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Should You Rescue a Stray Dog or Cat?

By Linda Cole

The area where I live doesn't have a lot of options for stray dogs or cats. We have one no-kill shelter that's full, and one vet clinic that will only hold a stray for three days before euthanizing them. Other than that, a lost pet's only hope is from people who open up their homes to a stray. If I find a pet in need, I will rescue them. There's no way I can turn a blind eye. If you do decide to help a stray, however, you need to make sure that the pet is really a stray and not an outside cat patrolling his territory or a dog enjoying an off leash run.

A stray dog or cat doesn't understand you're trying to help them, and a pet that’s been lost for a long time may be wary of humans or have aggressive tendencies resulting from their experience on the street. But when you find a stray that's malnourished or injured, they need your help. And if you can't help them, it doesn't take long to make a few phone calls to a shelter, rescue organization or animal control official to make sure the pet gets the help they need.

I've always had a sympathetic heart for stray pets. As a kid, I wanted Dad to stop the car every time I saw a cat wandering along a country ditch. Of course he didn't, and assured me the cat most likely lived at some farmhouse close by. As I got older I knew some of the cats I saw were lost, but I also understood picking up every cat wasn't right either because the cat could belong to a family nearby.

A stray pet is not the same as a feral cat or dog. The stray dog or cat who shows up at your door is one who is either lost or has been abandoned by someone. Lost pets are usually friendly, although how they react to us can depend on how long they've been lost and what sort of trauma has been associated with it. The pet who has been abused while lost can become aggressive or fearful, which makes rescuing them that much harder.

A feral cat or dog is an animal that has either been lost so long they've forgotten what life with humans means, or they are descendants of a once domesticated pet and have never had a home with humans. They are very wary of people and usually stay away from us. These cats and dogs have learned how to fend for themselves, but most stray pets never get to that point and even feral animals can use a helping hand with food and shelter, especially during the winter months.

If you rescue a stray pet off the street, the first thing you need to do is contact your shelter, veterinarian, police and any rescue groups in your area to make sure the pet you found doesn't belong to someone else. Some newspapers will let you advertise a found pet for free, and you can put up posters around your neighborhood. Sometimes pets are stolen, either by accident or on purpose, and then abandoned.

Check to see if the pet has a collar with a tag, or any identifying information. If a dog has his license attached to his collar, you should be able to contact your county auditor, or whichever agency issues dog tags in your area, for pertinent information. The pet should also be scanned for a microchip or a tattoo used for identification. It's important to make an effort to find an owner because you know how you'd feel if your pet went missing and someone found him but just kept him without trying to locate his owner. Plus, you could be accused of theft if you don't make an effort to find his original owner who could still be searching for their pet.

Rescuing a dog or cat off the streets will require some effort on your part if you decide to take them in. I rescued a starving cat once that had an identification tag with her name and a phone number on it. When I called the number; a little boy answered and I could tell by his excited screams to his dad that he was happy. When they arrived to pick the cat up and the boy saw her, tears streamed down his face. That was all the thanks I needed, and it made me realize how important it is to make the effort. Even if you only rescue one pet, it makes a real difference in the life of the pet and his owner if you can reunite them.

Photo by Christopher Lancaster

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