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Gone Missing: Tips for Finding Lost Pets

What happens when -- in that split second you weren't watching -- a furry friend wanders off? What do you do next? How far could your pet possibly wander? No matter how prepared the pet parent, it's easy for panic to set in.
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We talk a lot about keeping tabs (or tags, as the case may be) on pets so they can never get lost or go missing; an ID tag and a microchip are essential tools for reuniting lost pets with their owners. But what happens when -- in that split second you weren't watching -- a furry friend wanders off? What do you do next? How far could your pet possibly wander? No matter how prepared the pet parent, it's easy for panic to set in.

We learned this lesson recently at Petplan, when one of our own -- a team member's orange tabby named Milo -- wriggled free from his harness during a break outside and disappeared. A whole group of employees set out to search for him, while we called the local fire and police stations to keep watch for our kitty. Eventually the police called to say they found him -- two-and-a-half miles away! It seems Milo had crept across two major highways and made himself at home in the office of a nearby grocery store. The story had a happy ending, but we were lucky.

Our near cat-astrophe got me thinking about the best course of action to take when a pet goes missing, and I'd like to share some advice to help speed a lost pet's recovery. Commit these tips to memory in case you ever need them, or print this page and keep it on paw -- it can help to have a list of what to do next in an emergency!

Step 1: Be Prepared
Pets can get lost -- it's a fact of life. To give yourself the best chance of recovering a lost pet, do a little legwork while he's snoozing safely at home. Update your pet's microchip details if you've recently moved or changed contact information. Sign up for services like Home Again's Pet Key system, an Amber Alert-type service for missing pets that blasts missing pet stats to hundreds of nearby people. Invest in a tracking service like Tagg so you can easily get the GPS coordinates of where your wandering pet may be. Keep an up-to-date photo and description of your pet handy, as well as his microchip number, so you can easily post the information on social media like Facebook and Twitter to help spread the word.

Step 2: Stay Calm
Realizing your pet has gone missing is a scary feeling, but keeping calm and taking an appropriate course of action will help you feel more empowered to find them. Keep a list somewhere easily accessible with your pet's microchip number, the numbers of the local police and fire stations and contact information for all animal shelters, within a 25-mile radius. That way, you know who to call at the first sign of trouble, and you cover these bases immediately.

Step 3: Get Social
More and more, pets are being reunited with their owners via the vast network of social media. Not only can you reach neighbors and friends online, but you can tap into shelter volunteers, rescue groups and local organizations that work to identify and return lost pets, as well as vet offices, pet stores, boarding facilities and groomers, who can all spread word to their clients to keep an eye out for your pet. Flyers and posters still have their place, but you can reach many more people (instantly!) if you log on and start posting.

Step 4: Set a Trap
Ok, not a trap exactly, but this method has been used by hunters to locate missing hounds, and seems to be fairly successful. Set up a crate where you last saw your pet and leave a (worn) article of clothing inside with a bowl of water. The idea is that the dog will pick up on your scent on the clothing, so the more it has been worn, the better. You can also leave a familiar toy -- but do not leave treats or food, as they can attract local wildlife that could scare off your pet. Put a note on the crate asking that the items not be disturbed and include a description and photo of the missing dog. Check the site often to see if your four-legged loved one has returned!

Step 5: If you're missing a cat, look EVERYWHERE
Cats can cram themselves into the most unusual of places. If you can't find your cat, do a thorough and exhaustive search of your property first. Check washing machines, dryers, car engines, water heaters -- any appliance that gives off heat. Search boxes, under furniture, in closets, in drain pipes, under vehicles, in crawl spaces and inside sheds or garages. And don't forget to look in the attic, in crawl spaces, in gutters, on the roof and in any trees on your property. Though some cats (like Milo!) will wander, many are content curling up somewhere closer to home.

Step 6: Use the buddy system
If you have more than one dog in the household, or a dog your missing dog is friendly with, take that dog along on the search. They can often track the scent of your missing friend, and can sometimes coax a fearful pup out of hiding.

Above all, no matter how discouraged you may feel, don't give up hope for finding a lost pet. There are plenty of stories of happy reunions happening months -- or even years! -- after a pet wanders away. Though it is a scary and stressful time when a pet goes missing, a combination of technology and tenacity (plus a little luck, like we had with Milo) can often create happy endings.