays to roam in your area, at least call the shelter to report them, just in case an owner is looking for their pet. Remember that some people will not take so kindly to strays and may put poison out for them (illegal in many areas).

If you find stray cats or dogs that you cannot catch, or who are aggressive and dangerous to catch, call the local shelter. Sometimes they have the man power to catch them, or will call somebody else to do so. They may even have humane traps that can be used to catch these animals.

The main thing is to act.

Further Reading on Pets

What to do if your Child brings home a Pet and asks to keep it

What happens if you Keep a Stray Pet and the Original Owner wants it back

Should Cats be Allowed Outdoors?

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Comments (4)

thanks for doing this article, yes they should be taken care of.

Julian Costas

Hi There Brenda,

I've been surfing around looking for info on what to do regarding what it appears to have been the poisoning of a stray cat that lived in my building for 10 years. I talked to local SPCA authorities who told me that without a body not much can be done because we're operating under many assumptions. I found white powder next to an area she used to frequent and photographed it and have samples of it. Worst of all the manager of the building confessed to my mother (we're still trying to determine whether she's just being cruel or thinks it's funny) that she ordered her killed because of all the diseases she would bring to the premises... I just think this is so unjust and understand illegal in CA but can't seem to find what to do!. As you can imagine I'm actively searching all over the place I can... Please if you know of anything I can do in this regard let me know. Anything would be very much appreciated and thank you for your time.

Julian C.

to Julian I would contact the Police but on a different angle. Give them the sample if it is poison the police will be very interested not so much because of the cat, but because what if a kid tried some of it and they died.. you cannot PROVE who put the poison there, but if you tell them what the landlord said the police will certainly approach the landlord.. indeed without the cats body there hasnt been a 'murder' as you have no proof.. REALLY what they should have done (if they wanted to get rid of the poor kitty) is caught or trapped the cat and taken it to the SPCA, which is what you should do if other strays start coming around - call the shelter to report finding it first in case somebody has already reported it missing of course.. thanks for caring..

How wonderful to live in a country where there is a place to take stray animals. Here there is no mistaking when a dog has been abandoned rather than just strayed. It costs a lot to help them and it is the animal loving citizen who takes personal responsibility.