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When people in the sheltering and rescue field think about the millions of cats who are euthanized every year for lack of a home, the topic of reuniting lost pet cats with their owners may seem trivial by comparison.
But what if our assumptions about the strays who come through our facility doors and the friendly cats who show up at our TNR colonies are wrong? What if many of these so-called strays are in fact lost pets who may have been on their own for several weeks, and their owners have either lost hope or don’t know how to search effectively?
Kat Albrecht, a former police detective, has a message for shelter workers, rescue and TNR volunteers, and helpful citizens who pick up a wandering animal: “Think lost, not stray.” Using her years of experience in law enforcement and as a search dog trainer, Albrecht founded the Missing Pet Partnership (MPP) in 2001 to help frantic owners find pets who have gone AWOL. Over the years, she’s also worked to change the knee-jerk assumptions people often make when they encounter an animal on his own. If an animal is skinny, scared or injured, people often decide he escaped a neglectful or abusive situation, says Albrecht, or that he was simply abandoned.
She’s also seen the other side of the equation—owners desperate to find their lost family member, but with no clue how to search; owners who have given up on a search, thinking it’s a lost cause; and owners showing avoidance behavior—assuming the cat was killed by a predator or taken in by a caring stranger because wondering if their cat is alone and scared is simply too painful.
While the MPP focuses on both cats and dogs, the issue of lost pets is particularly relevant to cats, given their low reclaim rates in shelters; high euthanasia rates; decreased likelihood of having collars, tags or microchips; and propensity to hide when frightened.
Lost cats typically don’t travel far, but they can stay hidden for long periods (in Albrecht’s experience, two to three months is not uncommon). She relates the story of a cat named Bebe, who bolted from a car at a rural intersection when his family was relocating out of state. The family had to continue on to their new home, so MPP volunteers handled the search. “It took four months before Bebe was caught on a wildlife camera and then in a humane trap,” she recalls. “He hadn’t moved more than a couple houses away from where he was originally lost.”
By the time a lost cat makes it to a shelter or community cat colony, she may be skinny and unkempt—hardly the sort of animal who makes shelter and rescue staff think, “Boy, your family must be missing you.” The end result, says Albrecht, can be seen in a tragically low statistic: Nationwide, only about 2 percent of cats who end up in shelters are reclaimed by owners. “There’s such a focus on rehoming” cats to new families, says Albrecht. “We need to slow down and aggressively work to reunite” pets with their original owners.
And the same goes for TNR groups: Rehoming the friendlies may not be the best option if the goal is to reunite lost cats with their people. Research has shown that a cat is 13 times more likely to be reunited with his family if brought back to the neighborhood where he was trapped versus being held at the shelter for reclaim or adoption.
Fortunately, many shelter and rescue workers are taking this message to heart. One of them is Brigid Wasson, head consultant at The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting in California and a new MPP board member.
Wasson did a bit of detective work on her own after reading a blog post by Albrecht. She researched how 115 local shelters and agencies in Northern California handled lost and found animals. She found major barriers to successful reunions, including facilities far off the beaten path, little lost-and-found information on websites and other barriers for owners looking for lost pets.
The Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Seattle, Wash., adopted a new approach to lost pets when a volunteer, Meg Burns, asked to start a program to boost reclaim rates. Leadership agreed to try out the program, so Burns attended a 10-week Missing Animal Response course offered by Albrecht. Using those principles, the shelter launched what has become a successful program, both in the shelter and in the community, says Kay Joubert, PAWS director of companion animal services.
The program provides clear search tips and guidance for both pet owners and people who have found a pet. It advises shelter staff and volunteers to not assume that a stray cat is homeless. PAWS now has a lost-and-found center in its lobby and staff and volunteers trained to provide phone and in-person support. It will give or rent tools such as highly visible posters and signage, humane traps and markers made to write on car windows to create “rolling billboards.”
Both Wasson and Joubert note that these programs can start out small and build over time. And you don’t need to invest a lot of money to make a difference.
Playing an active role in reuniting cats with their families “connects well with our keeping-cats-in-homes efforts,” which include promoting catios, visible ID and pet wellness days, Joubert says. Begun in 2014, the new program has worked directly with owners of lost pets in the community. In the first three months of 2015, 24 families were reunited with lost dogs, and 21 found their lost cats—without the animals coming into the shelter.
Owners typically “come in feeling helpless, not knowing where to go or what to do to find their missing dog or cat,” says Burns. But she recalls one elderly couple she assisted who found their lost dog using tips and tools PAWS provided: “They were so happy they were in tears again … this time, tears of joy!”