What to do if we find a stray animal? With San Francisco Animal Care and Control

Finding a stray animal can be a stressful thing. The animal might be scared, lost, hungry, cold, or injured. Knowing what to do could help this stray animal survive and if it is someone’s beloved pet, get the animal home. In this video, Michelle Barrera, Pet Camp’s Operation Manager, and perhaps the next Barbara Walters, interviews San Francisco Animal Care and Control Executive Director, Virginia Donohue, to learn what you should do when confronted with the following:

  • What to do if you find a stray dog.
  • What to do if you find a stray cat.
  • Why you should not keep a stray dog or cat in your home and should bring it to ACC.
  • When to take a stray kitten to ACC and when to leave it alone.
  • Why there are more strays at some times of the year than other times.
  • What to do if you see an injured or sick dog or cat.

How long have you been with the organization? What is the SF ACC mission? What sets you apart from other animal care entities in San Francisco?
I have been with SF ACC for 6 years. Our mission is to care for all animals, domestic and wild. What sets us apart is that we’re the only organization with animal control officers, who are on duty from 6 a.m. to midnight to respond to animal emergencies. We’re where you go to look for your lost pets. We’re the only organization in the city that has all animals. Here you can adopt dogs and cats but also rabbits, guinea pigs, reptiles, birds, anything you can imagine that’s domestic and available for adoption.
What should we do if we find a stray dog?
If you encounter a stray dog and it seems safe to approach the dog (the dog isn’t running into the street, doesn’t seem aggressive or fearful), see if you can find identifying information on their collar. If you’re able to get it in your vehicle, bring it over here and we will match the dog up with its owner. Most of the dogs who come here, we’re able to find their owners and send them home. If the information isn’t on their collar, we have scanners to scan for microchips and research to see if we can find who shipped the animal and who owns the animal.

On our new licences, there is a QR code on the back. If it’s a new license and it says SF Animal Care and Control on it, you can scan it and, if the owner has put in identifying information, you could also just pop it back to the owner’s house and you don’t even need to come here. A lot of times, it’s somebody who lives around the corner and doesn’t know the dog got out.

What you should not do is hold on to the animal and try to find the owner yourself if it’s not immediately obvious. Because somebody who’s lost their dog is frantic, they’re calling here, they’re looking everywhere, they’re not going to know that you have their dog.
What should we do if we find a stray cat?
If you find a stray cat, it’s way more complicated. The dogs are just straight forward, you just bring them here and you’re good. We don’t pick up any stray cats unless they are injured or in distress. Because research shows that most cats are a block and a half from their houses. And a lot of people have outdoor cats. I think you should keep your cat in your house, but a lot of people don’t and let the cat out, the cat wanders the neighborhood, knows where it is and isn’t actually lost. Whereas, if you pick up the cat and bring it to us or if we pick up the cat, the cat really is then lost. Cats don’t have collars, cats should have microchips but a lot of them don’t. Then the cat and its family are permanently separated. So we don’t do it anymore. We used to do it, all animal controllers used to do it, but research shows that it’s not in the cat’s best interest. But again, if the cat’s injured, not eating or in distress in some way, give the cat to us.
What should we do if we find a stray kitten?
Kittens are an entirely different story. We have a lot of feral cats in the city and those give birth every spring. Last year, we took in about 800 kittens who were found outside. We brought them in, took care of them, fed them, got them spayed and neutered, and adopted.

When you’re looking at a group of kittens, you want to make sure that they are really abandoned. Most of the time, the mom is still there, and if she is, the worst thing you can do is separate the kittens from their mom. So you want to wait until you can bring in the entire family once the kittens are weaned (about 4 weeks old), then they can come here.

If you wait for 24 hours and the mom does not come back, then maybe the kittens are abandoned and you should call us. We can tell you what to do or we can send an officer out. You can care for them at home or you can bring them to us and we’ll find somebody to care for them.
Do you always need to surrender a stray animal to SF ACC? Are there rules and regulations?
The best thing to do is to bring the stray animal here because this is where people are trained to look for their lost pet. When you bring it here and you’re interested in adopting an animal, you just tell us at the desk and say “if you don’t find the owner, can I adopt this animal?”. As long as we feel that the animal meets our medical and behavior criteria, as soon as the stray period is up (we have to hold for five days) we’ll give you a call and say come on down, take this dog.
Is there a seasonality to stray animals?
Yes. Kitten season, for example, generally starts in April and goes into October. We see a big mass of kittens that come in and are ready around June and a second high in the beginning of August. So from June probably until October, you’ll be able to adopt a kitten here continuously. Right now, we have 100 kittens in the shelter and have a 100 more in foster that are just growing. Great time of the year to get a kitten.

For wildlife early in the spring that’s when we have birds falling out of trees and all of the exciting developments that we don’t have later in the year.
What should we do if we find an injured or sick animal aside from a dog or cat?
If you find any wild life that you feel is sick or injured, by all means, give us a call and we’ll come out. One of the most common situations we see is raccoons that get stuck in things, it happens all year long. Don’t try to get the raccoon out, call us, we’ll come out and help figure it out. Because they’re too agitated to get out of the hole that they’re in.

If you find a baby bird, that requires a little more finesse. Because there is a stage in the bird’s development where the bird is supposed to be on the nest. They’re testing their muscles, learning about their environment, and their parents are up in the nest watching them. But to you and I walking by, it looks like the baby bird is in distress, but the baby bird isn’t, the parents are there.

On the other hand, if a bird has no feathers, is lying there and is clearly in trouble, then you can pick it up and bring it in. If you’re in any doubt, call us and describe what you’re looking at, because sometimes what you’re doing is actually kidnapping the baby from its mom and you don’t want to do that.
Are there other places where someone could take a stray pet?
You can take a stray animal to any vet, they usually have a scanner and they’ll be able to give you the ship information. You can contact the ship manufacturer and try to track down the person yourself. It’s probably easier for you to just bring the animal here and we’ll do all of that.

If it has our new SF ACC licences, you can scan it with your phone and if the pet owner has input their information, you can deliver the animal right to its owner.
Can a person surrender a stray to the SPCA?
No, the SPCA does not accept strays. The only thing the SPCA does in that category is have a community cats programs, where if you have feral cats in your neighbourhood, you can contact them directly to get these cats spayed and neutered, you can talk to them about any feeding programs they might have, any support they might have for feral cat colony. That is the only area that they do. But no, you can’t bring in your dog or cat that you can no longer keep.
Is there more info you’d like to share about the SF ACC?
The other program or service we provide that’s distinct to this department is that we have an emergency response program. We have information for what you should do to prepare yourself for an emergency at home. If there is an emergency, for example, a fire or earthquake, we are the people who respond and take in the pets who are left homeless in that disaster.

When the wildfires are burning around California, we’re the people who join the fire department in responding to these out-of-county fires to lend those counties our support. Because we know at some point, there is going to be a disaster here and all the local governments need to work together to protect the people and their animals.
We want to thank the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control and Executive Director Virginia Donohue for their time and amazing information on this important topic.