I Just Found A Dog!
This is not legal advice.
Sparky's Pals is not an animal shelter or an animal rescue group. We do not have the facilities or a foster home network to support rehoming abandoned animals. Nonetheless, we have phone calls or messages on the answering machine at least once a week from someone who has found a stray and wants to know where to take it "so it can be rescued".
This is a brief attempt to answer the question. It is written about dogs, since that is what most of the requests are about, but should apply fairly well to other stray animals, as well. The quoted information on the local shelter regulations is from Dallas Animal Services. If you are not in the City of Dallas, your rules will probably be different. Make sure you check with your local animal services for the rules in your area.
If you find a stray dog, the first thing to check is whether he has contact information on his tags. If so, he is probably lost and not abandoned. Call the number on the tag and help the dog find his way home.
If the dog has no collar, or a collar but no tags, it is still possible that he is microchipped. Most vets and animal shelters (and many rescue organizations) have scanners that can detect the chip and read the information (a serial number) on it. Consider taking the pet to your nearest vet's office and have it scanned to see if there is a microchip present. If a microchip is found, the microchip service can contact the owner, as long as the owner has registered the chip. Often, if the owner has not registered, the chip will still be registered to the rescue organization or shelter where the pet was adopted. They should be able to determine the pet's home. There is a short list of microchip services below.
If there is no identification on the animal, there are really only three things you can do: call the animal shelter, try to find the owner yourself, or call a rescue group.
Call The Animal Shelter
If you call your local Animal Services, they will collect the animal, and take it to one of their animal shelters. This actually may be a good approach since many owners will call the shelter first in order to find a lost pet, and since it removes the burden of finding the owner from you. However, the shelter is a very stressful place for pets, so many people try to avoid this option if possible. Also, many animals are in the shelter, and many have not had proper medical care, so the chance of an animal contracting something while there is fairly high.
At one point, the Dallas ordinance required you to contact the shelter within 72 hours, so that was your only option. However, now, according to Dallas Animal Services:
City ordinances require a reasonable effort to locate a dog’s owner promptly after taking it into your care: If the dog is wearing a tag, call the number listed. In the alternative, take the dog to a licensed veterinarian to check for a microchip, tattoo or other identification method and calling the identified owner. As a final option, you may also call 311 to request that the City pick-up the dog or bring it to the shelter for identification screening and impoundment.
Once a reasonable effort to locate an owner has been made, you may choose to continue other efforts to find the owner, keep it, find a new home for it or surrender the animal to the City for impoundment. You may bring found dogs and cats to our shelter facility/Lost & Found entrance at 1818 N. Westmoreland during the hours of: Monday – Friday 8:00am - 5:30pm, Saturday 8:00am - 4:30pm, and Sunday 1:00pm - 3:00pm. Additionally, you may surrender the animal in the night-drop box located outside of the Lost and Found entrance anytime after normal business hours. Animals that are placed in the night-drop may not be retrieved after the door closes.
(Let me just say that most people in rescue think a night drop for a living being is an abhorrent idea. )
A dog turned into the Dallas Animal Shelter (or impounded by Dallas Animal Services) will have a theoretical minimum of three days before it is moved (figuratively) to Death Row. However, after three days, any rescue organization certified by the Dallas Animal Services would be allowed to pull the animal from the shelter and put it up for adoption through their program, according to their policies and procedures. Also, any citizen could adopt the dog from the shelter directly, if the shelter deems the dog adoptable. The shelter will often notify rescue organizations about dogs they believe would easily find new homes so that they can be rescued. In Dallas, animal rescue organizations can apply to be on a list of organizations contacted by the shelter when animals are available for adoption.
Most of the time, dogs will only be pulled by rescue groups if they are highly adoptable - specific breeds (for breed-specific rescues), puppies and younger dogs in good health. Older dogs and dogs with obvious medical issues will probably be left behind until their time is up, and then euthanzied. Dogs with any aggression issues (towards people or other animals) are generally considered not adoptable, and will not make it out of the shelter. Dogs with serious medical issues will be euthanized, as well.
This means if you really wanted to keep a dog you found, and did not want to take the time to find the owner yourself (or were concerned about having to prove you had tried to find the owner later), you could call Dallas Animal Services, have the dog impounded, and then go adopt him after his time waiting to be claimed expires. It would not hurt to tell Animal Services you wanted to adopt the dog as soon as he was available for adoption. However, you have to remember that mistakes do happen, some dogs are euthanized too early, he might be adopted by someone else, and shelters tend to have high incidences of disease, so the dog may contract an illness in the time there. In short, shelters are not always the best place to have a pet.
So, legally, this is the safest thing to do. Humanely, it may not be. However, the ordinance does now state that you can make the effort to find the owner yourself.
Do It Yourself
If you want to try and find the owners yourself to avoid taking the dog to the shelter, you must actually try to find the owners, especially if you are planning to keep the dog if the owners are not found. Put signs up in your neighborhood. Call your local shelters and report that you found the animal, in case the owner has contacted the shelter for help. Contact any rescue organizations in the area to see if anyone has reported the dog missing to them. List the pet online at websites designed to list lost and found pets (see below.)
If the owner is not found, and you decide to keep the pet, you will have to be able to show that you made a good-faith effort to find the owners. Legally, this tends to be a fairly grey area, so the more you do (and document), the better. Remember, that pets are considered property, no matter how you may consider them. For example, there were a number of cases after Hurricane Katrina where owners sued for the return of their abandoned pets after more than a year, and won.
One very important consideration - if you already have animals in your house, you will want to keep the found animal isolated from your pets. Since you have no medical history on the stray, there are any number of communicable diseases or parasites he could have contracted.
The best situation would probably be to have the stray in isolation at a vet's office, where he can be watched for symptoms of distemper, kennel cough, ringworm, heartworm and any number of other diseases.
Call a Rescue Group
You will probably find many rescue groups are very leery of taking in abandoned animals, often because of the legal issues surrounding animals as property, and because most do not have the staff to perform an owner search (as above). The rescue groups generally pull animals from the local shelters after the animal has passed the stated "reclaim" amount of time. The reclaim time varies from shelter to shelter, but each will have it posted.
Many rescue groups are also very hesitant to take in "owner surrender" animals, unless there are extenuating circumstances. In most cases, if you are dumping your pet, the shelter is the place to go.
Online Lost and Found Databases
Dallas Morning News
3-day found dog ad is free