Text Size: 

So You Found a Stray... Now What?


This feature first appeared in our February 2016 issue.

Chances are, you’ve come across a stray cat or dog at some point—and you’re likely to again. Unfortunately, pets get lost, pets are abandoned and they are often left alone to figure out how to survive. Like many of us who already have pets, you may not have the option of adding another pet to your family. So what to do?

I’ve rescued my fair share of strays, and I’ve talked with some folks in the know to round up some tips for handling the situation, whether a cat comes begging at your door or you find a dog roaming the streets.

Consider Safety First

A few months ago, I saw a dog on the side of the road. I stopped, but when I got out of the car, he bolted into the street. Thankfully, he made it safely across, but I realized that even though I had good intentions, I had made the wrong move. I had put the dog, other drivers and myself in danger.

Lauren Bluestone, Director of Metro Animal Care and Control (MACC), agrees. “Every animal is different and every person is different,” she says, “but from the start, it’s about safety first.”

In other words: are you on a quiet, low-traffic side road where you can attempt to safely encourage the pup into your car? Go for it. But if you’re on a busy highway, it may be safer to call the nearest animal control shelter or the police. They’re better equipped with the tools and training to safely capture the animal.

Of course, we have all experienced placing a call to animal control and never receiving a response—or receiving one too late. How you handle the situation is your personal call, but we highly suggest keeping safety the first priority. If you attempt to catch a dog on the busy highway, you may instead scare him into running out into traffic. Take a moment to consider that, if left alone, he may make it to a safer area where someone else may be in a better position to rescue him.

Some well-intended rescuers have also been hit by traffic when attempting to rescue a dog on a busy roadway. While stopping to help a stray is admirable and important work, you cannot be of help to this pet or any others if you are killed in the process. That is why it’s vital that you think the situation through carefully and logically, rather than reacting on sheer emotion and adrenaline.  Not every situation will be safe for you or the pet.

It’s also worth mentioning that many outdoor cats are feral—meaning that they are wild-born and free-roaming, and are not domesticated or adoptable. If a kitty seems lost and is begging at your door and/or wearing a collar, he may very well be missing his family. But if a stray cat runs from you, he may very well be a feral who is not in need of rescue, but rather trap-neuter-return. If you think a cat is feral and you notice a slanted ear tip, that means he or she has already been trapped and neutered or spayed. If there is no ear tip, you may want to contact a local resource like Pet Community Center for more information on how to trap and neuter.

Rescuing a Pet

Whether you see a lost or stray animal on a road or sidewalk, or one wanders into your yard, you should only attempt to catch her if all conditions seem safe. If you’re on a safe, quiet road, don’t panic or make quick movements. Instead, check your rearview mirror to see if it’s safe to brake. Pull completely off the road and turn on your hazard lights.

When exiting your vehicle, be sure to watch for any traffic and try to position yourself in a way that if the pet runs, he does so away from the road. Remember that a stray pet is out of his element, and there’s a chance you could be bitten or scratched during rescue. It can help to have a slip lead in hand for dogs, with the neck loop nice and bog, making it easier to toss over his head once you are close enough.

According to Shea Davis, Shelter Supervisor of Rutherford County PAWS, you should be very careful when approaching an unknown animal. “A lot of stressors can cause unpredictable behaviors,” she explains. “Take it slow and be diligent.”

She suggests grabbing some irresistible treats or any food bits you have on hand. (It’s a great idea to carry these as well as a slip leash, crate and blankets in your car if you are able.) She says, “Make yourself seem as small as you can [hunch down in a ball] and turn your side toward the animal. If you approach a stray animal, they’ll most likely run away, so attempt to lure them in by tossing treats to them.” Use a calm, soothing voice to reassure the animal.

If you are able to gain the pet’s trust, do your best to get her to safety and make her as comfortable as possible. Some dogs will jump right into an open car door. Others may have to be gently lifted or coaxed with treats. Of course, if a dog is growling or a pet is reacting in fear and/or aggression, it’s best to call in a professional for your own safety.

Once you get the animal home, decide how to keep him safe and comfortable for the time being. Keep him away from other pets in a quiet, secure place like an extra bathroom, bedroom or a garage.

Laura Chavarria, Director of Williamson County Animal Control (WCAC), reminds that once you have taken an animal into your possession, it is your responsibility to properly care for that animal. “State law requires that you provide food, water, shelter and vet care,” she says. “If it’s cold out, put a space heater in the garage, or leave the patio door open and set them up with a warm bed, food and water.”

If you’re unable to provide the animal with the care she needs, Laura says that your county’s animal control or an emergency vet can take responsibility for their welfare.

The Search for a Family

Once the animal is safe and comfortable, it’s time to try and find his family. Never assume that a pet is homeless, even if he looks dirty or skinny. Once lost, a beloved family pet can easily go from well-groomed and healthy to dirty, matted and thin after roaming the streets for a while. Think about if your own pet were to go missing—you’d want someone to try and find you no matter what, and it’s important that we do the same!

Your first step is to check for any identification, such as an ID tag or rabies tag that may indicate to whom the pet belongs. If she doesn’t have that, take her to the nearest vet clinic to be scanned for a microchip.  

If the pet has no identification, call your local animal control, even if you plan on fostering or keeping the animal otherwise. They can create a “found” report and match your stray’s description with a report placed by families looking for their pet. It’s also a good idea to report the found pet to any local vet clinics.

“I’ve seen a lot of people rescue an animal on their own, and the pet guardian comes a month later and claims the person stole that dog,” Laura warns. “Calling animal control puts the finder at ease knowing they can hold onto the animal and that they went through the proper channel.”

Next comes placing signs and ads online. Placing a poster near where you found the animal, as well as around the area, can be helpful if a family is looking for her.  

“I would put ‘FOUND DOG’, your phone number and the area in which you found the animal on it,” suggests Shea. “That would be the only information I would give. You want the owner to tell you what kind of animal you have. At that point it makes it a lot easier to determine if they’re really the true pet guardian.”

In other words, the potential guardian should be able to tell you the pet’s breed, age, markings, sex and other information. They should also be able to produce vet records or a photo of them with the pet as proof.

You’ll also want to put the same basic (but not too detailed) information on social media, Craigslist and through your local newspaper. There are lost and found Facebook pages for many counties and cities, as well as lost and found websites like and

“People are very tech savvy and online is usually the first place they look,” says Chavarria. In fact, animals are reunited with their families every day thanks to Facebook alone!

Keep in mind that Tennessee state law requires an animal to be held for three days and that you must prove you have exhausted all efforts to find the animal’s family. If you’re unable to locate the original pet guardians after three days, you can legally move on to the next step. However, it’s best to continue searching for a family for as long as you are able. After all, many pets are only reunited after a week or two of searching—so it’s best to give the pet every possible chance at getting home again.

Solutions for a Homeless Pet

In a best-case scenario, you have done all of the above and you have found the pet’s family. If you have not, and you believe you have a homeless or abandoned pet on your hands, it’s time to move to Plan B.

The most desirable option is to get the pet placed with a local, no-kill rescue group who relies on foster homes. The problem is that most of these stay full at all times! Offering to foster the pet may increase your chances that a rescue group can work with you to help find a home for the pet.

Keep in mind, however, that fostering a pet can be a short or long-term commitment. For example, the average time a dog spends in Agape Animal Rescue is forty days, but it can take up to a year to place a dog in her forever home.

If you’re prepared to care for a dog temporarily, local rescue groups can better assist you in finding a home. “When our program is full and someone says they’re willing to foster the dog they found, we get excited because we can say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no, we can’t help you’,” says Tanya Willis, Executive Director of Agape. In this case, the rescue group assumes legal guardianship of the pet and provides veterinary care and food. They will also screen potential adopters and select the home that best matches the pet. All you need to do is provide the home, the care and the love! If you’re unable to foster the animal, try asking your own social network to see if anyone has room to foster the pet in order to get him into the rescue group.

If you are not able to foster, find a foster or get a local rescue group to work with you, your next step is to contact area shelters. Yes, it’s true that some animal advocates frown upon taking any animal to a shelter. But when faced with the decision to let a dog starve and die on the streets, or give him a chance at adoption, a shelter provides a chance at life at love. And most shelters are not the dreary places some like to think they are—we’re lucky to have some incredible ones here in Middle Tennessee!

Keep in mind that privately run shelters, such as Nashville Humane Association or New Leash On Life, can turn animals away when they are full. They operate like private rescue groups, but with a shelter space. If you are not able to get the animal into one of these right away, you can ask to be put on the wait list, which sometimes is only a few days.

If that option fails, your final option is to take the pet to your county’s animal control shelter—such as Nashville Metro Animal Care & Control, Rutherford County PAWS or Williamson County Animal Center. These are government-run shelters that cannot refuse to take in pets, so you are guaranteed placement. However, that also means that they may have to euthanize animals that are not adopted within a certain timeframe, for lack of shelter space. Fortunately, our local animal control shelters have worked hard in recent years to reduce euthanasia numbers and to launch progressive adoption programs!

At any shelter, whether privately owned or county-operated, the pet will typically receive a vet exam, vaccines, medical care, spay or neuter and be placed for adoption as long as they are medically and behaviorally sound.

While some animal lovers fear taking a pet to a shelter because of the risk of euthanasia, it is often the only option when all of the above fails. Worst case, a gentle euthanasia offers a kinder passing than slowly starving, freezing to death or being hit by traffic while running at large. And in the case of pit bulls, there is always the risk that an abuser or dog fighter will pick the dog up if you don’t.

Best case, the shelter gives the pet a place to be showcased for adoption, and where he can finally find a loving forever home! It is important to remember that while animal control shelters do euthanize when necessary (since by law they must take in all pets and therefore run out of cage space), many of their shelter pets are adopted into loving homes. What’s more, shelters like MACC and WCAC go above and beyond to find loving homes for their pets through incredible photography programs (see page 18) and more.

So, keep in mind that taking a pet to animal control is not a death sentence as many would have you believe—and that you are not a monster for doing so. To the contrary, you are a compassionate human being trying to do the very best you can for an animal in need! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

As Laura says of her work at WCAC, “Our goal is to reunite every stray animal with his or her guardian. [When that’s not possible], our next job is to find their forever home.”

We hope that every stray you encounter has a loving family waiting for them, but if he doesn’t, we hope that some of these tips may help you along the process and help a pet in need find home.

RESCUE + SHELTER RESOURCES: You will find a listing of local shelters and animal control agencies here, where you’ll also find listings for many foster-based animal rescue groups.

Rebekah Olsen lives in Southaven, Mississippi. with her husband, Matt, and their Cane Corso, Midas. She is a pet and lifestyle freelance writer and blogger and a regular contributor to Nashville Paw. You can find her at



comments powered by Disqus