Human/Animal Bond

Why Should I Give her Back?

A collarless, unkempt dog or cat may be lost, not abandoned

Published: May 19, 2014

Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler

Recently my friend lost her dog. A gate was accidentally left open and away the dog went. Not knowing what has happened to her dog has been hard for her to live with. She didn’t know if the dog was dead, alive and hurt somewhere, or in someone else’s house.

When we were talking about it, she said “If she's not dead, then it means someone out there thinks it's more important that they keep her for themselves than try to find me.” Her dog had some serious health issues (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, or EPI) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Depending on when my friend's dog is found after she went walkabout, the finders could believe she had been starving for a while because animals with these diseases can lose quite a bit of weight. What the finders of her underweight dog might not realize was that the dog was in excellent hands when cared for by her doting veterinarian owner, who kept the dog’s complex medical conditions in balance with a deft touch.

Pets get lost for numerous reasons, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with being dumped, abused, or neglected. According to the Missing Pet Partnership, the three main causes of lost animals are: an opportunistic journey (open gates and doors); wanderlust (the enduring lust of intact males causes them to try to sneak out like grounded teenagers); and blind panic (running from something scary and loud, like a thunderstorm or car accident). Not dumped, not unwanted, not tossed out the door.

Accidents happen to everyone. I once let two of my dogs out in the middle of the night to take care of their business. Unbeknownst to me, a gate post had broken off in the windstorm and one of my gates was down. I drove around in the middle of the night calling and looking for them, but they finally came back home. Another time my family was on our way to camping in the mountains and we were making a quick potty stop. One minute the dogs were there, the next they were gone – in unknown mountain territory. I was sure I would never see them again and the thought was sickening. Two insanely long hours later, they returned, muddy and grinning. They had been off having a great time, while I was hoarse from calling them and tired from worrying.

While I was in practice, people would bring in dogs or cats that they had found. If the pet was skinny, dirty, unkempt, or shy, they would automatically assume the animal had been abused or neglected and should not be returned to its purportedly horrible owner. In more than 19 years of practice, I NEVER saw a case where this was true. Experience taught me that even if the pet has a microchip, some finders refuse to contact the owner because they assume the pet is better off elsewhere since it was in such a sorry state when found.

Consider the sheltie who belonged to one of my clients. She got out of a gate that was blown open in yet another Wyoming windstorm (yes, there is a pattern here). It took three months for this sheltie to be caught and she had lived down near the river in an area called the dog ponds for all of those months. She was scared and refused to come to anyone, including the owner and his family. When she was finally found, you can only imagine what the sheltie’s beautiful long coat looked like after living in the woods for that long. Thankfully it was the owner’s trap that finally caught her, as anyone looking at that dog with her filthy, matted coat would think she had been abused and left to starve. Once she was back at home, she went back to being her friendly self, never missing a beat in enjoying people. She was really glad to be back with her family.

The sheltie’s situation is not unusual, but much depends on who finds the animal. “People who find stray dogs often misinterpret the dog's behavior; they assume that the cowering, fearful dog was ‘abused’ when in fact the dog has a xenophobic temperament and has been shy and fearful since it was a puppy, due to genetics and puppyhood experiences,” states the Missing Dog Partnership on their website. “Dogs found in rural areas are often assumed to be ‘dumped’ and homeless; many rescuers never think this could be a dog that was lost. Some people who find a stray dog that does not have a collar automatically assume it is ‘homeless’ and therefore they immediately work to place the dog rather than attempt to find the dog's owner. In addition, the first place the owner of a lost dog will search for his or her dog - the local shelter - is typically the last place that someone who finds a loose dog will take it (due to the fear of euthanasia)!”

Last winter my friends and I found a Shih Tzu (or maybe it was a Lhasa) on the highway. He was well groomed, and had a collar but no tags. Thankfully, the owners checked the shelter where I’d taken him, near where he was lost, and they were reunited within hours. It certainly could have gone differently. I wish I knew why he didn’t have any tags on. Did they fall off on their cross-country trip? Was he wearing two collars and slipped one? Had they taken his collar off just prior to his running off (he had gotten scared when they stopped for coffee)? Had I just presumed that they were bad owners and kept him, I would have caused much pain and loss for people who loved their dog. As Yoda would say, “Your eyes can deceive you.” There is always more to the story and we need to give the benefit of the doubt to our fellow human beings. After all, most people are good people. To quote Missing Pet Partnership, “In order for most of the loose (found) dogs to be unwanted (dumped or abandoned), we'd need to have hoards of people lining up every day just to dump all of these dogs!”

It is our duty, as pet loving folks, to consider the person and family behind the lost animal in front of us. We should not presume that a collarless, unkempt dog or cat is abandoned or abused, but instead we should consider that sometimes excrement happens and the pet was lost through no fault of the owner. We should all believe that likely there are heartbroken owners looking for their missing pet, perhaps with hysterical children tugging at them. Because it succinctly sums up my own feelings, I’m adopting the Missing Pet Partnership’s slogan from their campaign to educate people about how to respond to unaccompanied pets: “Think LOST, not stray.”

So what should we do when we find a lost animal, who may or may not be skinny, dirty, scared, hand shy, or have a collar or tags?

  1. Take the animal to the local shelter and law enforcement.
  2. Put up found fliers, preferably with a picture. Bright neon-colored posters are the most visible.
  3. Call and report your find to the veterinary clinics in the area.
  4. Have the pet scanned for a microchip by your veterinarian or shelter and contact the registered owner.
  5. Post a picture on Facebook.

If you find a dog or cat, please do what you can to get them back to the owner regardless of how bad they look; the disheveled state they are in seldom reflects their true home circumstances. You will make the pet and the family happy. What great good you can do by reuniting a family with their beloved lost pet! And, after all, isn't that how you would like to be treated?


November 15, 2015

I had taken my two PBGVs for a long walk in an area where they can "hunt" off leash. My male had gotten into a stand of burdock - his ears were stuck to his muzzle, he looked so disgusting and funny at the same time, that I reached in my backpack for my camera to take his picture. Oops, he instantly took off running down the drive and disappeared!! It was a lovely day, a lot of my neighbors were out walking, so I trotted around the neighborhood calling him and asking all these people if they had seen this off-white apparition - several said yes, they had seen a dog running at top speed, like he was running away from something! I looked for over an hour, then called the police. The officer said that he got a call from someone in my area who had found a dog, but it just couldn't be mine. She had said this dog looked like some kind of sheep dog, and must have been on the road for weeks, he was filthy and covered in burrs. Yep, that's my dog! I found him two blocks away, locked in an outdoor kennel, with a huge empty food bowl! The woman had a female Lab in heat in the house. She had given him an enormous bowl of food - between his appearance and the passionate way he dug into the food, she assumed that he was a neglected and unwanted dog. Thank goodness she called the police, not everyone would.  Thanks for this article, I deal in animal legislation as a volunteer lobbyist - deal constantly with the consequences of this Culture of Rescue we have developed in this country, which encourages this belief that animal abuse and neglect is rampant, and it's everyone's responsibility to save dogs from bad owners.

November 12, 2015

My biggest fear when our dog got out by mistake was that someone who believed in finders-keepers would find her before I did. Thank goodness I found her first. She was new from "rescue", emaciated, with a poor coat, skin condition, upper respiratory issue, parasites, and terrified. All things we were currently working through with our vet, a behaviorist and a trainer. She was definitely showing signs of improvement when she took off. It would have been SO easy for someone to assume we didn't deserve her back.

November 11, 2015

Pet Lover - you are a bigger problem than a negligent owner.  Dogs can pick up worms and lose weight very quickly.  Shame on you for playing god.

Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM
November 11, 2015

Thank you, Susan.  I too found a dead dog in the road one night--he was one of my patients; he'd only been in a couple of times several years before, but I could tell it was him because of the unique dental work he'd had after being hit by a car once before.  I also knew where the owner lived; I took him home but had to leave his body there with a note because no one was there at the time.  The owner called the clinic a couple of days later and expressed deep gratitude that I'd returned him to her even after he'd passed on. My nearest neighbor's dog is something of an escape artist; I think the only reason others haven't picked him up is because he's a huge German Shepherd.  Every time I see him walking down the road, I open my truck door and he jumps in for the ride home.  Scares me to death every time--this is not a busy road, but the traffic is fast.  I'm afraid that one day I'll have to lift him in instead. Know that I and others appreciate the time you take to care.

November 11, 2015

I recently happened upon a "stray" that WAS microchipped, and I did all the article said to do, PLUS MORE, and now 2 weeks later still have not heard from the owners. I am keeping him for a month, then releasing him to a close friend. She will also be given the owners info, in case he ever does decide to come get his Captain back.

November 11, 2015

First thing I do is have the dog scanned for a chip if no collar and then contact the local shelters letting them know I have a found dog. Fortunately I can hold on to the dog until I can locate the family.  I also walk the dog through the neighborhood to see if anyone recognizes the dog.  I sent a Boxer home with a "Pedicure" once because her nails were way too long but hey everyone knows it could be difficult to trim nails. Another time I pulled a dog off the road after being hit by a car 1) although she was dead I didn't want her ran over again 2) I could let the family know even though it was tragic because of the worry. I'm just glad to help them get home because I know how I would feel if one of my three got lost.

Rhonda Bowman
October 15, 2015

As I continue the fight  to get my dog back.  The court system is not on your side.  Visit Max Bowman or Bring Max Home on facebook.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
October 15, 2015

Dear Pet Lover, though I am sure you believed yourself to be acting in the dog's best interests, your choice to knowingly keep the pet from his rightful owner is illegal.  In the United States, pets are considered property and re-homing a pet without the consent of the original owner is theft.  A better choice would have been to take the dog back to his owner and offer to help them with arranging veterinary care.  It's entirely possible the dog's condition was entirely due to having been missing from home.

Pet Lover
October 14, 2015

In most instances I agree. This year A lost dog found me. Pure bred beautiful animal. Infested in worms, 15 lbs under weight. I secretly located the owner, I determined that they did not deserve this animal and the animal did not deserve the way it was treated. I found it a new home. Never looked back and I don't feel a bit guilty.

October 14, 2015

Years ago I found an Irish Terrier at a garage sale!  He was filthy and skinny.  I asked the woman whose dog it was.  She said that it was a stray and she was waiting for the animal control to pick him up. I took him home.  Found an ad in the paper for a lost brown terrier.  It was from an area 25 miles away and three weeks ago.  I did call the ad.  Turns out it was their dog.  Lost on their wedding night when someone left the gate open.  Three weeks and miles away. BTW, it was the last day the ad ran.  Everyone was crying when they picked Callahan up.

Rita Rice
October 14, 2015

9 years ago, I spent $5000 on a beautiful, show quality, cavalier puppy. 6 months after I brought her home, I moved her to my fiance's house - I agreed to foster 2 dogs surrendered to rescue because they killed their owner's two small dogs. A week later, she disappeared from the securely fenced yard - on a day when the padlock had been removed from the gate for the lawn crew to mow.  We offered a $1000 reward, I covered the neighborhood with signs, called all the local shelters, reported her missing through Home Again and paid for flyers to be emailed to all vets within 50 miles.  Nothing. 4 years later, Home Again calls - she has been picked up running loose by local college students, who took her to a vet, who scanned her microchip instead of calling the vet listed on her rabies tag.  We got her back! We did call the vet on her rabies tag, and found out that the "new owner" lived less than two blocks from where she was lost (we had since married and moved).  Their vet, however, was over 50 miles away!  The vet had seen her many times, and NEVER ONCE scanned her chip or wondered about her origin (or why a client would drive 50 miles for a vet!). When my husband called the "owners," the woman immediately asked if we "were the people who lost her several years ago!" She KNEW she had my dog!  $1000 could have bought them a nice pet of their own. Lyra is back with us, the college students got a reward, the other "owners" got nothing, and the vet got complaints lodged with TVMA and AVMA. Ridiculous.  But I love my girl as much as ever.

A Rescuer
October 14, 2015

A dog might well not have tags because they got caught on something and pulled off. My own dogs have done in more split rings than I care to count. A lost tag is better than a hung up dog though. No collar? Many reasons - first the obvious - a lost dog may be lost because it slipped the collar. Or it may have lost the collar along the way, getting it caught on something, or having had someone try grabbing it and accidentally pulling it off. It might have escaped from home where it doesn't wear one - owners who have ever had a dog get caught on a collar playing with another dog will often not collar dogs at home. All it takes is a near death experience or knowing someone who has lost or had a dog badly injured that way in play with another dog to change perspectives on always having a collar on dogs.  (There are combo limited slip/side snap collars available which are safer). All sorts of reasons. I'd like to remind people to look for tattoos on non chipped dogs as well. While chips have largely replaced tattoos, there are still some people doing them. If they are there, the most common place is the inside of the left thigh. People need to stop assuming the worst about every dog owner they haven't met.

October 9, 2015

It should be mandatory for the vet office doing the scanning for a chip to report the located pet via info from chip.  Why leave it up to someone who found the animal on the loose who has an interest in retaining their new found friend?

June 1, 2014

A friend of mine lost her two dogs, who nearly immediately became feral. They were sighted multiple times, but would not allow anyone (including the owners) near them. They finally got trapped in a barn, and like your story, became civilized again as quickly as they turned feral. One of the things I do with all of my cats AND dogs is to take them out front on a collar/harness and lead and just watch the world go by, so if they ever should be lost, they at least know what the territory around our home looks like from their perspective.

Teri Ann Oursler, DVM 
May 20, 2014

Melissa, I am certain that your vet's office was surprised that you wanted the original owner of the cat contacted.  I am so very glad that you did the right thing, by making sure they got their cat back (if they wanted her).  Doing the right things feels good!  Hearing about doing good also feels good!

May 20, 2014

"Experience taught me that even if the pet has a microchip, some finders refuse to contact the owner because they assume the pet is better off elsewhere since it was in such a sorry state when found." Ah.  That explains why my vet's office was so surprised when, upon finding a microchip in the cat that was trying so hard to adopt me, I asked if I could get the owner's info so I could take her back to them. (I did take her back, and they didn't want her, but that's another story...)


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