Lisa Mullen returned home from the grocery store, and she immediately realized something was very wrong. The wagging tail of her golden retriever, Divot wasn’t there to greet her. Turns out the screen door didn’t close all the way; Divot somehow pushed open the back door. She was gone.
Losing a beloved pet is a helpless feeling. “Owners know their pets are dependent on them; if it’s the biggest fear pets owners have there’s a good reason for it,” says Geoff Handy, director of communications/companion animal section of Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
According to Kim Hicks, communications specialist at the Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix, 6.3 million lost pets wind up in shelters annually, a number that doesn’t include those that are hit by cars, succumb to the elements or pets that are stolen. According to Veterinary Economics magazine, 8 to12 million lost pets are taken in by shelters. No matter how many millions land in a shelter, your chances of ever finding your own missing Fluffy or Fido are slim. The HSUS estimates only 15 to 20 per cent of lost dogs winding up shelters are re-claimed, and only four to five percent of cats are ever reunited with their people.
This wasn’t the first time Divot managed to flee the Mullen’s home in Glenview, a suburb just north of Chicago. In the past, the pooch simply found her own way home within an hour or so, but this time several hours passed, and still no Divot. Lisa phoned the new online missing pet service her husband had only weeks before had signed up for, nationalmissingpet.com.
“Immediately, we blast the neighborhood with faxes,” says National Missing Pet website founder Scott Leadbetter. Faxes with the pet’s description are sent to local veterinarians, kennels, shelters, dog trainers, libraries, grocery stores, community centers, or anywhere else that might post the information.
In a smaller city, such as Appleton, Wisc., about 25 faxes are blasted to the area, if you live in a city the size of Chicago or Detroit, about 200 faxes may be detonated. The faxes are initially sent to places within a few miles of where the pet was lost, and over a course of weeks, the geographic destinations of those faxes expands to cover a wider area. The fax brigade continues weekly for up to four weeks. At that point, the odds of recovering the pet are so slim nationalmissingpet.com gives up.
All experts do agree, time is of the essence. While nationalmissingpet.com is blasting faxes, this gives owners time to search the neighborhood, and post signage.
It turns out that it wasn’t a fax that prompted Divot’s return. A neighbor four blocks away found the dog, and simply phoned the toll free number found on the special tag provided by the nationalmissingpet.com.
Every city and town requires a dog license, explains Handy. To motivate spay/neuter, some communities do charge up $50 to $75 for unaltered pets – but licensing, in general, is $30 or under, and often only $2 to $5. Still, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of dog owners don’t bother paying the license fee, arguing it’s not the government’s business (after all you don’t pay a license for the privilege to have children), and arguing the proceeds from the fees do nothing to help companion animals. Still, there’s little excuse for at the very least not picking up a basic ID tag, often available as a promotional give-a-way, or for $10 or less.
Handy says if a dog is licensed, and also carries a rabies tag – as the law in all 50 states mandates – adding a third tag (from an online pet search service) is unnecessary overkill.
“The problem is that most people stick the rabies tag in a drawer somewhere,” says Deborah Welsh, president of another Web site for lost pets, AWOLPET.com. In some states, the rabies tag only provides a state department of epidemiology phone number instead of a direct number to the vet or the pet’s owner. If reaching the pet’s owner becomes hard work, it’s work some people aren’t willing to do. If a pet is found on a weekend or holiday, the owners and the lost pet will have to wait to be reunited. AWOLPET.com provides a red tag that reads, ‘I am lost. Visit AWOLPET.com to find my home.’ Welsh says many owners are concerned about privacy and don’t want their home address and/or phone number on their pet–one more reason why some pets don’t wear an ID tag. AWOLPET.com uses a pet’s unique rabies ID number to identify the owners, protecting their privacy, while at the same time encouraging rabies vaccines.
Welsh, Leadbetter and Handy all endorse micro chipping as yet another additional means to identify lost pets. A vet inserts a tiny microchip, which looks like a grain of rice, under the pet’s skin. This chip contains information about who owns the pet. Shelters and some vet offices have equipment that scans for chips of lost pets. ID tags can fall off, and sometimes they’re intentionally removed. The micro-chipping fee varies, but ranges around from $30 to $80.
Cats can also benefit from these online services. “Indoor cats usually don’t get tags,” says Handy. “Despite the rabies laws, they’re all too often not vaccinated. And communities don’t mandate licensing for cats. People figure either that the cat will never get out, or that if it does get out, it will survive on its own – both presumptions are not true. There’s nothing wrong with a cat wearing an ID tag.” However, so far, the vast majority of pets signed up for either service are dogs.
Sarah Petro signed up her dog because she just figured with so much going on in her house; she might one day require a missing pet service. Petro keeps watch over four children, ranging from 6 ½-years to 10-years old. “I think I’m pretty good at watching where Bailey is but I get distracted with all that goes on here,” she says from her home in Toledo, Ohio.
Bailey is the family’s beloved 3-year old Labrador retriever, and in early March he did escape from the yard. Bailey wandered for two days, luckily avoiding nearby fast-moving traffic, before he was recovered about two miles from home.
By now, the fax brigade from nationalmissingpet.com had begun, but again it was the nationalmissingpet.com tag that proved crucial. The person who found Bailey simply called the toll-free number on Bailey’s tag.
While Bailey happened to get lost at their home, Petro says the family often takes Bailey on vacation. If Bailey gets lost in another state or another town, calling a vet back in Toledo won’t help. Before she leaves for a trip Petro can let the nationalmissingpet.com know where she can be reached. AWOLPET.com offers the same service.
Both of these online lost pet services began in January. Nationalmissingpet.com has nearly 200 members, each paying a registration fee of $39.95. So far, three pets have been reported lost, and the website has helped to find two, Bailey and Divot. For more information, call 877-544-5678.
AWOLPET.com has fewer than 100 members; their registration fee is $7 ($12 for two pets); for more info, call 888-743-6465.
AWOLPET.com has also begun a database of pets that have been found across the country. Welsh says shelters have been exceedingly slow to pool information about lost pets online.
“Talk about the cheapest possible insurance,” says Welsh, “pets can become lost so easily – it can happen to even the most careful and responsible owners.”
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