Using a Humane trap to Safely Capture a Lost Dog
by James Branson (Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue)
Humane traps, or box traps, are an effective means of capturing certain dogs and cats that won’t allow humans to approach. Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue has trapped hundreds of cats and dogs in Tru-Catch humane traps without a single significant injury. These traps are safe and effective when used properly, but it is important for anyone using such a trap to understand the risks and also know the best practices for deploying and monitoring humane traps. You may have seen instructions for trapping colonies of feral cats. I have very little experience capturing colonies of feral cats, and for the most part, those involved with helping feral cats do not have my years of experience catching family pets one at a time. The instructions here will differ considerably from instructions you might find on a web page dedicated to trapping feral cats. If you rented a trap from Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue, it is very important that you follow these instructions, and not any others you may have found elsewhere.
Here is a video showing the setup of a 42 inch trap for a cat or a dog under 30 pounds or so.
This video shows a humane trap working.
The choice to use a humane trap is affected by your dog or cat’s personality and circumstances. A few of the instances where you probably will want to use a humane trap include:
- A skittish cat that you suspect is hiding in an area but won’t come out to you.
- A frightened dog that is running from people but continues to return to a known location.
- A dominant cat that has established his territory in your yard, blocking your cat from coming home.
- A cat hiding in a small space, such as a crawlspace or attic, where it would be difficult for a person to go in and capture the cat.
These are the main situations when you would probably want a humane trap. There are other circumstances, so be sure to ask if the humane trap is right for your lost pet. For a lost cat, there is little downside to trying the humane trap early in the search, even if you aren’t sure where the cat may have gone. As long as you follow these instructions, you can safely start using the humane trap even as you pursue other strategies to locate your cat. For lost dogs, you almost never start out with the humane trap at the beginning of the search process. You would start using the trap when you get reports of your dog staying in one area.
Choosing a trap of the right size is critical for success. Many hardware stores carry humane traps that would be suitable for a small cat. The ones commonly available are not big enough for a large cat or for most dogs. Quite often, a dog that weighs less than a cat can be too tall to fit into a cat trap. A long cat may try to eat the bait while keeping one foot outside the trap. This can result in injury to the cat or the cat escaping. Also, trying to catch a dog with a too-small trap can lead to the dog keeping one foot out the door, allowing injury or escape. Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue has purchased many sizes of humane traps from Tru-Catch, makers of quality, durable traps. We use a 48-inch trap for most dogs, and a 36-inch trap for most cats. We also have a 42-inch trap for some smaller dogs, and a 60-inch trap for larger dogs. Some large dogs won’t fit in any mass-produced trap, and they required custom made traps. When in doubt about the actual size or weight of the cat or dog, it is best to use the larger trap than to guess wrong and use a trap that turns out to be too small. You can catch a ten-pound dog, and almost any cat, in a 48-inch trap if you set the trip mechanism to release upon the slightest touch. Certain very small dogs can be trapped in the 36-inch trap that is typically used for cats. I have tried other brands of traps, besides Tru-Catch, and had them fail when a Tru-Catch trap would have worked. Some other brands may bend and allow the cat or dog to force his way out. They often don’t trigger as smoothly. They are difficult to adjust to different sensitivities in most cases. They are noisier and don’t last as long. If you have to buy one from the hardware store, it may work okay, but traps available in most hardware stores are not as reliable as Tru-Catch traps. If we don’t have a trap available for you, you may be able to rent or borrow one from your local animal shelter.
Where to place the humane trap will depend on many factors, not all of which I would be able to address here. There are too many scenarios with different dog and cat personalities and different environments. In general, you want to place the humane trap where it will not be noticed by most people passing by, but where you can view it from a substantial distance. This would be a place like up against the back fence of a strip mall, under the evergreen shrubs. Or against the fence of a home that backs up to a pipeline right of way used as a public trail. There are many places where a trap will be accessible to the lost pet, visible by you from at least 100 feet away and only noticeable to the public if they happen to look directly at it. Also, you want solid, level ground so the trap won’t rock when the animal steps in. The cat or dog does not need to see the trap because he or she will find it by the smell. As an example, a skittish dog named Maizy has been seen running up and down a pipeline trail for about a week. She was fed hotdogs in one particular location, so she kept coming back. Near that spot, we set a trap at the edge of the wide trail, near a homeowner’s fence, beneath a pine tree with low branches. We scraped the bark and dirt to create a flat spot. The trap is chained to a tree. So far, we’ve caught two cats and the wrong dog. The trap is working just fine, it is visible from a distance, and it appears that no member of the general public is messing with it. Maizy has been seen over half a mile away from the trap, but in the past, she had come back to that area. We will leave the trap where it is one more night in hopes that she will return to an area she knows. For some dogs and most cats, you will want to set the trap right on the edge of your property, far from the house but still visible from a window. You would place it where people wouldn’t see it from the street. In general, the place you are looking for is flat and stable, away from busy pathways of people, partially concealed by shrubs or trees, and visible from a distance if someone knows the right place to look.
Once the trap is set, you will want to leave it in one place for at least a couple of days, unless you get reports that your cat or dog has moved to a new location and is hanging around there. In many cases, a cat or dog may take several days to go in a trap. Don’t assume it won’t work if your pet doesn’t go in right away. To know what is happening around your trap, you may wish to use a wildlife camera. Another animal might be interfering. For example, crows are very smart, and they have been known to steal the food from traps.
To bait the trap, I have used cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, a whole rotisserie chicken, hotdogs, and various other tempting treats. Usually, I use the cheapest cat food from the grocery store, because it is the smelliest. You can also use tuna, sardines, anchovies, or canned tripe. Whichever bait you use, place most of it at the end of the trap farthest from the door. Don’t place it on the trip plate. You want the cat or dog to get all the way into the trap before the door falls. Place a small amount of the food just inside the doorway, and then another small amount in the center of the trap. Also, place a bit of the food on the highest tree branch you can reach in the area of the trap, in order to broadcast the scent farther. Replace the food if it dries out and is no longer aromatic. Tuna packed in oil takes longer to dry out, and also won’t freeze as fast in cold weather.
The bottom of the trap should be lined with a towel or some fabric. If the cat or dog you are trying to capture is your best friend, then you should use a shirt you’ve worn to line the bottom of the trap near the door. Make sure it is a shirt you don’t care about getting back. If a raccoon gets trapped in there with your shirt, he will tear it to a million tiny pieces. When putting fabric on the floor of the trap, only place it in the half of the trap closest to the door. No fabric should touch the trigger mechanism.
For most traps, you can adjust the sensitivity of the trigger mechanism by resting the lever so that it is just barely engaged for a light animal, or fully overlapping for a heavy animal. If you are trying to catch a 90-pound dog using a TruCatch trap, set the two levers so they cross perpendicular to each other. That way, maybe a cat or tiny dog won’t trigger the mechanism on accident. If you are trying to catch a smaller animal, set the two levers so they just barely touch each other. Then bump the trap to make sure it’s not set so sensitively that it will close as soon as the animal steps in. Please ask if you need further help with adjusting the sensitivity of the trap. After the trap is set, test it by sticking your finger through the wire mesh near the trip plate and pressing down. If the trip plate requires too much pressure to trigger, adjust the sensitivity by changing the position of the levers. You may need to oil the mechanism if you are using an older trap. You can use a cloth to gather a bit of oil from the dipstick in your car’s engine, and then rub the oily cloth on the two levers that rest on each other. This video shows the trap failing when it is set too lightly and working properly when the two levers are set fully perpendicular to each other.
Whenever possible, monitor a trap using a wildlife camera. I use Moultrie cameras, such as the M880. Some game cameras commonly available at Walmart or a local sporting goods store may not work well or last long. I have used Bushnell cameras sometimes, and they have been okay. If there is a Cabelas store near you, they would probably have a quality camera. Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue rents out cameras by the week. Place the camera at least five feet away from the trap, but not farther than fifteen feet. If the location of the trap is accessible to the public, you can place the camera up high on a tree branch or pole, looking down, by using a step ladder. People who might steal your camera probably won’t look up to notice the camera, and if they do, they probably won’t have a step ladder handy. Most wildlife cameras require that you go to the camera and remove the SD card to see what pictures it has taken. There are more expensive cameras that will immediately send the pictures right to your iPhone. This would be ideal, if you can afford such a camera. These cameras are less reliable than the ones you have to physically go to and check. If you see that something is interfering with your trapping attempts, based on pictures from the wildlife camera, you may need to move the trap a little, or use different bait. If raccoons mess with your trap, you can leave them a pile of marshmallows and they will take that instead of bothering your trap. Also, if raccoons steal the food out of the trap by sticking their little hands through the cage from the outside, you can strap an empty soup can to the back wall of the trap and put the food in that. The raccoons won’t be able to reach around and steal the food. If you see that your cat or dog keeps coming to the trap but won’t go in, then you may need a larger trap, a different bait, or more of your clothing in the trap. For some cats and dogs, the humane trap simply won’t work. They will be too afraid to go in. In such cases, you will need to switch to different methods. I can advise you on the next steps.
If you search the internet for trapping instructions, you will find some web sites that tell you to never leave a trap unattended. This theory seems to have originated with one feral cat rescue, and it has been passed around without much critical thought. This may or may not be the best practice when you are trapping a colony of feral cats, I don’t know. If you are using a humane trap to capture your own cat or dog, then it’s actually better if you go away and leave the trap unattended for about three hours at a time. Some people in the never-leave-a-trap-unattended school will tell you horror stories of things that happened to unattended traps. Personally, I have either trapped or helped with trapping over 500 cats and dogs. Not one single serious injury has occurred. One cat got a bloody nose from running into the wall of the trap at full speed. There may be some circumstances where you would want to monitor the trap constantly, but those are very rare. They are discussed below. Some dogs and cats will go into a trap no matter who is around, but in most cases, the reason you need a trap in the first place is because the dog or cat is too nervous to allow a person to approach. For 90% of lost pet cases, leaving a trap unattended for at least three hours will be the best practice. Don’t go longer than four hours without checking the trap. In certain temperature extremes, you may need to check the trap more frequently, or not set the trap at all.
Hopefully, you will be using a humane trap when the temperature is between 32 and 80. Your trap should be in the shade of a tree, if possible, or in the shade of a little-used building. Perhaps the back side of a warehouse would be shady and quiet. If the temperature will be below 32 or above 80, then you can still use the humane trap, but just check it more frequently, perhaps every hour. If you won’t be able to check the trap during extreme temperatures, close the trap so nothing can get in it, and then resume trapping when you are available or when the weather is more moderate. Set the trap so that you can see it from the farthest possible distance.
Whenever possible, secure the trap to a substantial tree or post using a bicycle lock. I have never had a trap stolen, but it is a possibility. I usually lock my traps, so that may be why I’ve never had one stolen. Your trap should also have a sign on the top. Don’t place it on the side. That will make the trap more visible to people from a distance, and possibly attract unwanted attention. Put your sign on top, hopefully inside a sheet protector to keep it dry and legible. Tell anyone who visits your trap that they should call you immediately if any animal is in the trap. Make sure it is a phone you will answer 24 hours a day. Your sign should have a picture of your cat or dog, and it should say, if this pet is in the trap, DO NOT let him out. Be sure your sign is securely taped to the trap so that it won’t blow in the wind and scare away your pet.
Give the trap a few days to work before concluding that it won’t work. You may want to move it sooner than three days if you have sightings of your pet in another location. In the absence of information, if you don’t have a wildlife camera watching the trap, you should probably leave the trap in one location for two or three days. A humane trap may not work in all cases, and another kind of trap may be necessary. Some cats and dogs will never go into a humane trap, especially cats who have been trapped in a humane trap before. Some dogs, like my dog Fozzie, will just go into a trap time after time for a free meal. A wildlife camera will help you determine if the trap simply won’t work for your pet. If no wildlife camera is available, watch with binoculars from the farthest possible distance. Maybe you simply need a larger humane trap if your pet has doubts about entering the one you are using. Other types of traps may be necessary, such as a drop trap or a clam trap. Please ask me for other trapping options.
If your cat or dog won’t go in the humane trap, check around the area for other food sources. Perhaps a neighbor is feeding his cats at his back door, and your cat or dog is eating there. If a cat or dog has an alternate food source, he or she will be less likely to go into the humane trap. You should have a large pan of water outside the trap so that your pet does not have to travel out of the area for water. Do not place the water dish inside the trap. In most cases, the trap should not be covered. If you absolutely must cover the trap, perhaps because of heavy rain or because your cat prefers to get into small, covered spaces, then be certain the cover you are using won’t wave or rustle in the breeze. If you are using a plastic tarp, tape it down securely so that it absolutely won’t move. Most animals won’t go in a trap if they see something moving or waving.
If you are trying to trap a dog, and you’ve caught a cat, just let him out. He probably won’t go in again. If you are trying to catch your cat, and you trap another cat, don’t just automatically release that cat. Check around and see if you can figure out where that cat lives. Take him home and ask his family to keep him indoors for a few days. That cat may prevent your cat from going into the trap or coming home.
Don’t let your cat or dog out of the trap! If your pet is in the trap, you may be tempted to open the door and hug your pet. Don’t do it! Load the entire trap into your car or truck with your pet inside. Take your pet home, or to the vet if that’s where you are headed next and release your pet inside with all exterior doors shut. Your pet may take some time to settle down. A few people have trapped their pets, opened the trap because they thought it was safe, and lost their pets permanently when they bolted because of the anxiety of being trapped.
While I have only experienced a few problems over the past seven years of capturing lost pets, you may encounter someone with an inexplicable negative attitude toward your attempt to recover your pet. Some people mistakenly believe that if they see a humane trap, it is a sign that animal control is trying to catch a dog or cat to take it away to be euthanized. Why some people think this, I have no idea. Or maybe they have some other fantasy running around their heads that makes them want to sabotage your efforts to recover your pet. Who knows. If you encounter such a person, you may try to explain to them that this is your lost cat or dog, and you are doing everything you can to try to get your pet back home. If this unhinged person still tampers with your trap, you may need to move the trap to a new location nearby, where your cat or dog can still smell the bait, but the crazy person probably won’t be able to find the trap. You probably won’t experience such a person, but they are out there.
More likely, the saboteur will be a crow, a cat, a rat, or a raccoon. These little pests can be difficult to counter, but there are methods. Please ask for further advice if you encounter these problems.
Some people may recommend catnip, Dog Appeasing Pheromone, or Feliway. I have my doubts about these products, but it probably won’t hurt to try them.
There is a small risk that your cat or dog could be injured or killed due to unusual circumstances while using a humane trap. Again, in the trapping of over 500 lost pets, I have experience only one minor injury in all those successful trappings. Some of the possible causes of injury or death might include: someone deliberately hurting your dog or cat; a predator attacking the trap while your pet is inside; exposure to the elements; or your pet’s collar could get caught on the wire mesh of the trap in a freak accident. These types of tragic accidents do occur rarely, and as I help trap the next 500 lost pets, I understand it could happen in one of my traps. Even with that slight risk, your pet is much safer in the humane trap than he or she would be if allowed to continue roaming free. Any risk your pet might face inside the trap, your pet would also face outside the trap. Watching the trap constantly, or checking it too often, will reduce your chances of catching your cat or dog. If you watch the humane trap every minute, you may be able to protect your pet from the small risk that he or she would be attacked by a predator or a psychopath while in the trap, but you would probably be exposing your pet to more risks by delaying his or her entry into the trap. You should be aware that there is a slight risk something tragic could happen to your pet during the process of humane trapping, but the risk of injury or death is much smaller than if your pet continues to roam free. If you have reason to suspect that your pet is facing some rare and unusual danger, and you have to set the trap in that particular location, then I might recommend that you watch the trap constantly from the farthest possible distance. More likely, there will be a better solution to the problem. If you are encountering some unusual and dangerous circumstance with your pet, please tell me about it, and we can work out some solution.
Appropriately, after I finished writing the instructions above, Maizy went into the trap in the original location. She is home now, safe and healthy. During the attempt to trap Maizy, a neighbor called, very angry, and said her cat was injured in the trap for Maizy. She said her cat had a claw ripped out. She made it sound as if the entire claw is missing and will never grow back. It may be the case, but it may also be the case that her cat simply has a broken nail, and it will grow back just fine in time. Either way, I now know of a second injured animal out of 501 missing pets trapped and reunited. We aim for zero injuries, but that it not a realistic goal. If I keep helping more people and trapping lost pets, eventually some serious injury will result because of the trap. It is even possible that a cat or dog could die in one of my traps even if people follow all the instructions above. That would be tragic, and I hope it never happens, but one bad experience would not lead me to change any of the above guidelines. Your pet will be exposed to the least risk of injury or death if you follow these instructions as closely as possible. They are based on years of experience. As I gain more experience with trapping lost pets in humane traps, I will update these guidelines from time to time with improved techniques.
Please call or email Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue if you have questions or need help.