A stray cat leans against a wall.

What To Do With A Stray Cat

It is estimated that there are anywhere between 60 and 100 million stray or feral cats living in the United States. These homeless cats often depend on the kindness of people in their community to provide them with food and sometimes keep them safe from harm. Unlike a domesticated house cat, however, a feral cat can be wary of humans or carriers of contagious disease, so when deciding what to do with a stray cat, it’s ideal to have a plan in place before taking action.

Stray Cats vs. Feral Cats

Is there a difference between stray cats and feral cats? Yes, and that distinction lies in the way they interact with people.

Stray cats have been socialized to people, perhaps as a house pet. Stray cats can be missing pets, or cats that are homeless but are used to being around people. Feral cats, on the other hand, are not used to being around people and should be handled with extreme caution for your own safety. Typically, you can identify a feral cat by its appearance, as they are usually very lean and they may have rough fur coats or look more unkempt than cats that are kept as pets. More often than not, feral cats will be afraid of strangers or display unpredictable behavior, so, again, proceed with caution when approaching them.

Feral cats are born into or adapt to an outdoor life without human contact, living with other cats in loosely organized colonies. They hunt wildlife as food, including mice, birds, and lizards. These cats are not socialized enough to be handled by humans, and for that reason, they cannot easily be placed into a traditional pet home – if at all.

What To Do With A Stray Cat

If you are approached by a stray cat that seems friendly, it’s best not to try to call for it to jump straight into your arms; try to find something you can lure them into, like a cat carrier or cardboard box.

If you can get the cat into a carrier, you should take them to a veterinarian or animal shelter to be evaluated for health purposes and a microchip. If they do, in fact, have a microchip, they are not so much stray as they are missing. If you do not have a carrier or cardboard box on hand when you encounter a stray cat, you can lure them into your car according to The Humane Society. If this is the option you resort to, however, it is not advised to get back into the car with them, but to call your local animal control agency for assistance.

If you decide to take the animal home with you, the Humane Society recommends contacting your local animal control or animal shelters first to provide a description of the cat, should it actually be missing instead of a stray. They also recommend keeping other pets that you have at home away from your found cat in case it is “sick, fearful, or aggressive with other animals.”

Whether you take the stray to a shelter or bring it home to care for it, you should take a photo of the cat in order to potentially help to reunite the cat with an owner. Along with a description of the cat and where you found it, you can post it on flyers to be hung up around your neighborhood, or, in this digital age, you can post about it on social media and hope the right person sees it.

Both the Humane Society and the ASPCA believe that the best way to help feral cat colonies is through Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) efforts. TNR is a nonlethal strategy for reducing the number of community cats and improving the quality of life for cats, wildlife, and people. By catching these feral cats and neutering or spaying them, we can help to reduce the overall number of unwanted cats on the street. Through TNR efforts, these feral cats will be humanely trapped, examined, vaccinated, and surgically sterilized by veterinarians. The tip of one ear is surgically removed as a universally recognized sign that the feral cat has been spayed or neutered. Then the cat is returned to its home environment. These cats will no longer reproduce or fight over mates, and their nuisance behaviors are greatly reduced or eliminated altogether.

After a TNR procedure, volunteers may provide food and shelter to the stray cats and monitor their health over time. Once neutered, these cats tend to gain weight and have fewer overall health issues.

Adopting or Fostering a Stray Cat

If you are thinking about taking in a stray cat, there are several things you should keep in mind throughout the process:

Get Medical Clearance

Since the cat has been living outdoors, it could be exposed to fleas, ticks, and other pests they may have encountered while roaming in the wild. Stray cats also tend to carry more diseases and have greater health issues than house cats, so getting clearance from the vet before bringing them into your home is essential. Additionally, the cat may be overdue for worming medication and vaccinations, and the vet can help with that as well.

Make Sure They Are Spayed or Neutered

If the stray has not yet been spayed or neutered, you will want to do so before bringing them into your home or allowing them to continue roaming your property. Aside from having health advantages for the cat, having them spayed or neutered can also help to curb aggressive or unwanted behaviors, like spraying urine on your furniture to mark their territory.

Get Help Training Your Cat

If the cat has been living outdoors for some time, it may be necessary to re-introduce them to life as a pet. You will need to teach them to use the litter box, and not to scratch with their claws. At the beginning, restrict the cat to one room, and isolate other animals from your new cat. Supervise your children when they interact with the cat, and try to spend a few hours with your cat as they settle into their new home. You may want to place a cozy cat bed in a quiet corner of the room to help create a calm, loving space.

Think About What To Feed Stray Cats

Unlike house cats, strays are not used to having regular meals provided for them, so they may have strange eating habits when you first bring them into your home. Don’t despair; patience and perseverance will get your cat to eat. Provide a bowl of fresh water, but don’t feed them immediately. When your cat appears to be ready to eat, try dry or canned cat food or some tasty tuna fish.

Get The Cat Acclimated To Your Home

Keep your new feline friend indoors. The cat needs to get used to you as their new provider of love, food, and shelter. It is not uncommon for cats to display behavior problems during this adjustment period, but these problems should disappear in time. Your cat may hide under the furniture. If they do, just sit and talk quietly to the cat. Make sure that there is food, water, and a litter box nearby.

Other Ways to Help A Stray Cat

Now that you know what to do if you come across a stray or feral cat, consider volunteering with your local shelter to help support the ongoing efforts to get more stray and feral cats off the streets.