You’re driving along and spot a lone dog wandering beside the road, or you’re relaxing at home when a strange cat yowls at your door. As an animal lover, you feel you simply have to jump in and help. This is an admirable impulse and you could even be instrumental in saving its life or reuniting it with a loving family, but how do you actually go about helping a stray animal?
Is it a stray?
First things first: you need to be sure that this is indeed a stray animal needing rescuing; you don’t want to unintentionally kidnap someone’s pet from outside their house or take a feral cat away from its colony.
There isn’t just one sign to look for; you need to take the entire picture into account.
Location: Suburban dogs tend to live in yards, while cats are generally free-roaming, so a dog wandering the road in such an area may well have slipped out of its home and a cat may just be visiting neighbours. In rural and impoverished areas, it’s normal to see dogs roaming near settlements. A domestic animal in the middle of nowhere with no people nearby is more likely to be in need of help.
Behaviour: Does the animal look relaxed and at ease, or does it look furtive and scared? Will it readily approach you? A dog that has just taken itself for a walk will likely be familiar with the area and may be ambling along, sniffing at things, looking relaxed, whereas a dog that’s lost may look desperate, afraid, or anxious; they may be running, or will move away from you or stand back as if poised to run. Cats near their homes tend to look relaxed and be out in the open, whereas feral cats or those unused to being outside may look tense, or hide or run away.
Appearance: What does the animal look like? Is it a healthy weight, well-groomed, free of fleas and ticks (could indicate that it’s just gotten out)? Or is it badly matted, mangy, emaciated, and infested with parasites (as if it’s been “on the road” a while)? Is it recently groomed? Is it a pure-bred animal (generally less likely to be out unattended)? Note that an animal in poor condition may not be homeless. For example, feral cats often have shiny coats and a good body weight because they know how to look after themselves or there are feral-cat feeders caring for them, whereas a pampered pet may quickly become shabby, particularly if it’s a long-haired animal.
Duration: This applies to animals that turn up at your home or place of work. How long has it been there with no one looking for it? Has it been coming to your house regularly but neighbours don’t know who it belongs to?
Circumstances: There are usually more strays around at certain times of year, for example, 5th of November (Bonfire Night), Diwali, New Year, thunderstorm season, puppy/kitten season, and after veldt fires and floods. If anyone has moved away from the neighbourhood and you notice an animal hanging around, it may have been left behind.
Age: Puppies and kittens shouldn’t be wandering around alone, so this could be an indicator that they need help. If you find pups or kittens, particularly if they’re very young, check the area for siblings and a mother before considering removing them. Cats and dogs leave their young in a “nest” while going off to hunt for food, and the ideal is to catch her with the babies, plus, neonates without their mother require bottle feeding – and it’s challenging to find someone prepared to do that.
Injuries/illness: Regardless of where the animal is, if it’s clearly injured, emaciated, or looks ill, it needs help. However, approaching hurt or sick animals can be dangerous, and in these cases, it’s best to contact the local animal welfare instead of attempting to pick it up yourself.
Once you’ve decided that you’ll take action, it’s important to understand that your responsibility doesn’t just end at picking the animal up. You need to report it and make a reasonable attempt to find the owner. This doesn’t mean that you yourself have to do everything – if the animal goes to a registered animal welfare organisation, it becomes their responsibility. However, if you plan to keep the animal until it’s back home, the onus is on you.
Allan Perrins, spokesperson for the Animal Welfare Society (AWS) of South Africa, in Philippi on the Cape Flats, explains that, “According to the Animal Keeping By-law, ‘A person who rescues or comes into possession of a stray animal shall report the date and time of the rescue and a description of the animal to the City within 24 hours.’ There’s no cost involved when surrendering strays to a shelter and the finder may apply to adopt the animal if no one comes forward to claim them [subject to that organisation’s procedures].”
He adds that, in the past, finders had to publicly advertise the animal as “found”, but, says Perrins, this has since fallen away; “Individuals or organisations [in Cape Town] are encouraged to make use of the City of Cape Town (CoCT) CityPetFinder database. Anyone who finds a stray animal should also log a call with the City’s Animal Control Unit.” Contact your local animal welfare or municipality to find out where to report strays in your area. Link: https://web1.capetown.gov.za/web1/LostPetsOnline/Pages/Home.aspx
Equally, says Perrins, if you’re the one who’s lost a pet, it’s your responsibility to search for it, for example, by social networking, calling shelters and vets, and putting up posters.
All too often, finders will either keep the animal themselves or rehome it straight away, usually out of a misguided belief that it needs a new home. However, says Perrins, “Finders does not equal keepers, and possession is not nine-tenths of the law.”
Although there’s a massive problem in South Africa of homeless animals that really don’t belong to anyone, there are still many loved pets whose owners are devastated that they’re lost. Imagine how that animal feels: it could be missing its family, longing to go home, but just can’t figure out how. Imagine a family, crying for their missing fur kid, desperate to have them back.
Never assume that just because an animal is out on the street, it has neglectful owners and shouldn’t be returned. There are dozens of reports of pets slipping out of the property when work is done in the house or garden, pets being in hijacked cars, pets escaping during house burglaries, pets running off after fences are blown over in storms, pets (birds) flying out of cages, pets that got out of a new home or during transportation… the list goes on.
Even if the animal is in poor condition, this doesn’t mean it has bad owners. Pets, particularly long-haired ones, can look terrible in a surprisingly short amount of time, or it may have been missing for a long time while its owners have been looking for it. There are hundreds of stories of mangy, starved or injured strays being found months or years after going missing.
As with anything in life, sometimes stuff just happens – animals end up lost, often through no fault of their owners. It’s best to be sure before jumping to conclusions and potentially depriving an animal of going home.
As much as you want to help – and as much as the animal may need it – always put your and your family’s safety first. You cannot help anyone if you’ve been injured or worse.
Scared, sick and injured animals can bite, scratch, or peck, or they may be infected with contagious diseases or infested with parasites. Keep them away from your children, and avoid placing strange animals with your own pets, particularly if they aren’t vaccinated or are very young, senior, immune-compromised, or have behavioural issues.
In addition, the area itself may be dangerous. In high-crime or remote areas, there’s a risk of mugging or hijacking. Stopping on busy roads could cause accidents, so be very careful if you pull over, and remember to put your hazards on and observe caution when getting out of your car. Approach the animal cautiously so as not to startle it and cause it to run into the road.
Lastly, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development strongly advises that people travelling in high-rabies areas don’t stop to pick up domestic or wild mammals at all, no matter how docile they look. These areas are, in particular, coastal KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, as well as Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and borders to Lesotho. Rabies is deadly and is transmitted in saliva through bites, licks, and scratches – don’t take chances.
If you’re in a potentially risky area, call the local animal welfare, giving a clear description of the animal and location. If this isn’t an option, try the local police or law enforcement.
How to help?
Call someone. Programme the local animal welfares’ numbers into your phone so that, even if you’re sitting in a bus or train or it’s unsafe to stop, you can call for help immediately. Do not just post on social media as most animal welfares can’t monitor their pages 24-7, and by the time they see your post, it may be too late.
Have a “stray kit”. If you drive, keep an old towel and slip lead in your car. Use the towel to drop over the animal, making it easier to pick them up as it calms them, makes it harder for them to bite, scratch, or flap, and you’re less likely to inadvertently hurt them. A slip lead is faster than trying to put a collar on a nervous dog. If you regularly see strays, keep strong-smelling treats on hand to lure them to you.
Keep your eye on them. If you’re not able to pick up the animal but can stay nearby (for example, you’re at work), keep an eye on it so that when the animal welfare arrives, you can show them where it is. If you can take it in, put it somewhere safe like a bathroom or clean garage where you can lock it in while you make a plan.
Check for ID. Once you’ve secured the animal, look for identification. If it has a tag with a number on it, call immediately – you may be able to reunite them straight away. If there’s no tag, take it to the vet or animal welfare to be scanned for a microchip.
Where to go. If the animal isn’t tagged or microchipped, you need to decide on the next step: whether you will take it home while you look for the owner or leave it at the vet/animal shelter. Remember, if you take it home, you cannot just keep it. Don’t feel bad if you have to leave it at the vet/shelter – not everyone can take strays home with them and, in fact, it may be better to leave it there as it makes it easier for the owner to find it, and safer for you. (If you leave it at a shelter, consider making a small donation, if you can, to cover the animal’s care.)
Get networking. Take a photo of the animal so that you can circulate your find on social media, neighbourhood groups, and to animal shelters and veterinarians, and state where you found it. You should also make a few posters and put them up in the vicinity.
Be careful. Sadly, there are charlatans who falsely claim animals that don’t belong to them, particularly pure-bred ones. When networking, don’t put all the details – leave something out and request that the claimant tell you about it (for example, if it has an unusual marking, the owner must describe this, or they must tell you what sex the animal is). Don’t just hand over the animal without proof of ownership – most people will at least have a few photos of their pet or veterinary records. Lastly, never let a stranger come to your home to fetch the animal; instead meet them somewhere like a mall or busy park. If you left the animal at the vet/shelter, you can still network it as above and advise where it is so that an owner can go and claim it.
Social media warning. Be aware that, unfortunately, social media can be a minefield when posting strays. It’s an emotive subject and people sometimes get very carried away. Prepare yourself that you may be on the receiving end of antagonistic comments from people who question why you didn’t stop to help, why you did stop but took it to a shelter, how you picked it up, etc. However, don’t let this put you off helping animals – you’ve done the best you can and made the effort to help, so ignore the “haters”.
What happens when an animal goes to the pound?
The greater majority of strays end up at “the pound”. The Municipal Pound By-law, 2019, defines this as: “A fenced-off area consisting of one or more camps and which meets the requirements of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for the keeping of animals established by the municipality and placed under the control of the pound master, for the housing and care of animals which are astray, lost or at large”.
Each city has its own arrangement, most of which involve a registered non-profit animal shelter taking in the animals. For example, says Perrins, who’s based in Cape Town, “The City of Cape Town (CoCT) no longer operates a pound. This function has been outsourced to the Cape of Good Hope (CoGH) SPCA, which provides an animal pound service on behalf of the CoCT. Anyone who finds or loses a pet must report their rescue or loss to the CoGH SPCA. All registered animal organisations, such as the Animal Welfare Society of South Africa, take in stray animals that are transferred to the CoGH SPCA on a daily basis. Stray animals may also be handed in at certain veterinary practices which collaborate with registered animal organisations such as ourselves.”
“The onus to try and locate the animal rests largely with the owner,” says Perrins, “But that does not preclude shelters from going the extra mile in helping to reunite lost pets with their owner. By way of example, we have posted some ‘lost and founds’ on our various social media platforms and even in the newspapers with tremendous success. If the animal is microchipped or has a name tag with contact details, then we make every effort to contact the owner.”
But, once they get there, what will happen? “If the animal is a small or companion animal, such as a cat or dog, then the pound is obliged to keep them for a period of no less than 10 days from date of admission,” explains Perrins. “Large animals, like horses or cows, must be kept for no less than 30 days from date of admission. If the animal is not claimed within that period, then the Pound Master* decides on the fate of the animal. If it’s very sick or badly injured, then the Pound Master has the right to humanely [euthanise] the animal with the approval of a registered veterinarian. [Aside from strays, we have] a huge homeless pet population that is exacerbated by rampant uncontrolled breeding, and estimate that several thousand animals end up in pounds every year.”
*A Pound Master is an employee of the municipality (part- or full-time) who’s appointed as such in terms of the municipal by-laws, and who manages the pound.
Tragically, says Perrins, most of these animals will never find their homes: “Very few are reunited with their families. We would conservatively estimate that only 1 in 500 pets admitted as a stray is microchipped or has any means of identification.” He emphasises that, “Microchipping, like pet sterilisation and pet registration, ought to be made mandatory. There have been several spectacular occasions where microchipped lost animals have been reunited with their owners, years after having gone missing.”
If unclaimed and the animal is eligible, it’s put up for adoption after the pound period. Sadly, the reality is that, because relatively few people choose to adopt in South Africa, and because of the sheer number of animals ending up in shelters, most of these animals will never find homes. These organisations are struggling for funding, particularly after Covid, and there simply aren’t enough resources and space to care for these animals indefinitely. As a result, the animal may eventually have to be humanely euthanised to make space for the constant stream of unwanted and homeless animals pouring into shelters around the country.
This is why it’s critical to have your pets sterilised and microchipped, to adopt from animal shelters, to support animal sterilisation campaigns which aim to reduce the homeless animal population, and to continue donating to registered organisations so that they have the funds to help more animals. And helping animals is, ultimately, what we all want to do.
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