What to do when you find a lost cat or dog in the UK?

It is not always easy to know what to do when finding a lost cat or dog. In this article, you will find the steps to follow to reunite a lost pet with its owners as well as any formalities if you want to adopt the animal.

Reading time : 9 min

Between 2018 and 2019, almost 34,000 stray dogs were taken in by local councils across the UK. The numbers are even greater for cats as they are more independent and adventurous animals. That is alarming! Unfortunately, there are many reasons why a lost pet might never be found, which can leave the owners sad and disheartened. Losing a pet is very stressful for the owners, so what can you do if you end up in a situation where you find a lost pet?

Most of the time, however, when a cat or a dog gets lost, they will roam around their neighbourhood. If you see a stray pet, your first reflex might be to rescue them and take them away from the danger of oncoming traffic or from people who wish to do the animal harm. So how do you reunite a pet with its owner? What can you do when you find a lost dog or cat?

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First steps to follow when finding a stray animal

Is the lost dog or lost cat wearing a collar?

First, it is important to identify the animal. According to the Control of Dogs Order 1992, every dog in a public place must wear a collar with the name and address of the owner inscribed on it, so the chances of you encountering a dog without a collar are low. It is however not mandatory for cats to wear collars, so it might be harder to identify the animal.

So, what can you do when you find a wandering dog or cat without a collar? You can contact your local animal warden to report the pet, who will then try and scan any microchip. Remember that you need to report any animal you find or rescue as you could be accused of theft.

Identifying the stray animal

An animal warden or a vet can identify the animal by checking its microchip. All dogs in England and Wales are legally required to be microchipped so it will be easier for them to identify the animal. The animal must be registered in a database like Animal Microchips, Animal Tracker, MicroDogID or Pet Identity UK. The pet could also be tattooed on its right ear, however, tattooing domestic pets has become superfluous as hair can grow in that area and it requires heavy sedation.

Who to contact when you find a stray pet?

The first person you should contact is your local dog warden and/or council to report the animal. Dog wardens are legally responsible for stray dogs and animals in the UK so this is the first place you should call. Just like a vet clinic, the dog warden will be able to scan any microchip. Check with your local council if they are working with a kennel or animal shelter that could take the dog (some might charge a fee). Any dogs found must be reclaimed by their owner within 7 days or they will be rehomed.

Is it necessary to report a stray pet?

It is important to remember that a roaming cat or dog is potentially in danger or could have been the cause of an accident. Even if the animal has escaped or run away, it can be stressed when surrounded by unfamiliar scents, prompting it to reckless behaviour, like crossing roads. It is then important to rescue the pet and report it to your local authorities.

Furthermore, behind every lost pet is a family in distress. The owners have probably already reported their missing cat or dog to the council and are impatiently waiting for any news. Letting yourself be known can help the owner’s search for their pet. The quicker you report the pet, the more likely you are to find the owners. The local dog warden will also have the opportunity to discuss with the owners about responsibilities and advise them to avoid another incident.

Remember that it is a legal requirement to report a stray animal to the authorities and failing to do so could lead you to be accused of theft.

The difference between a cat and a dog in the English law

If you are in a situation where a dog has regrettably been hit by a car, you should report it to your local council so the dog can be identified, and the owner notified. English law defines cats as wild animals, thus ownerless, whereas dogs are considered domestic pets, so they have owners. Consequently, if you hit and injure or kill a dog with your car you must report it to your local authorities. If you hit and injure a cat, you do not have to report it but notifying the authorities will give the anxious owners some peace of mind.

If the animal is injured, you should report it to your local council as well as the RSPCA (in England and Wales).

What are the different ways to report a rescued animal in the UK?

Contact your local authority dog warden

It is important to contact your local council or dog warden as soon as possible. You should find the dog warden’s information and phone number through the Environmental Health Department of your local council or through the Animal Wardens' website. As mentioned previously, the local dog warden is legally responsible for any strays, so they should be notified first. The warden must hold onto a stray animal for 7 days before they can rehome them or pass them onto a rehoming organisation.

Check listings on lost and found websites

It is not advised to keep the pet without reporting it to the authorities but if you must do so, checking websites and noticeboards would be the best way to find missing pets. Many publications are posted on these websites every day by worried pet owners so do not hesitate to browse them to check if the cat or dog you have found is listed.

Animal Search UK introduced the first Missing Pet Search Team in the UK in 1999 and has been helping reunite families ever since. If you have found a stray pet, you can upload a picture of the animal on their website and it will auto-match to the closest matches of reported lost pets. They look for any type of pet but specialise in lost cats.

You can also check the DogLost website, which specialises in finding and reporting lost and found dogs. You can register on their website and report a dog you have found and the DogLost team will get into contact with the owners to get reunited with their pets.

By using a website, you are guaranteed to work with professional research teams.

Check social media groups

Facebook is also a great place to publish a post about a missing pet as it is full of missing animal groups. You will find many Internet users on these groups who are sensitive to the animal cause. Groups like Lost and Found Pets UK or London, UK – Lost Dogs, Cats & Pets are great resources as they are quicker alternatives to websites and can reach a wider audience. You can also publish a photo on your profile and ask your friends to share it widely.

Create a found poster and place it around the area

In many cases, a stray pet is found only a few streets away from their home. To help the pet’s owner, you can put up found posters in the streets of your neighbourhood or on your local supermarket noticeboard. You can also distribute flyers around local dog parks. All you have to do is take a picture of the animal and describe it in as much detail as possible. You can write down your contact information as well as the dog warden’s so the owners can contact the appropriate person. A flyer is also great to easily slide into letterboxes or give out when going door to door.

Be careful, however, even if you know its identification number following your visit to the vet, do not include it in the description. With this information, anyone can present themselves by indicating the microchip number and claim to be the owner of the animal.

What to do when the stray pet is injured?

If you have found an injured animal, you should take them to your nearest veterinary surgery so they can help as quickly as possible. Be careful when handling the pet for any injury that might be hard to detect and notify the veterinarian of your arrival on your way to the clinic.

If you are worried about the pet’s health but it is not safe to approach the animal, you can contact the RSPCA on their emergency line.

How to safely catch a stray?

It can be difficult, and even dangerous to try and catch stray animals. A dog may be naturally fearful or may be disorientated because it cannot find its owner. Likewise, a cat that is scared by a situation or noise rarely gets caught. You should not be worried about rabies as the UK has been free of it since the beginning of the 20th century but you should still be careful when handling animals you do not know.

But before you attempt to rescue an animal, you need to ask yourself two questions: “Is it safe to approach the animal?” and “Am I putting myself in danger?” Animals can be aggressive if they are frightened or in pain and if the animal is in a dangerous situation, in water or a ditch, trying to rescue it can put you in danger too. If in doubt, it is best to call for professional help, like your local dog warden or the RSPCA.

If the animal does not seem aggressive or in a dangerous situation, you can try attracting it with food. If you fail to catch the animal with food, but it looks like the one you have seen from a found poster, it might be better to try and call the owner and let them know of their animal’s whereabouts. The animal might trust its owner more and might let itself be caught. It is also quite often best to stand still and let the animal come to you. Do not try to chase a pet.

If you have no information about the animal and it seems frightened, it is still better to call your local dog warden or the RSPCA that will be able to catch the pet, identify it and bring it to the closest vet.

What to do when you find a kitten ?

If the lone kitten seems healthy

Even though rescuing a kitten might seem like a good idea at first, a lone kitten does not necessarily mean it has been abandoned by its mother. If the kitten seems clean, healthy, well-fed, calm and in a litter, the mother has likely gone eating, hunting or exploring. The mother might also be hiding and waiting for you to leave. It is best not to move or handle the kitten. You can try to come back later and see if the mother is back.

If the lone kitten seems scared and injured

However, a kitten that seems frightened, dirty, disoriented, thin or even injured has most likely been abandoned. Cold paws and discharge from its eyes and nose may be signs of the kitten needing medical attention. Rescuing it might save its life.

So, what can you do when you have found an abandoned kitten? First and foremost, it is important to bring the kitten to a veterinary clinic to assess its condition and get it the appropriate treatments. The treatment for cats and kittens differs, so it is very important to bring the kitten to a vet. Without professional advice, you could hurt the kitten more than helping it. However, even the best treatments might not save the kitten’s life.

Adopting an abandoned kitten

If the kitten survives, you can choose to adopt it. In that case, you will have to microchip your new kitten to become its legal owner and spay or neuter it. By law, it is mandatory in the UK to microchip your pet, and it will be easier if you ever were to lose it.

But if you do not want to keep the kitten or cannot keep it, you should contact your local rescue centre to give it away for adoption.

Can I keep the pet I have found ?

If you have found an animal and want to keep it, it is important to remember that its owner might want to get their animal back and vice versa. However, there are cases where the owner does not want the animal back. There are no official laws in the UK for that situation. You will have to prove that the previous owner is giving up their rights to the pet, and you will become the new official owner. When in doubt, it is recommended that you ask your local dog warden that will be able to best advise in this situation. When you become the new owner, do not forget to update the animal’s information on their microchip.

However, if you have found an animal that is not microchipped, it is considered ownerless. You will need to contact your local veterinarian to get the animal microchipped and become its legal owner.

Rescuing a stray animal is often a kind and spontaneous gesture. Empathy naturally leads us to get the animal to safety and notify its owners as quickly as possible. But even if good intentions are always in order, it is not always easy to know who to turn to. The most important thing is to contact an organisation that could help you and not hesitate to multiple the steps to return the pet to its family. And while waiting for a happy ending, the cuddly cat and dog can count on you. Simply petting a stray animal can help it relax.

Finally, even if it was not planned, getting attached to the stray can encourage you to adopt the animal. If it does not have an owner or if the owner dissociates himself from it, adoption is then entirely possible provided that you do things properly for the animal’s safety and your peace of mind.

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