We are sorry to hear that your pet is missing. The first 24-48 hours are the most critical, and the effort you put in during this critical time will dramatically increase the likelihood that you will recover your pet safely. However, searches can go on much longer than this time period. Your ongoing, sustained, and proactive involvement is critical to success.
Even if your pet was lost from an unfamiliar area, approximately 80% of lost pets are found within 1 mile of where they went missing (even if this location is hundreds of miles from their home). Using that probability, we will concentrate on this area first. But note that 20% of lost pets travel further – sometimes much further – so you may have to increase your search radius.
The strategy also may be a bit different if your dog is young/healthy, or old/sick/medically compromised, and if your dog is confident/social or shy/skittish. This guide will lead you through the critical steps to take to bring your lost pet home as quickly as possible. We suggest you print out a copy and keep it with you as you go about your lost pet search steps.
If you can do this safely and there are no other pets or small children to worry about, prop open all yard gates, and even front doors, so that the lost pup can choose to easily return to the yard and home if he so chooses.
STOP doing laundry and cleaning your yard; you will want to preserve all “scent material” which may become very important in the search. This includes not scooping your yard or litter box, and not laundering your pet’s bedding, or even some items of your family’s laundry. Scent is the most powerful sense to an animal, and these scent items can be used strategically (more about this later).
Find a good quality photo of your pet, PREFERABLY one with your pet in a standing or walking position – this photo may be used for lost pet flyers.
Search your home and yard: Are you sure your pet isn’t just hiding? Nervous pets – especially cats – can hide in shockingly small areas when frightened. Do a thorough search and don’t forget to look behind dressers, in closets, in and around shrubs, etc.
Set up food and water (we call this a “feeding station”) in your yard. If your pet is hiding close by, this food and water can draw him back. Refresh the food at least once a day, preferably twice. During ant season, make sure all food is ant-proof by placing a heavier food bowl inside a shallow outer pan, and fill that outer pan with water to form an “ant moat.”
Place scent items, such as waste from your dog or items of clothing from a person with whom your dog is bonded, near the feeding station.
Assemble your helpers! Notify all responsible adults, even teens, in your family – recruit close friends or neighbors to assist in the search. This is not the time to be shy – don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Conduct a search on foot or by car. Package up some smelly snacks (not kibble or dry dog treats – make it good!) in a zip lock bag, and take along your pet’s favorite squeaky toy. Begin walking or driving your neighborhood SLOWLY, looking closely in other yards. Arizona’s Humane Animal Rescue and Trapping Team (HARTT) generally discourages rigorous ground searches with large teams because their presence may cause a frightened dog to flee the area. However, if there is any belief or indication that the animal may be sick or injured (ie, dog is geriatric, disabled, was seen hit by a car or was in an auto accident), then a careful, quiet grid search is highly advised in case the dog is not able to move.
Do not have a multitude of people calling out the pet’s name: If 5 different people are calling “Fluffy!” in 5 different areas or on 5 different streets, the pet will have no idea which direction they are supposed to go. Also, calling a pet’s name, clapping or whistling can also trigger a panicked “Oh no – they’re looking for me!” flight response in a pet and can be counterproductive. HARTT recommends that only an owner with whom the pet is bonded should call the pet’s name. Others in the search party should merely search and, when the animal is spotted, notify the owner of the exact location.
If your pet is microchipped, call your microchip company and report him missing! Your veterinarian or the shelter or rescue group from whom you adopted your pet should be able to tell you the name of the microchip company they use, their phone number, and, your pet’s microchip number if you can’t find it.
If your pet is located, the first priority is to keep the pet calm and do nothing that could drive him into a roadway or other dangerous area. The owner should proceed quickly to the scene with a favorite toy, treats, and a slip leash (or carrier, in the case of a cat). Once on scene, we recommend that the owner sit down, slightly angled away from the pet. The owner should begin talking softly just so the pet can hear their voice and identify them as familiar. Whenever possible, allow the pet to approach the owner. Try not to make any rapid movement or gestures.
Not a big computer user? Not on social media? That’s OK – recruit a family member, child, grandchild, friend, or neighbor to handle this part of the work. Don’t skip it! Many people communicate about lost and found pets on these sites; don’t miss this opportunity to communicate about or search for your lost pet!
Maricopa County Lost and Found Pet Map (https://gis.maricopa.gov/ACC/Stray/index.html)
This site will show the location of lost and found cats, and lost and found dogs. All strays who come into MCACC are posted on this site, using the location where they were found. NOTE: This location could be miles from where your pet went missing so search all listings in a wide area as well.
Post your lost pet on this site as well, so if someone finds your pet or if someone turns your pet into MCACC, staff or citizens can search and see if your pet has been reported missing. NOTE: Pets are only visible on this site for 5 days – keep checking back, and remember to renew your post every 5 days.
Craigslist (“CL”) (https://phoenix.craigslist.org/) – This online ads page is free to use. Check in both the “LOST AND FOUND” and in the “PETS” section. Search for your pet, AND post your pet. Remember that a finder may not accurately guess the breed of your pet so search by other key words instead of just breed. Also, beware of color – you may consider your pet to be “tan”, but someone who may have already found your pet may have listed her as “buff”, “yellow” or “gold”. Posts quickly roll to the bottom so we recommend refreshing your post at least every 2 days.
NextDoor (“ND”) – This smartphone app is also free to use and was created as a way for neighbors in specific areas to communicate with one another. Posts on NextDoor (ND) range from crime reports, to mechanic shop recommendations, to nearby school bake sales, to lost and found pets. In general, only a resident can post or view ND for their specific “neighborhood” and a small range of nearby neighborhoods. If your pet was lost more than 3 miles from where you live, you will want to find a resident near where your pet was lost who is on ND, who can search for posts or post an alert for you. We recommend you draft and send them exactly what you want the message to say.
Facebook (“FB”) – many different lost pet sites can be found on FB – here are a few for the Maricopa County, Arizona area:
Nothing takes the place of basic paper flyers, posted all over your neighborhood. Even if you have posted online and searched all of those posts, you are typically only reaching “pet people” who are active in the animal community. This means that all others who do not have pets and do not follow pet issues will never know you are searching for a pet!
Paper flyers will reach moms out for a stroll with babies or toddlers; fitness walkers; people passing casually through a neighborhood; seniors; and kids playing in the neighborhood.
We recommend that you place a minimum of 100 flyers in a ½ mile radius from where your pet went missing immediately, at least within the first 24 hours. We do not recommend using lots of text; see the sample on this page of what we recommend. Use 3M clear packing tape (not duct tape, not blue or green painter’s tape, and not regular scotch tape) to adhere signs to surfaces.
If you and three immediate family members conduct a ground search, that will be 4 of you looking for your pet; if you put up 100 flyers and each one is seen by 10 people, that will be 1,000 people helping to look for your pet!!
Does your HOA or neighborhood have a restriction on flyers? Rarely do these organizations actually enforce the restriction or fine you for placing them. In most cases, the worst case is they will tear them down. We would prefer even a few hours of exposure from a well-placed flyer than no flyer in that location at all. Please be responsible and remove flyers timely after the conclusion of a search, to keep neighborhoods happy and to make things easier for the owners of other pets in the future.
Flyers should be eye-catching, simple, printed in color, contain a clear picture, and minimal wording (see sample under “resources” below), and have the phone number of someone who will answer their phone 24/7 and will be extremely thorough about keeping a log of all sightings called in.
Flyers can be posted on community mailboxes, bulletin boards, traffic signs, and other locations where people walk or drive by. We suggest placing them in sheet protectors to protect the signs somewhat from inclement weather.
These smaller versions of flyers are more suitable for distributing by hand. You can also save printing costs – the handbills are printed 4 per page, and the business card format, 10 per page. Hand these smaller handbills or cards out to:
HARTT has received donations of thousands of corrugated plastic political campaign flyers which you can spray paint a neon color and affix your lost pet flyer on top of the sign. These yard signs can be placed in your own yard and throughout your neighborhood at key intersections; they are very eye-catching. They are especially effective in rural, wooded and desert areas where there are no surfaces and signs for affixing flyers. Remember what goes up must come down. Be sure to promptly remove your flyers and signs after your pet is found; this will make things easier for other families to do the same in the future.
Stop at your local craft store and ask for markers or paint that can be used on automotive glass. Your car is a mobile billboard! Use your car as another way of getting the word out. Or, tape your lost dog flyers on your car as you drive about your community.
Maricopa County Animal Care and Control (pets.maricopa.gov): Pets found west of Central go to the West location, and pets found east of Central go to the East location. Be sure to check both locations. Check petharbor.com for posts of animals that come into MCACC, but nothing takes the place of walking the kennels in person.
Be sure to ask staff how you can see all animals in their care, including those who are not in the public view (animals deemed sick, injured or dangerous). Be sure to bring a copy of your flyer with you.
Don't call or email Maricopa County Animal Care to ask if your pet has been found without checking the county's map. Because of the large number of animals that come through the shelter, employees are unable to respond to inquiries about whether the pet is in the county's care.
Don't wait too long to search the county shelter. Visiting every 24-72 hours over at least 10 days is recommended. The county is only required to hold stray animals for 72 hours. After that time, if the pet is healthy, it may be sent to a rescue group or put up for adoption.
Arizona Humane Society (www.azhumane.org): AHS only takes in owner surrenders or sick, injured, or underage strays. Be sure to bring a copy of your flyer with you.
Other animal control agencies: check with the animal control department for your city and county, to see if they have picked up a pet matching your pet’s description. Find out where they impound strays that they find.
Search the county shelter. Visiting every 24-72 hours over at least 10 days is recommended.
If you, or a friend or family member are comfortable with Google Maps or other online mapping programs, study an aerial view of the area two miles from where your pet went missing. Search for canals, walking paths, wooded areas, other bodies of water, and other possible hiding places. Seeing an aerial view of the area will help you to consider where else to look. It will also be very helpful if you get sighting calls and the caller is vague with their description of the location they saw your pet. Knowing the area ahead of time will expedite your response time.
Drones may be helpful, but most drone pilots do not have night vision technology on their drones, and many lost pets are most active after dark. They also may be flying at a height where it would be difficult to locate a smaller moving object. There is no harm in using a drone if you have access to one, but be sure the pilot doesn’t fly too low once the pet is spotted, which could spook the animal from the area.
There are fee-based services which claim to track your lost pet using scent-trained dogs. The jury is out on the effectiveness of these rather expensive services. If you have money to spend on a search, there are dozens of other ways to maximize your search budget for far less – ask a HARTT search consultant for more information.
Unfortunately many animals are killed on freeways each year. To ask if your pet has been found, fill out the Arizona Department of Transportation's online form with a pet description, the location the pet was lost, and a photo.
After ADOT removes animal remains from freeways, they are checked for IDs and microchips, and attempts are made to notify the owners.