How to Approach a Stray Animal and Stay Safe

Puppy being held over the shoulder of a woman. - How to Approach a Stray Animal and Stay Safe
If you ever want to help a stray animal, here are some tips for how to do that safely.

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Sadly, we’ve all encountered a homeless dog or cat, and all too often they’re hungry, scared, or possibly even sick or injured. You want to help, but you’re not sure how to go about it without getting hurt or scaring the animal out into a busy street. 

Here are some tips for what to do the next time you encounter a stray animal.

Capture and Containment

If you can capture and contain the animal safely, go for it. On the other hand, if the animal is aggressive or may harm itself trying to get away from you, don’t. Call your local animal control office immediately. Be prepared to provide the exact location where you last saw the animal.

If possible, snap a picture of the dog or cat with your phone. That way, you can post the picture and location of the pet on local lost pet groups, which may help it get reunited with its owner.

Approach the animal very slowly, using a soft, gentle voice. Stay calm. Gaining the animal’s trust will probably take some time and patience. Don’t try to walk right up to a stray or try to chase it down. Instead, get low to the ground and try to coax it to you with a calm voice and some food or a treat; food is an excellent motivator for getting a stray animal to trust you.

Once the animal trusts you enough to come close, you can try to capture it.

If possible, dogs should be secured in a fenced yard or with a leash. Consider keeping a loop leash in your car in case you ever need it. Cats aren’t likely to cooperate with being held, so wrapping it in a towel or blanket may help you avoid getting scratched. But you’ll want to get the cat into some sort of carrier or crate as quickly as possible. 

If the animal seems sick or injured, consider contacting a vet for help. Vets that offer online help can provide advice over the phone, which is especially helpful if there’s not a vet nearby. If the problem appears critical, you might want to head for the closest emergency veterinarian hospital.

What To Do Next

If you do manage to contain the animal, check to see if it’s wearing an ID tag with its owner’s contact information. If it is, try to contact the animal’s owner right away to reunite it with its family. 

If you can’t reach the owner right away, you may decide to hold onto the animal and keep trying. If you do, be sure to let your local animal shelter know you have the animal in case the owner is looking for it. You could also take the pet directly to the shelter and they will continue trying to reach the owner.

Pets who aren’t wearing an ID tag could be microchipped. In this case, take the animal to a local animal shelter or veterinarian to be scanned for a microchip. If the animal has a chip, they can look up the owner’s information and contact them right away.

In addition to checking for a microchip, the shelter will be able to assess the animal’s condition and offer medical care as needed. They also have the resources necessary to care for the animal until its owner is found, including providing food and shelter.

Understandably, you may be hesitant to take a stray animal to a shelter for fear it might be put to sleep. To avoid this possibility, look for a no-kill shelter in your area that works with rescues and fosters to ensure that the animal finds a home, even if an owner doesn’t come forward.

The shelter will hold onto the animal for a set amount of time and attempt to locate its owner before rehoming it. You can also request to be notified if the animal becomes available for adoption, in case you’re interested in giving the pet a forever home.

Risks and Responsibilities

As an animal lover, your first instinct might be to take the animal home with you to keep it safe until the owner can be found. Think carefully before doing so because there are several risks involved.

First, the animal may have parasites such as fleas, ticks, or worms that it could bring into your home and transmit to your own pets. Diseases like parvo are also highly contagious and life-threatening, and it’s quite likely that a stray animal isn’t up to date on its vaccines.

And, since there’s no way to know the animal’s behavior history, you could be putting your family or pets in danger. Even the sweetest dog or cat can become aggressive or territorial over food, toys, and beds or crates.

If you decide to seek veterinary care for the animal, you should also be aware that you will likely be responsible for any veterinary bills, especially if the pet’s owner isn’t located. Some vets work with area rescues and have limited funds available to help injured or sick stray animals, but you shouldn’t count on that being the case. 

If you don’t want to risk being held responsible for a stray animal’s medical bills, you can still help by contacting your local animal control department or a nearby shelter. In many cases, they will even be able to come and pick up the stray pet so you don’t have to transport it yourself. 

Some Final Advice

Whether you decide to hold onto the animal yourself or take it to a shelter, there are things you can do to help reunite the pet with its family. Try contacting local veterinarians to see if anyone is looking for an animal that matches the description. And, of course, sharing the photo on local social media is one of the fastest ways to get the word out.

Helping a stray animal is a wonderful thing, as long as you do it the right way!

Nicole McCray

Nicole McCray

Nicole is a die-hard animal lover, former vet technician, and mom to her two rescue pups. She grew up living and working at her family's boarding facility. She loves using her writing talents to share her insight in the hopes that she can help other pet parents out there!

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