Thursday, October 17, 2013

How to find a missing pet

The PetSearch team on the job.
Anyone who has ever lost a pet knows how distressing it is. Veterinary clinics receive hundreds of calls each year about missing pets, most of which are reunited with their owners. Some are located within a matter of hours (the cat was in the wardrobe all along! The dog nipped next door to sample offerings from the BBQ etc.) but others require a bit of detective work.

SAT interviewed Lee who works at PetSearch, a company dedicated to finding lost pets as quickly as possible.

What is PetSearch and how does it work?

Pet Search was established 22 years ago to centralise the way lost and found pets are processed, there are so many different pounds and shelters and information is often not shared across different facilities or services, so using pet search as a central hub enables us to search more thoroughly for a lost pet across the whole of Australia. We have since developed to being a resource that people use to get guidance and tools to search for a lost or stolen pet. Signs, flyers, advertising are all parts of searching for a lost pet and when done right gives a person a better chance of finding their pet. An owner on their own has a 5-20% chance of finding their pet, using Pet Search they can have up to a 85% chance. We are also a licensed pet detective service working on stolen pet cases.

How did you get involved in helping the owners of lost pets?

I started working at Pet Search a bit over 8 years ago, when my friend lost her dog and used PetSearch to find him. She was so happy, she told me about it and knowing I loved animals, we both asked to help out. Initially we worked as volunteers helping out to redesign the database used and then I went on in employment capacity searching for lost pets.

In your experience, what are the major reasons for pets to go missing?

This varies depending on the type of pet e.g. dogs – most likely accidental disappearances e.g. gates left open, storms. For cats, most commonly locked in somewhere, territorial issues with other cats. For birds, it is most commonly the cage fell over or someone opened a door when the bird was flying free. 

Owners can door knock and put up posters. What can services like Pet Search do to improve the chances of finding a lost pet?

This varies depending on the type of pet, how long they have been missing, where they have gone missing and a whole bunch of other variables and also what the family of the lost pet wants us to do to find them. The first thing we do is profile a pet. We ask lots of questions about personality, history, circumstances etc. to determine what may have happened and what we need to do to find them. We can have up to a 75% success rate for dogs, cats and birds, snakes, rabbits and ferrets can have up to a 85% success rate. Services can range from just providing phone guidance or designing a poster or flyer to doing an intersection alert with staff members holding large signs at a major thoroughfare or even using a trap or amplified listening device.

[You can download a sample questionnaire for a lost cat profile here - the detail is impressive].

Listening device to detect pet sounds.
In my experience owners often assume that their animal is permanently lost after 2-3 days. In your experience, how long does it take to find a lost pet?

This is probably the thing that makes us most sad. Too many people give up searching for their lost pet after a couple of days, it is very hard to convince someone to reinvigorate their search if they have mentally moved into a grief avoidance stage because searching for a pet does take a mental toll on someone and keeps the grief process going, the not knowing where they are or that they are ok is the hardest part of searching for a lost pet. On average it takes about 2-3 weeks to find a lost cat or lost dog, 3 months to find a lost bird, 3-4 weeks to find a lost ferret or snake [Ed: my friend Glenn told me he lost a pet snake at his place a few years ago. When I go over for dinner I set with my legs crossed on the chair in case I locate the aforementioned snake]. The length of time it takes to find a pet also varies depending on so many factors e.g. the weather (it takes longer to find a dog and cat in the winter as there are less witnesses out and about), in September and October it takes longer to find a lost cat in these months and there are more lost cats in these months compared with any other month of the year.

What skills do you need to reunite owners with pets?

Understanding lost pet behaviour and how this differs from a pet’s normal behaviour, body language (both human and animal), analytic skills to assess probabilities, look at all the factors of a case and assess what is needed, questioning training – used when talking with witnesses or people who have seen a lost pet, up to 80% of phone calls are false leads, we know of many cases where an owner has been out all day and night following up leads that were not anything like their lost pet, if they had asked the right questions it could have saved a lot of exhaustion. Must have a love of pets, an understanding of what it means to have a pet and lose them. All of our staff have experienced losing a pet and this is one of the most important things to understand because many of our clients are distraught and feel alone, they need to know that someone understands how important their pet is to them, it is not just a dog or a cat or a bird, it is a family member that is missing.

Can you tell us about some of your more memorable finds?

We are ecstatic with every lost pet that gets home, even the ones that get home without needing our help, but we have some ones that stick in my memory – e.g. the blue tongue lizard we reunited because the owner had put a pink collar on him and a couple of days later we got a call from a person who had found a blue tongue lizard with a pink collar and thought it was unusual. Also a staffy that escaped from Sydney airport was seen running around the train line for a couple of weeks, she ran from everyone who tried to catch her, even her owners. Over this period we established her pattern of movements, established a feeding routine with some of the staff of Qantas and one day after about 4 hours of sitting near the train tracks using calming body language, establishing trust and then a bit of friendship we managed to pick her up and carry her back to the car and drove her down to her family in Wollongong. Also, another story that shocked even us was when we reunited a galah that went missing in Mascot and we found it in Orange about 5 months later.

Are some periods busier than others?

Pet detectives need to be comfident searching any terrain.
Do you have more reports of missing pets in summer or after fireworks? September and October are the busiest 2 months of the year for lost pets – storms, holidays, more people gardening and opening up sheds and garages, more construction work happening, cat & bird breeding season all change behaviour of people and their pets, this is followed by the Easter period and then Christmas, then anytime that has fireworks.

What steps can owners take to prevent a pet from going missing in the first place?

Preparation is the key, many people say “my dog can’t get out as we have high fences” or “my cat is indoors so doesn’t need to wear a collar”, but when the unexpected thing happens e.g. fences blowing down or a break and enter at home, these pets become lost just like any other pet. An estimated 40% of dogs and cats will go missing in their lifetime, and with more and more people adopting pets from rescue groups and pounds, people need to keep in mind that most of these pets have escaped or wandered away from home which is how they ended up in the pound and a pet that has a history of getting lost is more likely to do it again.

Technology allows us to better protect our pets from theft now more than ever and this is our list of things that reduce the chances of a pet going missing or being stolen. Keep in mind most pet theft is an opportunity crime not a planned crime, take away the opportunity and you reduce the risk.

All pets:
  • Microchip your pet
  • set up cctv cameras around your property with a recording function to identify thieves [Ed: I had a client who did this and watched from work in horror as her beagle puppy ran through her koi pond then dried himself on her bed].
  • Ensure your neighbours know you and know your pet so if they see your pet has escaped or is running or flying away they can tell you about it.
  • take lots of photos of them regularly. This is one of the most important things to have when a pet goes missing, too many people only have photos of their pet when it was a puppy or kitten, or in the case of some birds people don’t have any pictures of them, so this is a struggle to find these pets as humans are attracted to images and visual posters, without pictures it is an uphill battle to get people to search for a lost pet.
  • If your pet is being minded by someone when you are away, have a conversation with them about what to do if your pet goes missing or is sick. We regularly search for pets that go missing from pet sitters, boarding facilities, friends, family and even vets, and these people often don’t have information like a microchip number, whether the pet is desexed and don’t have any photos of the pet, and when we ask them to contact the owner, they are often too afraid to do it, and this leads to delays in getting a lost pet home. Whereas if they had a conversation about it beforehand they would have felt more comfortable with getting in touch with the owner. We hear again and again from owners “I wish they had told me sooner, as I could have helped”. We have had cases where a dog was sitting in the pound for 2 weeks because the minder didn’t want to call the owner while they were away, whereas if the minder had called the owner, they could have given them an email or faxed authority to get the dog out of the pound earlier. I am still surprised how many minders don’t even know who the pet’s regular vet is. 

Specific advice for a few types of pet.

  • Have a collar & tag on your pet with a 24 hour contact number (we recommend Boomerang ID)
  • Microchip your pet
  • Desex your pet
  • Chain/padlock all gates
  • Check fencing regularly for holes, missing palings
  • Leave your dog inside your home when you are not there
  • Have a gps tag on your dog which alerts you when your dog leaves your home
  • Don’t leave your dog in car or tied up outside shops 
  • Tattoo your dog – this is not unusual in the US but in Australia it is few and far between. You can get your dog tattooed in his/her ear, on the inside of their leg or their belly. You can get a phone number or your name or we have had it suggested by a client that you get your tax file number as this should lead directly to you no matter where you are and no matter if you change your phone number or address but make sure you write TFN before the number so people are aware of what it is. 

Cats & ferrets:
  • Have a collar & tag on your pet with a 24 hour contact number (we recommend Boomerang ID)
  • Microchip your pet
  • Desex your pet
  • keep your cat indoors and/or with an outdoor enclosure.
  • Check fencing regularly for holes in window screens or loose fittings
  • Leave your cat or ferret  inside your home when you are not there
  • have a locator attached to your cat or ferret (not a gps as these are not suitable for cats at this stage in technology)

  • padlock your birds cage when you are not there, also if you are cleaning the cage, try to do it in an enclosed room e.g. garage or laundry so if the cage falls and your bird escapes it is still contained.
  • Microchip your pet.
  • join a bird club and put a club leg ring on your bird – a club ring is listed on the club’s registry and can be checked if a stray bird is found. This is not the case for non-club rings. 
  • Check your bird's enclosure regularly for holes or loose fittings
  • Have a sign near the doors to your home saying “free flying bird, please keep door closed” 

How can vets help reunite owners and lost pets better?

Report all found pets to PetSearch and ask anyone who has lost a pet to call PetSearch. Understanding the law is also an important part of working with stray animals. We can come to a team meeting or education session to answer any questions on the laws surrounding lost and stolen pets and what needs to happen. In regards to stolen pets, we are advocates of the vets get scanning program to scan all new pets coming into a vet practice for a microchip and confirming ownership, this identifies if the pet is with the rightful owner and also protects the vet from treating an animal without the rightful owners permission.

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