It’s a sad statistic. Nationwide, only about 2 percent of cats who go missing get reunited with their owners. It’s vital to return cats to their homes. Otherwise, their chances of survival are poor when they land in shelters because many lack the resources to care for all the cats they take in.

Alley Cat Allies has worked with shelter officials for years on approaches to keep cats out of shelters. By implementing a few key practices, we know that animal shelters can improve their return-to-owner (RTO) rate for cats and make sure missing companion animals are reclaimed.  

Keep Cats Out of the Shelter

Most cats who go missing are found close to home. According to a 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, a majority–more than 70 percent–of cats are found in their neighborhood or return home on their own, and only 7 percent are found through a call or visit to the shelter. Brigid Wasson, president of Missing Pet Partnership, a nonprofit that helps people find their lost animals, says it’s best to leave cats alone when you see them outside.  

“Most cats are not lost. In any case, taking them to the shelter, we know definitively, does not help them get back home,” says Wasson. 

If people bring in a supposedly lost, but healthy, cat, ask if they’d be willing to care for the cat and help find its owner. If possible, offer to give them supplies. They can also help in other ways, such as making posters to put up in the neighborhood where the cat was found, talking to neighbors, and speaking with mail carriers and delivery drivers. 

“We do encourage everyone who brings in a stray to put up flyers in the area,” says Mickey Zeldes, supervisor of Rohnert Park Animal Services in California, which has increased its RTO rate for cats from 16 percent in 2016 to 22 percent in 2017. Zeldes credits social media posts and free offers of microchips and spay/neuter services over the past few years for the improved RTO rate. “Most people … want to help the animal get home.” 

Community Outreach

Some animal shelters and services offer free ID tags and collars, and free or discounted microchips to the community. A study in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association found that cats with microchips were 20 times more likely to be reunited with their owners than those without microchips. Alley Cat Allies’ Plan to Scan campaign encourages microchipping pets and scanning lost pets, or community cats, for microchips.    

Rohnert Park Animal Services offers free microchips to any pet in its jurisdiction, and also ensures every cat who leaves the shelter gets a free microchip, ID tag, and spay or neuter surgery. It also registers the microchip for the owner, because a microchip that’s not registered is useless, says Zeldes.  

“Don’t be afraid to offer free microchips,” says Zeldes. “People think it will cost a fortune. But every day an animal stays in your shelter costs you money.”  

List resources on your website about how to find missing pets (like hanging signs or searching around the neighborhood), and share success stories of cats being reunited with owners. Tap volunteers to monitor social media for missing and found pets, offer people advice, and even physically help people search for pets and hang up signs if they need it. 

Harness the Power of Social Media

For every lost cat who is brought in, Alley Cat Allies says it’s important to note the address or intersection where the cat was picked up and file a missing pet report. Take clear pictures of the cat that can be posted on your website on a “Found Pets” page and social media. Alley Cat Allies’ quick identification guide can help shelters describe and identify cats.   

At Rohnert Park Animal Services, every stray animal gets posted on Facebook and Nextdoor, a social networking site for neighborhoods, with a photo, description of the animal, where it was found, and the date it came in. The response has been “amazing,” says Zeldes. There have been cases when owners had three neighbors knocking on their door to notify them that their cat was at the shelter after seeing it online, she says.