Pet detectives:the nose that knows

For millions of people, pets are more than just animals who share a living space – they are valued family members. And when beloved pets go missing, it is a nightmarish experience. Owners are often confused and do not know where and how to look for their pets. In US, Kat Albrecht runs PHI, which is the only pet detective agency. And guess who helps her find those four-legged friends? Her search dogs, of course! Read on to find more about them.

Holding the feisty terrier by her collar, Hardin Weaver gives the search command. “Susie, are you ready? Search!” Immediately Susie lurches forward, pulling hard in her harness as she sniffs the air currents in search of the scent that she is trained to find. But unlike most other search-and-rescue dogs, Susie is not searching for a lost child, a missing hiker, or even a confused Alzheimer’s patient—what she is searching for is a lost cat!

Susie is one of several search dogs that are currently being trained by pet detective Kat Albrecht, President of Pet Hunters International (PHI), US — the only pet detective academy that trains and certifies humans and search dogs to track lost pets.

PHI’s mission:

Based in Fresno, California, PHI’s mission is to certify professional pet detectives who will conduct aggressive, physical searches for lost pets using newly developed law enforcement-based techniques and technologies normally used to find lost people. Kat developed PHI in 1997 (while she was still a police detective) after her bloodhound A.J. escaped her yard and was lost. Kat used another search-and-rescue dog to track A.J. down, thus giving her the idea to train search dogs to track lost pets.

Techniques used:

Using investigative techniques such as probability theory, behavioural profiling, and searches with scent-detection dogs, Kat has helped more than 1800 pet owners locate their lost dogs, cats, snakes, turtles and horses. Kat believes that training professio-nal pet detectives who can assist pet owners in making aggressive attempts to recover a lost pet will have a tremendous impact on reducing the homeless pet population. Pet dogs and cats who escape from their owners’ care make up a large percentage of the “stray” and “homeless” animals.

MAR technique:

The MAR (Missing Animal Response) K9 certification programme is the most visible aspect of PHI. In order to be accepted into the training programme, dogs like Susie are evaluated to make sure they have the appropriate temperament and drive. Dogs who show fear, aggression, or a low level of enthusiasm will not pass the evaluation. Dogs who absolutely love cats are trained as cat detection dogs using methods similar to those used to train drug and bomb detection dogs. In Susie’s case, her training “reward” for finding the hidden crate that contains a “target cat” is the opportunity to lick, nuzzle, and play with the kitty.

Dogs who love to play with other dogs are trained to track the scent trail of lost dogs just as police bloodhounds are trained to track lost people. Dogs who love treats and are highly motivated by food are trained to search for reptiles, ferrets, cats, and other small animals using a training method known as “specific scent” where the dog is trained to “smell a scent, find the matching scent.” With specific scent, a search dog can be used to search for a lost snake one day and the next day she can be used to search for a missing cat, ferret, turtle or other lost pet.


There is a very basic principle in search-and-rescue work—you will have a higher probability of finding a lost person if you know how and where to search. In the case of lost people, the tactics and techniques that are used to search for a missing hiker are very different from those used to search for a missing deer hunter. Sadly, most people don’t know how and where to search for a lost pet. The methods that should be used to search for a dog who bolted in a blind panic due to a thunderstorm are very different than those that should be used to search for an outdoor-cat who has suddenly vanished. Various factors will influence the distance a lost pet will travel, the speed they will travel, and the likelihood that they will be found. These factors include the species involved (dog vs. cat vs. ferret), the temperament of the animal (gregarious vs. skittish), the circumstances surrounding the disappearance (dog that digs out to explore a scent vs. indoor-cat that escapes outside), the population density (a dog lost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains vs. a dog lost in New York), and the environment (a hot July day in the desert vs. during a snow storm). MAR Technicians learn how to analyse individual lost pet cases and develop a specific search plan that takes into account all of these variables, thus answering the critical questions of how and where to search for a particular lost pet. For example, dogs with friendly temperaments are likely to be found closer to their home (they will typically run up to the first person who calls them) than dogs with skittish, fearful temperaments (they will typically run away from people who call them). Also, people who find a loose dog who has a fearful, shy temperament will often misinterpret the cowering and shivering as “abuse” and will tend to keep the dog instead of trying to find its owner.

MAR Technicians certified by PHI are trained to use high-tech equipment including amplified listening devices and search cameras, humane traps with baby monitors to capture panicked lost cats who are hiding, how to develop a specific search plan, how to identify the high probability search areas for a lost pet, and how to collect and analyse physical evidence. In the past, MAR Technicians have even used a forensic anthropologist to analyse a bone to solve one lost cat investigation and a DNA test on a cat whisker to solve another.


One recovery method pioneered by PHI is “TAR” or “trap-and-reunite” services. TAR involves the simple use of baited humane traps and surveillance equipment to recover displaced cats and has already resulted in the recovery of several hundred “lost” indoor-only cats that had escaped outdoors. Most of these were cats with skittish, fearful temperaments that escaped into unfamiliar territory and responded just as the PHI behavioural patterns predicted: when cats are injured or afraid, they hide in silence.

Thus, the PHI dogs are offering a much needed service that is helping to reduce the homeless pet population, save the lives of companion animals, and assist people who have no where else to turn. Kudos to Kat Albrecht, the Sherlock Holmes of pet detectives, for doing such a wonderful job.

(Kathy “Kat” Albrecht is a police officer-turned-pet detective and President of Pet Hunters International (PHI), an international pet detective academy. Kat and her search dogs (Weimaraner search dog Rachel and two police bloodhounds, A.J. and Chase) have successfully located criminals, physical evidence, and missing persons. Kat lives in Clovis, California with her two search dogs and three cats. She has also published ‘The lost pet chronicles: Adventures of a K-9 cop turned pet detective’(Bloomsbury, April 2004) which tells the unique story of her transition from tracking criminals to tracking lost pets. For more information on Pet Hunters International, visit

Preventing your pet from poisoning

What appears absolutely harmless to you can be extremely poisonous to your pet dogs. Dr Gautam Unny advises on how to prevent your dog from getting poisoned and what you should do, if unfortunately your dog consumes a poisonous substance.

Snappy is a healthy nine- year-old Cocker Spaniel.

Anyone who sees him ambling during his daily walks would hardly be able to understand the depth of his owner’s anxiety a few weeks ago. During a routine visit to our clinic, his owner Ms. Pal casually told us of Snappy having too many ticks. As is the usual procedure, we informed her about the benefits of a tick bath, educated her on the correct procedure and finally gave her the medication. The next day afternoon an anxious Ms. Pal called up at the clinic that her pet was vomiting and very restless. On getting a further history, she told us that he had been given a tick bath half an hour ago. Snappy was immediately summoned to the clinic and, as was suspected, treated for organo-phosphate poisoning – the drug used in tick baths. The recovery was uneventful and all was well till the evening when again the owner called up to tell us that the pet was sick again. He was again treated till he recovered. Once again post midnight Snappy fell ill. This time apart from giving him the usual antidotes, we also gave him a good shampoo bath. Much to the relief of his owner, Snappy was normal and relaxed thereafter. His recurrence of the poisoning was because he used to lick himself only to get poisoned again, after his recovery.

So, from this case, we can learn quite a few important lessons. The first and the foremost is that if you suspect poisoning, try and identify the source. Next, remove the source as soon as possible i.e. if the poisoning is due to something on the skin then wash the skin well. Lastly, get the name of the antidote as most are mentioned on the labels of the poison.

So what are the common substances that can poison your pet within the household? We begin with the sweetest and most common poison given inadvertently to the pet. Chocolates, yes they can poison your pet if given in high doses. The bitter chocolates are more toxic than other sweet versions. The reason why it occurs is that chocolates have a product called Theobromine that can cause toxicity in dogs, especially pups. In case you suspect that your pet has stolen some chocolate, then rush it to your vet or induce vomiting as soon as possible. Another common poison is rat poison, especially the modern day varieties that are supposedly safe for pets. These can also cause problems and the best thing to do is to take the pet to the clinic with the antidote that is given on the wrapper. Since these poisons slowly kill the pet, the owner may not realize the intensity of the problem till it is too late.

I have already mentioned the dangers that a harmless procedure like a tick bath can produce. The dog becomes restless, salivates profusely, vomits frequently, tries to eat grass to relieve the discomfort in its stomach etc. So is there a way out? Well-educated clients will give the tick bath personally to the pet rather than allowing the domestic help in the house to do the same. I take this opportunity to sketch the basic way to give a tick bath. After wetting the dog well, the anti-tick medication is diluted in the precise dose indicated by the vet. Then the pet’s mouth is tied up or muzzled. The medication is applied all over the body and the pet is taken for a long walk to dry itself in the sun. Next it is dried using a thick towel until the pet is totally dry. If a gap of half an hour is provided then there is little danger of toxicity. In case the owner cannot wait until the pet is totally dry then he is advised to wash off the medication.

I prefer to leave the medicine on so that there is some element of residual effect of the anti-tick preparation.

Another case I clearly remember is of a Labrador, Scheffer, who had a capricious appetite. He loved to chew on anything that he could find. Once he ate some blood pressure medication of his owner. He ended up rather sick after vomiting several times. But in all probabilities this is what saved him. Since Scheffer vomited after eating the pills, he brought out most of it. In case he had retained it, the large dose would probably have been toxic to him. Vomiting can be induced in a pet to overcome the effect of poisonous substance. Consult your vet immediately with details of the substance consumed. Again there are some situations where we do not advise inducing the pet to vomit. The first is when the pet has taken in some acid or alkali, a sharp object, is dull and depressed or has eaten tranquilizers. Here if you induce vomiting then more damage will occur than any good.

So, what is the best-integrated approach to handle a case of suspected poisoning? The first thing to do is not to panic or get hysterical and instead, call the vet. This way the vet is prepared to tackle the emergency when you reach him. In case you have the remaining poison, pack it carefully and take it to the vet. If the vet tells you to induce vomiting, do so with the techniques suggested by your vet. Never try anything on very aggressive and nervous animals as they may bite out of fear or anxiety. In case you have the wrapper, get the recommended antidote just in case your vet does not have it at the clinic. Vets cannot store all the possible antidotes, as the list of possible toxins and poisons is endless. Also do not waste your time searching for these at the local chemist and instead try finding them at bigger hospitals in the neighbourhood.

What then are the chances of recovery of a pet that has been poisoned? This depends on many factors including the kind of poison, its purity, the length of time it has been in contact, the speed with which it has been treated and whether the poison is still in contact with the body. The treatment has generally three protocols that include aiding in elimination of the poison by washing the pet, making it vomit or by giving laxatives. The second line of treatment includes supportive therapy by helping the animal cope with effects like dehydration, convulsions, loose motions or allergies to the poison. The last step is to administer the exact antidote and it is here that the owner plays the most crucial role as he alone can tell the vet about the exact poison ingested. Since many poisonings mimic each other unless the owner is specific, treatment may be delayed or too late.

It is also important that a good follow-up is maintained in a pet that has recently eaten a poison. In some cases, the poisons are cumulative and will slowly damage the internal organs, especially the liver and kidneys. Therefore, it is better to get regular blood profiles of these organs done at weekly or bi-weekly intervals for a few weeks after some unfortunate poisoning case. Corrosive poisons like petroleum products may damage the sensitive mucus membrane linings of the stomach and tongue. In such cases, there might be frequent vomiting for a few weeks till the linings heal. Here the pet may need parental nutrition for a few days.

Personally, I have seen homeopathy to be a rather good aid in cases of poisoning. Recently a distraught owner brought a dog to our clinic. He had got his pet treated for a common venereal tumour only to find that it had stopped eating and the tongue and lips were red and inflamed. After trying conventional treatment for a few days, we resorted to homeopathy for the dog, though stable, still retained some signs of nervousness and hysteria. A local homeopath gave her a few doses of a drug called Arnica, and to my surprise within a day, the dog was substantially better. There are a large number of drugs that are given to dogs after poisoning and your vet with the consultation of a good homeopath will be able to give you some medication if the need arises.

And finally I wish to highlight some of the common poisons that are easily found around the house that the pet can ingest or can fall on their skin. As mentioned earlier – chocolates, common salt, rat poisons, insecticides for plants, paints, varnishes, tick and flea powders and lotions, human medications etc. Dogs that have a habit of scavenging may ingest some, while others can get accidentally applied on the skin when the pet rolls on grass sprayed with an insecticide. Dogs are not the best judges of what should be eaten and what is best left untouched. For all that they do for us; the bare minimum we can do is to keep the house free of these potentially dangerous elements.

(Dr. Gautam Unny is a practicing veterinarian in Delhi and can be contacted at 011-2215 3622 or 98100- 53451. He is the author of the bestseller ‘A Manual on Dog Care’ by Rupa & Co. available at all leading stores. To order the book, contact Rupa & Co at 011-23278586 & 011- 2327 2161.)