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How to Turn a Stray Cat Into a Pet

By: Anna Sadler

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In urban and suburban areas throughout the country, a typical scenario plays out. A young female cat slips into a garage or under a porch and has her litter of kittens. The residents are understandably not very happy with this situation and gather up the kittens to take them to the local shelter. If the mother cat can be approached and lured into a crate, she might go, too.

If not, she will abandon her nest once the kittens are gone, but she's likely to stay on in a neighborhood that has provided her with food, shelter and water. In a remarkably short period of time – as little as nine weeks – she may be back with yet a new litter.

Somewhere between the pampered pet cat and the self-reliant feral (which may, in fact, be vaccinated and neutered/spayed by the local humane society) is the most maligned, least understood of all the felines: unowned cats for whom no one takes responsibility. Happily, millions of these unowned cats have been adopted over the years and have become loving and beloved house pets. A remarkable 49 percent of pet cat owners report that their pet cat was adopted as a stray.

From Stray to Pet

But how do you help a cat move from stray to pet?

Cats that had previously been pets make the transition most easily. Once a cat has indicated her willingness to interact with people, a little food and a lot of patience can induce all but the most wary to become friends and, even better, grateful and loving owned pets. Stories abound of cats marching into a home they have chosen, and announcing by their actions that they are there to stay.

Common sense dictates that both the cat and the neighborhood benefit from a trip to the veterinarian. The cat should be neutered or spayed quickly in order to avoid unwanted litters. In the case of a male cat, neutering will discourage him from participating in the noisy nocturnal battles under your bedroom window and from sharing his "eau de tom cat" – a pungent spray of urine.

Before you do anything else, do a little investigative work to make sure that the cat does not belong to neighbors. If the cat has been taking regular meals at your house, chances are good that no other owner will be found. Once that hurdle is cleared, a telephone call to a local humane organization or to the community's animal control department should help locate a low-cost or free neuter/spay and vaccination clinic. If you intend to accept the wandering vagrant into your household, your own veterinarian should be the one to establish a health file and perform the initial work. In either event, make an appointment, and inform the clinic that they might be seeing a somewhat difficult patient.

Vaccinations

Obtaining vaccinations – particularly against rabies – will protect the health of the neighborhood and your own family and other pets. Resident pet cats should be protected from possible transmission of viral diseases fatal to cats, such as the feline leukemia virus (FeLV). There are blood tests to screen for the presence of these viruses in seemingly healthy cats, and vaccinations to provide some level of protection for FeLV. There is no vaccination for feline immunodeficiency virus, also called feline AIDS.

Transporting the Cat

You'll need some kind of carrier to transport a panic-stricken cat to the veterinarian's office. Even a cat that will readily approach people for stroking could well panic if confined. A frightened cat, trying to escape, can distract a driver or inflict serious wounds with claws or teeth.

If the cat has been accustomed to handling, a regular cat carrier can be purchased inexpensively from any pet supply store and even many grocery stores. A second choice would be a pillowcase, which is more difficult for the cat to escape than a cardboard box.

If you're using a carrier, place some food into it for several days. Then, when the cat is accustomed to entering it, take the next step of latching the door. And finally, spend a little time accustoming the cat to being carried in it.

If the cat resists all efforts to accustom her to your form of transport, then a trap obtained on loan (usually at no cost) from a humane organization or Animal Control, is easier on all involved. These traps are made of wire, so the cat's resistance to entering an enclosed container is lessened. Once trapped, a blanket can be put over the wire, and the cat can be transported without removing it.

After the visit to the veterinarian, the cat needs a quiet place to recover, particularly if the cat is female. The spaying surgery is more invasive than neutering a male, and a longer recovery time is needed.

Once accomplished, this veterinary visit will provide peace of mind that family and pets are protected from disease, and that the cat is protected not only from disease but from the reproductive drives that people find so annoying. You will have provided the cat with a giant step in the transition from panhandler to pet. And likely, without your even realizing it, the cat will have well and surely adopted you.

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