A pet owner's worst nightmare, other than grave illness or death, is losing a beloved family member. There are so many potential scenarios for this to happen: You are moving, and your scared cat bolts away, someone left the gate open and the dogs took off hours before you got home to realize they were gone, your cat jumps free from the cat carrier on your trip to the vet, and on and on it goes.... .
From both personal and professional experience, I have several definitive tasks for you and the family to perform as soon as you find a pet has gone missing!
If it's a cat you've lost remember this fact: most cats that bolt from the home, especially if they are indoor cats, do not generally go far at all. They will find a safe place to hunker down usually within 50 feet of the house or so, and then they freeze with fear. Do not assume they are miles away when the likelihood is is that they are hiding under your next door neighbors porch. (This has happened to me!).
Perform a Quiet, Non-Hysterical sweep of the immediate area first and foremost. Shake a dish of kibble, or open cans of wet food so that they may recognize the sounds of dinner. Speak softly and have an open, plastic cat carrier nearby so that when you do find the cat, you can immediately transfer him to a safe enclosure before he freaks out, scratches you and runs again.
If you don't find the cat, or the missing dog/dogs within a 15-30 min. time frame, now you must start making phone calls. You should have a pre-typed list of who you need to call and all relevant numbers.
You should call the local police to let them know in case someone hits a dog or cat and the police are involved. You must call and leave messages with your towns Animal Control Officer, describing the pets color, age, gender, and last known location, and your contact info. Then you should also leave the same info with as many local welfare groups as possible in case your pet turns up at one of their facilities.
In our area, you should try DAWS, ROAR, the Bethel Pound, New Fairfield/Sherman Animal Welfare, and any others you think might help. Once these calls are done, next you must call as many local vets as possible, especially the 24/7 emergency hospitals. Your pet may be brought to one of these facilities as well, and the more vets have your info, the better in case they get a call from someone who has found your pet so they can connect you!
The next thing you must do, and Do Not Wait, is to plaster flyers all over the area. They should be simple and direct with as little info as you can get away with. People who are driving only have a couple seconds to read the flyer, so if it's too wordy, or the print is too small, they can't help you.
Just put Species (Dog,Cat,Ferret), color, gender, and a big phone number. If you add a picture make sure you can still read the text! I actually lost a ferret who was old and feeble when I lived in Ridgefield. I put posters all over the neighborhood within an hour of his escape! My Posters just said : Lost Ferret- looks like a mink-friendly! And My name and phone number.
A week later the animal showed up at someone's sliding door on their patio, and she had read the sign and so she took him right in and called me. A week later! A Ferrett!
So don't lose hope. After you have completed all of these basic tasks, you need to consider the specific circumstances and personalities of the pets involved. For example, I had a cat get out of the house who had been trapped as a feral cat when he was 10 months old. He was super sweet, but whenever he got outside he reverted back to his wild ways and would not come near me. I actually had to go to the garden store and rent a Hav-A-Hart trap and trap my own cat on my deck when he came up to eat.
Twice he got out and twice I had to trap him! If you have a frustrated dog who just wants to run, you will have to get in the car and drive up and down and all around calling his name. Bring treats so that if you do spot him, you can bribe him with yummies.
If you get angry and yell at the animal, what incentive does he have to come to you? Save the anger-it's counter-productive in the moment!
The bottom line is that rather than freaking out and accomplishing nothing, enlist friends or family to help and focus on the list I have given you. In addition, Please make sure that your pets have a collar and name tag on (even if they are indoor cats), as well as their license and rabies tag if they are dogs. All of those things will bring a pet home faster!
Speaking of Identification, I am a strong proponent of Microchipping as well. It's not expensive, it's quick and relatively painless and if your dog or cat somehow ends up a few states away after having lost their tags and collar, they still have a way to get back home to you if they are Microchipped. All veterinarians and Shelters immediately scan wayward pets to check for a chip, so it's well worth it!
Remember: Don't panic! Have a plan, and follow it! Don't waste valuable time blaming the person you think is responsible-accidents happen and everyone needs to band together to get the pets back home! Good Luck!