You see a stray dog, cat or injured wild animal on the side of the road, and your first instinct is to stop and do something about it. But what?

There’s no straight answer, says Alison Price, who has been working as an animal control officer for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the past 26 years. “Every situation is different.” But your safety must come first, she says. If you’re not careful, you may endanger yourself — and the animal you’re trying to help.

What to do first

If you’re driving when you spot the animal, think about whether it’s a safe place to pull over. Use your hazard lights, and don’t leave your car (yet). Call 911, explain what you see and ask the operator to notify animal control. Try to get an estimate on how long the wait will be until someone arrives.

If you have no experience in rescuing animals, it’s best to just wait in the car. “But easier said than done,” admits Price, who knows sometimes you may be the only chance the animal has at being rescued. It is likely the police will come only if the animal poses a risk to traffic or people, and they may not try to catch it. Also, not all towns have animal control officers, and they are not available 24/7, explains Price.

Attempting a rescue

If you decide to try to rescue the animal yourself, you will likely get bitten or scratched, says Price. If an animal bites you, you’ll need first-aid treatment and possibly stitches and rabies vaccinations. Cat bites are especially bad, adds Price, as they hurt a lot and easily get infected.

If you’re trying to help a cat, don’t try to grab it, advises Kat Albrecht, former police officer and founder of Missing Pet Partnership, a nonprofit that focuses on educating people so they can reunite lost pets with their owners. Also, don’t chase it, as it may run into traffic.

If you’re trying to help a dog, fight your instincts to look at it, call to it or walk toward it. If you direct your attention to a dog in “fight or flight” mode, says Albrecht, it will become even more terrified. When you approach a distressed dog, it’s very likely that it will either bolt or bite you. Even a sweet dog may get confused or aggressive when lost, warns Albrecht.

Instead, make noises like clearing your throat or faking a sneeze to catch the dog’s attention, then look away. “You can pretend that you’re eating food … and shake a crinkling bag of smelly treats,” suggests Albrecht.

If it’s a friendly animal and it comes to you, lure it into your car, close the door and wait for help outside. Don’t drive with an unrestrained dog or cat in your car. They can get spooked and wreak havoc while you’re driving. If you happen to have a leash in your car and the animal is a dog, you can try to leash it. If the animal is unresponsive, you can bring it to the closest animal hospital. Protect yourself from scratches, bites and blood by wrapping it in a towel or blanket and wearing gloves if you have them.

Where to take the animal

Veterinary hospital. If the animal is badly hurt, it needs medical help. But be sure to discuss payment with the veterinarian first; you may be required to foot the bill. Some states — but not all — have laws that allow veterinarians to collect from a fund for treating un-owned injured animals.

Animal shelter. If the animal is not gravely injured and no one claims it, it likely will be given a chance of adoption. But many animal facilities have severe budgetary and space limitations and may euthanize the animal. You may want to ask the staff what will happen to the animal if you surrender it.

Your home. First, a note of caution: Never take injured animals or an animal that has bitten you home. If the animal isn’t hurt and hasn’t harmed you, consider giving it temporary shelter under your roof. If you do, send photos and information on the animal to local shelters and vet clinics so they can try to locate the owner. When you take it to the vet, ask him or her to look for a microchip, where the owner’s info should be stored. Also check local laws and contact your animal control agency, humane society or SPCA. If the pet ends up unclaimed, in most states you become the owner after the holding period for strays expires, you make a reasonable effort to find the owner and you have vaccinated and licensed the pet.

Want to know more?

If your heart is into rescuing animals, take the time to learn how to do it properly, says Albrecht. Try volunteering at an organization that rescues animals, enrolling in online courses or signing up for animal control officer training.

Daniela Caride is a freelance writer who has four cats and two dogs. She blogs about being a pet parent at Taildom.com and founded a nonprofit called Phinney's Friends.