How to prevent – or find – lost, stray or stolen pets  

It’s a scenario pet owners dread. Your beloved animal slips their lead, through a door or out of their hutch, then darts through an open gate or is stolen. They’re gone – and there’s no telling if you’ll see them again. 

In this article we’ll look at the steps you can take – some required by law, if you own a dog – to increase the chances of lost pets being reunited with their owners.  

We’ll share tips and insights from Anna Foreman, a practicing veterinary surgeon who’s treated hundreds of animals. And we’ll cover how pet insurance can help if you do have to call on it. 


Pet precautions: microchipping and other tagging 

Most pet owners would agree that finding their animals is the number one priority if they go missing, rather than claiming on their pet insurance for the loss.  

There are several techniques and technologies to help increase the chances of that happening. They make it easier to identify your animal and connect them back to you if they’re found, or even track their movements in some cases. 

Microchipping your pet 

Microchipping is a routine and harmless procedure that helps identify your pet if they’re lost or stolen and someone finds them.  

In the UK it’s a legal requirement to get your dog microchipped. From 10 June 2024, microchipping pet cats will also be mandatory. Though it’s not required by law, rabbits can be microchipped safely too – for reassurance in case they go missing.

Your local vet or council should be able to do or arrange this for you. There’s usually a charge, though some animal charities and rehoming centres may microchip your animals for free. 

How does microchipping work? 

Implanting a microchip is a simple procedure. A tiny chip the size of a grain of rice is inserted under the skin between your dog, cat or rabbit’s shoulder blades using a sterile needle.  

“It takes just a few minutes and isn’t harmful or stressful for the animal” explains Anna Foreman, a veterinary surgeon currently practicing in Cambridgeshire.  

“We use a slightly larger needle than for primary vaccinations, but pets often react more to their jabs because they’re cold or can sting a bit. Many don’t even notice the microchip going in.”  

Once inside, chips are easy to detect and last a lifetime. Each contains a unique identifying code that, when scanned, can be used to find the owner’s details on a national database. 

Keeping your microchip details up to date 

Once your animal has been chipped you need to register your contact details with the chip provider. Don’t assume whoever chips your pet will do this for you.  

It’s also vital to keep this information up to date. For instance, if you change your home address or phone number, let the company you’ve registered your details with know. 

“We encounter lots of chipped animals for which the owners’ details are out of date,” cautions Anna. “And the wrong information means there’s no way we can get hold of the owners to reunite them with their animal.”  

Again, it’s a legal requirement for dog owners to make sure these details are correct and current. And, aside from the risk of not seeing your animal again if they go missing, there are also potential penalties for failing to do so (read more in the ‘common questions’ section). 

Pet collars, tags and tracking technology 

Pet collars and tags are another way to make your pet easy to identify so they can be returned to you if found. Wearing one also makes it clear that your pet has a home to anyone who finds them. 

Collars and tags are a legal requirement if you own dogs. Cats can comfortably wear them too. But don’t try to put one on your rabbit as it may cause injury, skin irritation or be hazardous if chewed.  

In recent years, some owners have added Bluetooth and GPS tracking devices such as a Tile or Apple AirTag to pets’ collars. These enable the animals’ movements to be tracked on a smartphone, in either a local or much wider area depending on the technology the tracker uses.  

Collars and tags shouldn’t be a substitute for microchipping, as they can fall off or be removed. There’s also a small choking risk to cats if they get caught – for instance on branches – but incidences of this are rare. 


What to do if your pet goes missing 

Even with the best precautions pets can go missing, either of their own accord or at the hands of thieves. If that happens, following the general steps in this section may help you locate them.  

Dogs, cats and rabbits all differ in temperament and behaviours, though, so you’ll find more specific guidance for each in our ‘common questions’ section later.   

Search nearby first 

  • Check nooks, crannies, corners and their favourite places both inside and outside your home. They may have tucked themselves away somewhere closer than you think, so keep your search radius small to start with  
  • Tell your neighbours, especially those who border your property. Ask them to search their gardens, sheds, garages, even indoors, in case your animal has crept somewhere they shouldn’t. And ask them to keep their eyes out for your pet and help spread the word 
  • Check near to your previous home, if you’ve recently moved and your old place is nearby. Some animals may find their way back to previous places they’re familiar with  

Contact the experts 

  • Ring around all local vets, animal rescue and rehoming centres. It’s possible your pet may have been brought in and, if not, you can ask them to be on the lookout. Don’t give up if there’s no news at first – keep checking and visit rescue centres in person at least once if you can 
  • Inform your local animal warden, as they’re the person most likely to be informed if your pet is found. If you own a dog, it’s especially important they’re aware your pet is missing 
  • Contact the database company for your pet’s microchip. Make sure the details they hold for you are up to date so that you can be contacted if a vet, rescue centre or animal warden finds your pet and scans their chip 

Spread the word 

  • Put up, hand out and post flyers or posters with clear details of your pet, what they look like, how they behave, and how to get hold of you if someone spots them 
  • Post on social media, including in local community groups and pages. They can help drive awareness and encourage lots of people around you to keep their eyes out for your pet 
  • Share details of your animal on missing pet websites, which can help broaden the search for your missing animal beyond your immediate location 

If you know or believe your pet has been stolen, contact the police as soon as possible. Then follow the same steps described here to make sure all bases are covered. 

Veterinary surgeon Anna Foreman with one of her dogs, Cleo (Image: Anna Foreman)

If someone finds your pet 

“One of the most important things to consider if your pet has been found is their character and how they’ll likely  behave in their current situation.” Anna (pictured) explains. “all animals behave differently, and some won’t respond well to people chasing after and trying to catch them.”  

Reactions can vary from fright, where the animal freezes, to fight, where they attack out of fear, to flight, where they simply run away. Think about how your animal might respond and try to tailor your approach to retrieving it accordingly. 

“For instance, your cat might have been spotted but won’t respond well to strangers or being chased,” says Anna. “It might respond better to food being left by the back door to coax it back. Or gently herding it in the direction of home.” 


How can pet insurance help? 

Ideally, you won’t need to call on pet insurance if your dog, cat or rabbit goes missing. The ideal outcome all round is that your animal returns of its own accord or you find them safe and well, so they’re back home quickly without any further bother.  

Sadly, it’s not always as simple as that with pets and, if your search has so far come up short, it can be reassuring to know that pet insurance is there to have your back.  

Here are some of the ways that having cover in place could help:  

  • If your dog, cat or rabbit goes missing – on its own or at the hands of a thief – pet insurance may be able to help spread the word about your loss
  • If your pet has been stolen, pet insurance may also be able to contribute a reward for any information that leads to it being found  
  • In the sad event that your animal isn’t found alive or at all, your pet insurance may also compensate you for its market value  

Make sure you have a level of cover and support that will give you the best chance of finding a lost or stolen pet. And remember that dogs must be microchipped for dog insurance cover to count.  


Key takeaways 

  • Microchip your dogs, cats or rabbits and keep your details up to date in case they go missing 
  • Make sure you have pet insurance in case your animal is lost, stolen or strays 
  • If your pet is missing, check nearby, spread the word and contact local vets and animal centres  
  • If you think your animal may have been stolen, inform the police immediately 

Taking these precautions in advance and these steps will help increase your odds of a happy reunion for you and beloved pets in the event they’re lost.