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Recovering a Panicked Pet

By Kat Albrecht and Jim Branson, Missing Pet Partnership

© 2012 Missing Pet Partnership

Japanese Translation (PDF) Translated by Kay Shibuya

Fireworks, thunder, and earthquakes (and aftershocks) will terrify dogs and cats. In general, when panicked and in the "fight or flight" mode dogs will run and cats will look to hide (in silence). Here are some differences between the two species and how you should search for dogs and cats that are missing after a disaster, thunder storm, or episode of fireworks (like 4th of July fireworks here in the USA).

Panicked Cats

Cats are very different from dogs when panicked. They are territorial and when panicked they immediately look to hide. Hiding in silence is their only protective measure from predators. While cats may bolt in fear and end up "displaced" in an unfamiliar area (like a few houses down where they've never been before), they will often be hidden within their own territory. We've seen cases in disasters like tornados or hurricanes where the house / building was destroyed and yet the cat survived and stayed concealed for days, sometimes weeks! In one case following 4th of July fireworks a cat was found inside a neighbor’s bedroom closet (apparently he bolted into their house through an open door). We’ve also seen cases after fireworks where a cat, panicked due to the sudden booming noises, bolted into a neighbor’s garage or was found hiding under a neighbor’s deck for 4 to 5 days. Panicked cats hide in silence, often within a short distance of their normal territory (within a 5-house radius of their home) so just because you don't see or hear your cat DOES NOT mean he or she is not right there, hiding in fear from the loud noises that occurred (fireworks, crashing of items in an earthquake, etc.) If you have humane traps, use them to attempt to capture your cat. If not, place small amounts of cat food (and water) and hopefully you'll eventually be able to determine where the cat is hiding. See our Displaced Cat page for more details.

Panicked Dogs

When experiencing the terror of an earthquake or loud fireworks, some dogs may look for a hiding place so make certain to search in potential hiding places like under a vehicle or inside a garage or open building. Dogs can also become trapped in rubble in an earthquake but usually that is if the building collapse on them. If they were fenced or were able to escape from a building, they will most likely run and may be found a distance from home. Many dogs will be so terrified from the sound of fireworks or an earthquake that they will not even come to their owners! While some dogs will ultimately calm down and then approach people, other dogs will continue to run from everyone. In many cases, people have tried to call the dog as they looked directly at the dog and walked towards it, an action that is dominate and frightening to a dog that is in the "fight or flight" mode.

Do NOT Call a Panicked Dog!

One of the worst things that you can do is CALL a stray dog or panicked dog! That's because if too many people have already tried to capture the dog, calling him becomes a "trigger" that can cause him to automatically take off in fear when anyone, including his owner, calls him. Instead, make some type of other noise like clearing your throat or fake a sneeze to alert the dog to your presence. Then look away, which is a submissive gesture. You can even fake like you're eating food on the ground, and we suggest that you have a baggie of smelly treats like pieces of hotdog or liver treats. Sit down on the ground, or even lay flat on your back and pat your chest. Do anything other than staring straight at your dog while walking towards him! One of our volunteers captured a tiny terrier that ran from her when she called him but he came wiggling up to her once she laid flat on her back and patted her chest. Another of our volunteers captured a panicked dog by getting out of the car with a Frisbee and started tossed it back and forth with the dog owner as they both just ignored the dog. WHEN YOU FIXATE ALL OF YOUR ATTENTION ON YOUR DOG AND THAT DOG IS IN A "FIGHT OR FLIGHT" MODE, HE WILL BECOME EVEN MORE TERRIFIED THAT YOU ARE TRYING TO CATCH HIM! So work to get his attention and then do something with food as you sit or lay down flat and work to attract him to come to you.

You should also know that when dogs are in a full fight or flight mode and their adrenaline is flowing, the olfactory section of their brain closes down. That's why sometimes when you try to feed a hotdog to a panicked dog it won't eat it. So sometimes the food will work, sometimes it won't. It depends on the dog and what level of panic he is in. Also, some dogs will immediately recognize their owner by their scent but other dogs won't. Kat recently blogged about why you should NEVER call a panicked dog.

Posters, Cameras, and Traps

One effective method that Missing Pet Partnership suggests is to use the giant, florescent poster boards to help generate leads. When someone calls you and says they believe they saw your dog, you should respond out there and see if you can find your dog. If your dog is not in the immediate area but you find a wooded area or some place that the dog might return to, you set out a bucket of water and a plate of food (carry these in your car, along with a lead). You can also leave a blanket or towel with your scent (just by rubbing it you will leave your scent on the towel) and/or your dog's scent. If available, you can then use a digital wildlife camera at the feeding station. That way, when you come back the next day and the food is gone you can determine whether the food was eaten by wildlife or by your dog. From there, you can stake the location out or set a baited humane dog trap. MPP founder Kat Albrecht blogged about a case where a panicked dog named Otto was recovered by using a wildlife camera followed by a humane dog trap. You can read that blog at http://katalbrecht.com/blog/?p=132.

Magnet Dogs

Missing Pet Partnership successfully recovered a Bernese Mt. Dog named Sophie in 2008 that evaded capture for 7 weeks. This story is found on our web site at http://www.missingpetpartnership.org/seattlepethunters-sophie.php. Finally, if you have a second dog who your missing dog is familiar and friendly with, take that dog with you but keep him on a long leash. If you come across your panicked lost dog, it is very possible that you can use your friendly happy dog to attract and capture the panicked dog. Missing Pet Partnership has used this technique of a "magnet dog" along with a device called a "Snappy Snare" to capture panicked dogs. You can read about one of these cases where we caught a dog named MoMo with a magnet dog and Snappy Snare at http://katalbrecht.com/blog/?p=376 and another capture of a dog named Mack http://katalbrecht.com/blog/?p=936. We HIGHLY recommend that you read all of these cases to learn more about panicked dog behaviors.


Getting the word out to citizens and rescuers in the area that your dog or cat is lost is critical. Missing Pet Partnership's web site has great instructions on how to create large, neon REWARD LOST DOG or REWARD LOST CAT posters. The size of the poster and neon color capture the attention of people who may not notice smaller (letter-size) flyers. To see photographs and read instructions on how to create posters that have proven successful in recovering lost pets visit http://www.missingpetpartnership.org/recovery-posters.php. In some cases, you might even want to stand on a street corner at a busy intersection holding up large neon posters to capture the attention of people and spread the word that your dog is lost. This technique is called an "Intersection Alert" and you can read about how they work at this page http://www.missingpetpartnership.org/recovery-intersection.php and check out Kat Albrecht's blog for the story of Tabu at http://katalbrecht.com/blog/?p=208.

The level of assistance and the type of equipment that you have available to you during a disaster or after 4th of July fireworks will ultimately determine how difficult it will be to recover a dog or cat. But probably the most important tool that you will need is a sense of hope and a positive outlook. Physically, your dog or cat is out there somewhere. If you understand how lost pets behave and how to search for them, you'll increase your chances of bringing them back home.

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