39 Things Your Shelter Can Do Right Now to Reunite Lost Pets

Lately we’ve been hearing chatter and concern from shelters struggling to move their animal populations as quickly as possible, resulting in increased length of stay. This is a red flag: We know that the longer an animal stays in your shelter, the more likely stress will impact their health and behavior, and the larger your overall population becomes.

The obvious recommendations are to get more animals out to foster, ramp up your adoption promotions and to ensure sick animals get the care they need on intake. Several shelters are pursuing these options with extraordinary outcomes; some are featured in this toolkit, created by shelters for shelters, that published this week in collaboration with the The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement, The Bissell Pet Foundation, and the National Animal Care and Control Association (NACA). And there’s also an incredible opportunity to really make an impact and decrease length of stay by increasing your Return To Home rates. We know many of you have been focusing on this—earlier this year, for example, 237 organizations collectively reunited 9,867 dogs and 499 cats as part of the No Place Like Home Challenge with Maddie’s Fund. To give you an idea of what’s happening on a national level, Shelter Animals Count’s 2020 data reports show a 40.7% RTO rate for dogs amongst 2,386 organizations in 2020, and 5.1% for cats, for a combined 21.3% RTO rate.

We put our heads together to brainstorm ways you can reunite more pets in your community, whether your organization does managed intake or whether you are responsible for taking in every animal who comes your way. Which of these suggestions have you tried, and what would you add to the list?

Make It a Big Deal At Your Organization

  • Establish a Lost & Found Program. Name it, promote it, talk about it in new hire orientation, onboarding, and training programs, so all of your employees understand the importance of this programming from Day One.
  • Make your Lost & Found Program a recognized part of your organizational structure. Don’t just lump it under Animal Care, Admissions, or Shelter Operations without identifying the distinct function and purpose of lost and found.
  • Budget for and create a position like Lost & Found Coordinator, Missing Pet Advocate or Reunification Specialist. The dedicated job description should include goals for increasing Return to Home rates and decreasing length of stay. Here’s a job description you can use
  • Talk about loss pet prevention and steps to finding a lost pet with adopters. Also, provide them with actionable information in their adoption packets if you use those.


Make It a Big Deal On Your Website

  • Work with other agencies in your area to ensure lost/found messaging is consistent between organizations. Consider creating centralized resources that meets all of your needs, and link to them from all of your respective pages. How about an infographic with your shared data and simple next steps for lost and found pets? Be sure everybody’s logo is represented.


Take a Good Look at Your Data & Processes (and Change ‘Em Up If You Need To)

  • Track the data on lost pets coming into your shelter and share that data, including reunification statistics, with your team each month. This shows that your return to home data it is just as important as adoption goals.
  • Calculate cost savings as you reduce length of stay due to increased reunification. Those dollars can be diverted to other important programs. Share that fiscal resourcefulness and reallocation of funds with your team so they are further motivated toward reunification efforts.
  • If you are a nonprofit SPCA/humane society and don’t accept stray pets (only intake owner surrenders or transfers in), implement a lost and found program and have staff/volunteers check animals against lost reports at other shelters. It’s not unusual for an animal to enter a shelter, and after 3-4 days of legal hold have that pet transferred out to another shelter/rescue for adoption. Animals entering your shelter might be lost and their family is still searching for them. Track your efforts to learn how many lost pets are reunited with their families after entering your shelter each year.
  • Evaluate your intake protocols and determine if you can stop classifying litters of kittens and/or puppies under 5 months as strays. If a litter of stray animals come in, how likely is it that their “owner” is coming to look for them? But we continue to classify these litters as “stray,” which skews the numbers and creates some bottlenecks in your shelter population pathway planning.
  • Never let an animal leave your shelter naked. Ramp up your identification tag and microchipping program and insist on providing each animal with a registered microchip, ID tag and collar at time of adoption or redemption. Promote your ID tag and microchipping program to the whole community, not just for the pets you adopt out.
  • Take care that your processes are species-appropriate. That means offering instructions and advice differently for cats and dogs. They aren’t the same type of animal, so their behaviors are different (e.g. Petco Love Lost’s How to Find a Lost Dog vs. How to Find a Lost Cat).


Empower ACOs to RTO in the field 

  • When your animal control officer finds a lost pet, have them upload a photo of the pet immediately in the field to Petco Love Lost and/or your shelter management system. Someone might see the uploaded photo before the officer returns to the shelter!
  • Encourage animal control officers to walk a found dog around the neighborhood and ask people if they recognize the dog.
  • Arm your officers with door hangers or yard signs to increase community support of the work you do and help lost pets get home more quickly. Check out other great suggestions in the
  • Make sure every ACO has a working microchip scanner in their vehicle so they can call in the number and return a pet from the field to keep the pet from entering your shelter in the first place. Train your officers how to research a chip and start alerts when they find one.
  • Your ACOs can distribute “Finder’s Fee” award coupons in neighborhoods, modeled after the FBI’s Most Wanted Posters.  Messaging can be as simple as, “If you find this pet, we’ll award you $25,” with your Lost & Found Coordinator’s phone number and email. Ensure the pet is already listed as lost to prevent folks from bringing in lost pets that they “borrow” from their neighbors (yes, it’s happened). 
  • Set up a Twitter account for your ACOs and advertise it far and wide. A quick tweet from out in the field immediately upon finding a lost animal can work wonders.

Unleash Your Volunteer Army of Pet Detectives

  • Create Pet Detective opportunities for volunteers to monitor Next Door, Craig’s List, Facebook pages, etc. to match found pets. Here are some more ideas for volunteer positions.
  • Create junior Pet Detective Teams. This is a great way for young volunteers to scour the neighborhood and go door-to-door with pet flyers, photos, etc.
  • Create a volunteer team that descends upon local events and venues wherever dogs are with their people to help keep lost and found resources at top of mind. Arm your volunteers with scanners and have them scan owned animals and provide the pet person with the chip number. They can then show them where and how to register their chips for free in the Michelson Found Animals Microchip Registry | Register Your Pet For Free registry, while emphasizing the importance of updating chip information with each move or phone number change. Volunteers can pass out free ID tag coupons redeemable at the shelter.
  • Engage volunteers to help ACOs. When an officer finds an animal, the volunteer is notified via radio and can then begin scouring all of the lost/found sites in order to make immediate matches (Craigslist, local lost and found Facebook pages, Next-door, etc.)
  • Have volunteers print pictures of lost animals reported to the shelter and hang them in your animal processing rooms. This way, when an animal comes in, the technician can quickly look up to see if there is a match.

Create Partnerships—Because RTH Takes A Village

  • Partner with local fire departments, police departments, etc. to establish temporary holding spaces for pets. It’s not uncommon for the animal shelter to be a 30- to- 45-minute drive away from where the pet is found, and yet 75% of pets are found within their immediate neighborhood. Say a person comes home from work and finds out their pet is missing. The shelter is 30 minutes away in traffic, and is closing soon…but if the pet is located at a temporary holding facility, they can pick up their pet sooner. (At end of shift, these temporarily held pets can be transported to the shelter—but how nice if they never entered the sheltering system in the first place!)
  • Partner with a corporation that offers pet GPS systems, and promote them to your community.
  • Partner with a tracking dog program in your community.
  • Connect with neighborhood canvassing volunteer programs (Nonprofit volunteers, healthcare workers, etc. who are already working in a particular neighborhood) and provide them with a stack of weekly lost pet lists (including photos, of course) so they can pass along the flyer to their clients.
  • Train your local social workers on how to properly interact with pets they find in the home (e.g., bite prevention) but also give them easy information around how to report a found pet or a lost pet.
  • Connect with businesses like Uber, Lyft, Door Dash, and local restaurants that deliver, and provide them with flyers of found pets in the shelter. Each week, print out a new list, which restaurants and delivery persons can tape on the front of the pizza box or include in the food bag.
  • Don’t forget about developing relationships with postal carriers, solid waste workers, and sanitation crews. Typically, these folks work the same routes over and over—they know what is happening in their areas.


Invest Time & Resources In All Types of Media

  • Geo-target ads featuring pets found and brought to the shelter; target within a 5-mile radius of where pet was found.
  • Take advantage of apps and websites, including:
    FindToto.com
    Lost Dogs of America – Lost Dogs of America
    Pet FBI | Information Center for Lost and Found Pets
    PawBoost Lost and Found Pets – Find and Report Lost Pets Nationwide
    NextDoor
    Craigslist
    (Be sure to share these with your community as well.)
  • Publish safety tips for the public on your social channels. Pay particular attention to Fourth of July, Halloween, summer fun, and other times when pets often go missing, but don’t forget to make the importance of pet identification a regular part of your messaging all year round.
  • Go low-cost with an easy-to-set-up texting program. For example, a pet parent simply texts the words “ilostmypet” to 555888, and receives back a comprehensive list of shelters to check, along with action steps on how to look for their missing friend. Ideally, this would be a community-wide program that all orgs in a geographical area can share. This allows you to consolidate all your info in one place, and ensures consistency of messaging.
  • Create a Found Pets page and feature photos of found pets brought to the shelter. (Note that most older folks are on Facebook, and younger generations prefer Instagram and Snapchat.) Look at how Metro Nashville Animal Care and Control does it.
  • Host a contest for TikTok videos to recruit volunteers as Pet Detectives 
  • Celebrate routine reunifications on your social media channels. This reinforces the value of pet identification to your followers. A photo of a happy family reunion brings just as much, if not more, engagement. Don’t just tell the story about  the dog who was missing for five years—a reunion after just a few hours is pretty amazing, too!

Are you doing something special at your shelter to increase your Return to Home efforts? We’d love to hear about it! Email us at kshenar@theaawa.org or g.knepp@foundanimals.org

Check out these additional resources for boosting your Lost & Found programming:

  • ASPCApro blog about empowering your community to help find lost pets
  • Human Animal Support Services Lost Pet Reunification toolkit

Photo: Reunited! Because Charlotte was microchipped, Dallas Animal Services was able to scan her at intake and make contact with her owner, who rushed to the shelter to reclaim her.


Katherine M. Shenar brings 26 years of experience to her role as executive vice president for The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement. She has served as CEO for two animal welfare organizations and held leadership roles with four others. She frequently speaks on topics including leadership development, organization culture, coalition building, marketing communications, fundraising, and emerging trends in animal welfare. She is the author of the book Coalition Building for Animal Care Organizations, a how-to guide for animal advocates to work collaboratively in communities.

Gina Knepp is the National Shelter Engagement Director for the Michelson Found Animals Foundation and a leading expert in keeping people and their furry families together. Her primary focus is increasing the return to home rate by engaging animal sheltering organizations in finding innovative ways of locating missing pets and, more importantly, helping people not lose their pets to begin with. Gina’s background includes managing the Front Street Animal Shelter in Sacramento, California. Her experience leading a municipal, open-intake, high-volume shelter adds to her passion for helping lost animals get back home where they belong. Gina is currently on the Board of Directors of the California Animal Welfare Association and on the Executive Committee of Human Animal Support Services with American Pets Alive.


'39 Things Your Shelter Can Do Right Now to Reunite Lost Pets' has 1 comment

  1. August 5, 2021 @ 11:38 am Kimm Hunt

    What a great, comprehensive list! I particularly like the idea of enlisting youth to connect sheltered lost pets with owners in their neighborhoods. It’s a great way to recruit potential lifetime animal welfare volunteers, too.


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