The importance of pet identification and what to do if you lose (or find) a pet

A dog with a tilted head and ID tag

What’s the first thing you’d do if your pet went missing? Aside from panic and cry, what immediate actions would you take to locate them? Have you taken the right steps to reduce the risk of losing your pet forever?

While you may not think you could ever lose your pet, in reality, it happens more often than you’d think — even to the most responsible of pet parents.

How often exactly? It’s estimated that one in three pets will go missing in their lifetime. That’s right — one in three. This equals about 10 million missing pets each year in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of those pets won’t make it home.

By knowing and taking the right steps – both proactively and reactively – you can help reduce those odds and help ensure a happy reunion with your lost pet.

A grey cat wearing a collar and ID tag

What’s the best way to prevent your pet from being lost forever?

First and foremost, make sure your pet is wearing proper, visible identification at all times — even indoors. Every dog and cat adopted from Animal Humane Society goes home with a free collar and ID tag because we believe using a collar and ID tag (with a current phone number and address, of course) is the most effective way to be reunited with your pet, and quickly.

In the event your pet escapes and loses their collar or tag, a microchip serves as a good backup plan. Just ensure their microchip is registered and kept up to date (more on that below). If your pet isn’t microchipped, you can schedule an appointment at one of our vet centers to have one implanted.

Have an escape artist on your hands? There are plenty of pet GPS trackers on the market, and some can even alert you when your pet leaves a specified safe zone. But devices like this require batteries or charging, which renders them useless if they die — making them supplemental, not a replacement for an ID tag or microchip.

What’s a microchip and how does it work?

We asked pet parents in our community what they know about microchips. While most were familiar with the basics of microchipping, not everyone could articulate exactly how microchips work to reunite lost pets and their owners.

Video URL

When it comes to understanding what a microchip is, it’s worth clarifying what it’s not. A microchip is not a GPS tracking device — it can’t guide you to your pet’s location.

Rather, a microchip is a radio-frequency identifier, about the size of a grain of rice, that’s placed beneath your pet’s skin. When scanned by a vet, shelter, or some police stations, the microchip transmits a unique ID number to the reader.

That said, a microchip is only effective if it’s registered and the contact information is correct and up to date. Meaning, if you’ve never registered your pet’s microchip, or you’ve moved and neglected to update your registration, it unfortunately won’t do you — or your pet — any good. It’s also important to note that a microchip may move around a pet’s body once it’s been implanted (making it difficult to find and scan). In super rare occurrences, they can even fall out.

While microchips serve an important purpose, they’re often not enough on their own. They work best in partnership with other pet identification methods.

What should you do if your pet goes missing?

If the unexpected should happen and your pet goes missing, don’t go it alone. Your best bet is to leverage your community. Here are a few steps to take right away:

Find more helpful tips for finding your lost pet.

We love a good reunion!

Shiloh had been missing for seven years before his owner, Ashley, received a surprise call from AHS. Watch their heartfelt reunion.

What if you find a lost or stray animal?

Approximately 50% of pet parents report having found a lost animal. If you find a stray animal, first check for identification. If there’s no ID tag, take them to a veterinary office or pet retailer like Petco or PetSmart to be scanned for a microchip. You can also use each of the resources listed above, including Petco Love Lost, to report a found animal. Read more tips on what to do if you find a stray.

If you’re unable to locate the animal’s family, you can bring them to any of our three shelter locations. Contact our Pet Helpline to schedule an appointment.

Sign up for AHS email

If you found this article helpful and want more information about pet parenting, sign up for email from AHS. You'll receive behavior tips, stories about adorable, adoptable animals, and more!