STRAY: adjective \’stra \ “having escaped from a proper or intended place” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Our words are powerful. The words that we use to describe something can influence our perception of that topic and thus affect our behavior. For as long as I can remember, the animal industry has used the word “stray” to describe a loose companion animal, most often a dog or cat. Yet calling these found animals “strays” tends to mask the reality that a great majority of these caged, unclaimed dogs and cats actually have a HOME that they escaped from.
I first shared the message “Think LOST, NOT Stray!” at the 2009 Best Friends Animal Welfare Conference. I’m not sure why the message has taken so long to sink in. But thankfully there is a new push to change some of the terminology used in animal welfare. For example, some shelters are starting to use the term “RTH” or “Return to Home” instead of the “RTO” or “Return to Owner” acronym which has been used for umpteen years. This push is a result of national efforts like the Human Animal Support Services (H.A.S.S.) which are revolutionizing the animal shelter industry and the new launch of Petco Love Lost which recently has made lost pet recovery a priority by offering facial recognition software (formerly Finding Rover) to match shelters pets with lost pets.
In addition, some shelters are starting to change the terminology they use when referring to the found dogs and cats that are brought into their shelter. For example, the Tallahassee Animal Services (Tallahassee, Florida) have replaced the term “Stray” with the words “Found Pet.” Instead of telling the public to “go look at the strays” they instruct people to “go look at the found dog kennels” because their signage says “Found Dogs” and “Found Cats” instead of “Strays”. Terminology is critical–when you call a found dog a “stray” you pretty much strip away the fact that a loving family is likely connected to that animal.
The Tallahassee Animal Shelter no longer uses the term “stray” for loose animals brought into their shelter. Instead, they call them “LOST PETS” and “FOUND PETS.”
Many of the “stray dogs” and “feral cats” that come into shelters are actually LOST PETS with families who would do anything to get their companion animal back home. Before you work to give a found dog or found cat a new home, THINK LOST, NOT STRAY! Some of the primary messages the animal welfare industry has sent out in the past twenty years have promoted the words “homeless,” “abandoned,” “dumped,” and “feral.” People (typically private citizens) who have heard messages that millions of homeless animals are “dumped” every year tend to leap to the conclusion that the dog they find wandering along a road is “homeless” and that it was “abandoned” rather than considering that it could have a panicked owner trying to find their dog. Do dogs get dumped and abandoned? Certainly, but not to the level that people believe! In order for most of the loose (found) dogs in our shelters to be unwanted “dumped” or “abandoned” dogs, we’d need to have hoards of people lining up every day just to dump so many dogs. Seriously, HOW LIKELY IS THAT? Yet someone who BELIEVES that a dog was dumped is more likely to rehome that dog than make any effort to find the guardian who may have lost it.
In reality, we have many dogs escaping and becoming lost on a daily basis because, well, they are dogs! They like to explore, follow scent trails, or chase game animals and they become panicked and run away in fear. Most of the dogs staying at animal shelters were not born in the wild. While there are some dogs that are truly born-in-the-wild “feral,” the majority of loose/found dogs brought into shelters were, at one time, raised by and cared for by a person. Spoiler alert: when you walk through a shelter and realize that the majority of FOUND DOGS behind the cages are actually dogs that HAVE A HOME but just need help in finding their guardian, it will change you!