During the recent Jesusita Fire that threatened Santa Barbara, more than 30,000 residents were forced to evacuate. In the process, it’s likely that many pets went missing. Kat Albrecht may not be Ace Ventura, but if you’re looking for an expert to help locate your lost pet, she is a former police officer who trained dogs to locate missing people, criminals, and physical evidence. She used her training techniques to teach her retired search dog, Rachel, to locate people’s lost pets.
In 1996, Albrecht was a police officer in Santa Cruz, California, where she worked as a detective, field training officer, search-and-rescue manager, and cadaver dog trainer. Several years ago, Albrecht’s bloodhound escaped from her and was lost in the woods. Albrecht successfully used another dog to track down the missing bloodhound. She then thought to herself: “Why aren’t we physically searching for people’s lost pets this way?” Albrecht experimented by training her dog Rachel, to go from searching for cadavers and guns to seeking out lost dogs and cats. In four months Rachel was trained; and so began the Missing Pet Partnership Search and Rescue for Lost Pets.
The mission of Missing Pet Partnership is to reunite lost pets with their owners/guardians. Albrecht feels that “the failure to provide lost pet services is a major contributing factor to the stray dog population, the feral cat population, and the overcrowding of animal shelters. Every pet dog and cat that is displaced from the care of its owner/guardian is a ‘stray’ that ultimately contributes to the homeless pet populations.”
Aside from using cat-detection dogs and scent-trailing dogs, Albrecht also uses behavioral profiling and other techniques to help locate lost animals. Since 2001, Albrecht has helped more than 1,800 pet owners locate their missing companions. Albrecht and her search dogs have appeared on NBC Nightly News, CNN Financial News, in People magazine and Reader’s Digest, just to name a few. I recently spoke with Albrecht and got some tips for folks searching for their lost pets.
Recovering a Lost Cat
When it comes to looking for an indoor cat, she emphasizes this tip—the investigative question to ask when an indoor-only cat escapes outdoors is: where is the cat hiding? Albrecht gave me this scenario: A cat owner comes home to find one of their screen windows pushed out and their indoor-only cat missing. They immediately go outside with a can of tuna calling for their cat. With no luck, they make flyers, post them around town, and visit their local animal shelter to search for their cat unsuccessfully.
Meanwhile, their cat is hiding in fearful silence under their neighbor’s back porch. It isn’t until the cat reaches the threshold point (usually 5-7 days later) due to hunger or thirst, that the cat will start to meow when the owner walks around with a can of tuna calling their pet’s name. The cat will be found only if the owner knows to go into their neighbor’s yard (with permission of course) to search for their kitty. Even if a cat was displaced or lost due to a natural disaster, such as a fire, the cat may still be close to home, setting up a new home and reestablishing a new territory. Albrecht has found lost indoor cats weeks after they went missing, so she urges pet owners to not lose hope. Albrecht also stresses that using a baited humane live trap as a recovery tool is a highly effective means to recover a lost cat.
The tools used to track down your lost cat are much different if you have an outdoor cat that hasn’t returned home for dinner. Albrecht says the investigative question to ask when an outdoor-access cat disappears is: what happened to the cat? She says that when an outdoor-access cat disappears, most likely something has happened to interrupt its behavior of coming home at night. Your outdoor-access cat could be trapped, injured, or sick. She says that cats are territorial and they don’t just run away from home like dogs do. So if an outdoor-access cat is lost, an aggressive, physical search of the cat’s territory should be conducted, which means looking in every conceivable hiding place in your yard and your neighbors’ yards. Albrecht also stresses the importance of asking for permission to physically search the property of your neighbors, rather than handing them a flyer and asking them if they’ve seen your cat.
Aside from tracking down indoor cats versus outdoor cats, Albrecht also considers the temperament of cats to determine how far they’ve journeyed. If you have a curious cat, they may journey farther than a xenophobic cat (cats who are afraid of everything that is new or unfamiliar). The recovery methods to find each type are different. Albrecht’s unique methods to search for cats based on personality can be found on this page of her website: missingpetpartnership.org
Albrecht believes that many fearful cats are mistaken for feral (wild) cats when brought to an animal shelter in a humane trap. The cat will most likely either be euthanized or returned to the wild in a feral cat colony, with the likelihood of recovery being slim. The best thing you can do if you are an owner of a fearful cat, is to microchip your pet. This doesn’t mean your cat won’t be mistaken for a feral, but it will increase the chances of your pet getting returned to you.
Recovering a Lost Dog
When it comes to dogs, Albrecht says they tend to run, rather than hide; and the majority of stray dogs in shelters are lost dogs, not stray dogs. Albrecht states: “It’s not as if these dogs were found living in feral dog colonies. So they are lost not stray.” She stresses that dog owners looking for their pets should also check online under “found pets” on www.craigslist.com or under “adoptable pets” on www.petfinder.com.
Just as a cat’s temperament will influence the distance it travels when it becomes lost or displaced, the same is true for dogs. A gregarious dog is more likely to go up to the first person who calls out to them. These types of dogs will most likely be found close to home. Albrecht believes that outgoing dogs are most likely “adopted” by the person who finds them because they are afraid to turn them into shelters. In her experience, Albrecht has seen well-intentioned people “rescue” a friendly dog only to find an undesirable behavior down the road and then the dog is turned into a shelter, long after the owner has stopped looking. More lost dog recovery tips based on temperament can be found on this page of Albrecht’s website: missingpetpartnership.org
Lost Pet Posters
Missing Pet Partnership has created an effective tool for recovering lost pets with a method they call the “five + five + fifty-five rule.” This rule states that at a given intersection you have five seconds and five words to get your message across to drivers who are traveling 55 miles an hour. These are the five rules for making the poster:
* Make them giant so that people driving by cannot miss them.
* Make them fluorescent so that the color attracts the attention of everyone.
* Put them at major intersections near where you lost your pet.
* Keep them brief and to the point.
* Make them with a visual image of the pet you have lost.
For an example of the type of poster Albrecht is discussing here, visit missingpetpartnership.org for more details.
Here’s a recap on Albrecht’s recovery tools for locating a lost dog or cat. For cats, look close to home, set a humane trap, make posters using the 5+5+55 rule and check your local shelter. For dogs, use the 5+5+55 rule for creating a poster, check www.craigslist.com and www.petfinder.com for found and adoptable dogs and check your local shelter.
As usual, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Albrecht suggests the following techniques to prevent your pet from becoming lost and to help your pet return home if it happens to become lost.
Microchip your pet. It’s inexpensive and typically lasts your pet’s lifetime.
* Outfit your dog and cat with a collar and id tag. Albrecht says that if your pet currently doesn’t have an id tag, create your own until you can get to the store. Take a piece of white paper and cut it to the width of your pet’s collar. Write your phone number down on that piece of paper and tape it on to the collar with clear packing tape. Albrecht tried this out with her dog as an experiment and it lasted eight months!
* Check the screens on your windows to make sure they’re secure.
* Check backyard fences to make sure they’re up to par by kicking the boards to see if they’re loose, checking for holes, etc.
Albrecht would like to see lost pet services available in every community. It’s difficult for pet owners who are not trained, and who are panicked and grieving, to search for their own lost pets, she says. Missing Pet Partnership has dedicated volunteers that help recover lost pets, however, their funds and resources are limited. They need donations, volunteers to help with fundraising, qualified board members with business skills and assistance in marketing. For more information on how you can help facilitate the development of community-based lost pet services, visit lostapet.org.
If you are interested in locating a pet detective in your area, visit missingpetpartnership.org. To learn more about Kat Albrecht and her organization Missing Pet Partnership, and to donate to her cause or become a member, visit any of her three websites: missingpetpartnership.org, petdetectivetraining.com, katalbrecht.com.
Albreccht also has two books: Dog Detectives: Train Your Dog to Find Lost Pets and The Lost Pet Chronicles: Adventures of a K-9 Cop Turned Pet Detective. Both books can be found on www.amazon.com
As with any natural disaster, the most a community can hope for is to learn to better prepare for the future. When it comes to pets, if the advice espoused by Albrecht is taken to heart, lost and displaced pets will have a better chance of becoming reunited with their owners.