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I found a stray cat. Now what?

I found a stray cat. Now what? 

stray black and white cat

Your own pets are probably curled up on their cozy beds that you bought especially for them. They know exactly when their next meal is coming and who will serve it to them. They likely have a basket full of toys (with a few more under the sofa and refrigerator), and a kitchen drawer full of their favorite treats. They get the veterinary care they need, when they need it.

 

But maybe you saw a pair of eyes peering out from under some dense shrubbery the other day. Or maybe you found a bedraggled kitty under your car during a rainstorm, and you’re wondering what, if anything, you should do about it. It’s not your cat, you tell yourself. It’s not your responsibility. And yet…when you look at your own sleeping pets, all snug in their beds, you can’t get that stray out of your mind.

 

Is it a stray cat, or is it a feral cat?

 

Before you start worrying about the poor “stray” cat, you need to determine if it is, indeed a stray.

 

stray cat

Feral cats, stray cats, and pet cats are all domestic cats. They are all the same species, but they relate to humans in different ways, and that changes how we categorize them. Knowing the difference between them, and identifying which type of cat you’ve found hanging out on your back porch, can help you determine the best way to intervene. Caring people (that’s you, if you’re reading this article) want to do what’s in the best interests of the cat they’ve found.

 

Feral cats are not socialized like our pet cats

 

Most of our pet cats are socialized cats. Socialized cats are friendly to people. They enjoy our companionship and they are happy living with us in our homes.

 

toddlers playing with an orange and white kitten

A cat becomes socialized during kittenhood. The main socialization window for a kitten opens and closes between two and seven weeks old, although the window can potentially extend up until the kitten turns 14 weeks old under certain circumstances.[1] During this short time in a kitten’s life, she is open to new experiences. She needs to be handled, held, petted, fed, and played with by humans if she is going to become a well-socialized adult cat who would make a good pet. Kittens who do not get to meet and interact with people during this crucial period in their lives may never have the same comfortable relationship with humans, and most never really enjoy living in our homes.

 

Feral cats are those that did not have contact with humans during the all-important socialization window. They bond with their cat colony members, but they do not typically become bonded to us.[2]

 

stray cat

A stray cat, on the other hand, has been socialized at some point in his life, but has lost his home. Perhaps he’s wandered too far from his house and his people are desperately looking for him. Or perhaps he was tossed out or abandoned by the people he once loved. The longer a stray cat has been left to fend for himself, the less “pet-like” and the more feral he becomes. The main difference between stray cats with some feral tendencies, and true feral cats, is that stray cats who were once pets can be rescued and reacclimated to living in a home. A feral cat is unlikely to ever enjoy living inside a house with us.

 

How do you tell the difference between stray cats and feral cats?

 

If only they would wear little kitty name tags….

 

two stray cats

It’s going to take some keen observation on your part to determine the kind of cat you’re looking at. And, if your “stray” has been stray for so long that he starts acting like a feral cat, you might still get it wrong.

 

One rule of thumb: if your “stray” allows you to pet her, she’s most likely not feral. But the inverse is not true: just because she doesn’t allow you to pet her does not mean she IS feral. Every cat is different and even a cat who was beloved by her human family may not be trusting enough under the circumstances to allow you to come near.

 

Another rule of thumb: if your stray has a “tipped” ear (the very top “corner” of one ear is missing), he is likely to be feral. A tipped ear most likely means that the cat was part of a TNR – trap, neuter, release – program. He was released because he is feral and would be unhappy as a pet. The ear corner is snipped off as a visible sign to future volunteer trappers that he is already neutered and does not need to be caught again.

 

Here is a chart to help you distinguish between feral cat behaviors and stray cat behaviors that you can observe from a distance:

how to tell the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat 

What to do if the cat you just found is feral

 

stray cat

If you believe the cat you have found is feral, look closely again for that ear tip. If the ear is not tipped, it means this particular feral cat is unlikely to have been spayed or neutered. The very best thing that you can do to improve this cat’s life and health, and to help stabilize the community of cats where you live, is to contact a feral cat group in your area.[3] Unfortunately, there is no national registry of TNR programs and you may have to do a little sleuthing to find a program like this in your neighborhood. Start by calling your local cat shelter or humane society; hopefully, they can point you in the right direction.

 

You can still help a feral cat, even if you will never be able to bring the cat into your home. You can improve a feral cat’s life by providing food, water, and shelter. A shelter, especially, can make the difference between life and death to a cat living in a cold climate in the winter.

 

A good shelter for a feral cat has three main qualities: it’s well insulated, it’s not too roomy, and it’s waterproof.[4] You can certainly purchase an outdoor shelter, like this one from FeralVilla. Or, you can make one yourself quite inexpensively. Here are a couple DIY cat shelter projects you can try at home:

  

 

  

What to do if the cat you just found is a stray

 

If you have found what you believe is a stray cat, you should first assume that the cat is simply lost. Your goal should be to try and reunite the cat with his family, who may be desperately looking for him.

 

Here are steps you can take to try to identify the family that belongs to the stray cat you have just found:

 

Use the internet.  Today, many people head straight to social media sites and online bulletin boards to take advantage of the eyes and ears of others in the community if they’ve lost a pet. Check your community’s Facebook page or Craigslist first to see if anyone is looking for a cat that fits the description of your stray. Post a photo of the cat yourself and the exact place you found him if you don’t find an existing online post.
 
Use flyers. Not everyone is on Facebook. You can reach even more people by posting the old-fashioned way with flyers. No need to reinvent the wheel, though. PetFBI will help you create a flyer here. Just enter all the salient information including your contact information, a photo and a description of the cat, and PetFBI will do the rest. All you have to do is grab a roll of tape and wait for the calls or emails to come in.
 
Call shelters and animal control. Your cat’s owner may have already called local shelters to see if their cat was brought in. They may have left word with animal control, too. Not every shelter has the manpower to maintain an active “lost and found” list, but it’s worth a try.
 
Bring her to a veterinarian. Assuming you can safely catch and handle the cat, consider bringing her to a veterinarian, or even a shelter to see if she has a microchip. A microchip is a form of identification that is embedded underneath the cat’s skin. The microchip, if she has one, could contain information that might be linked to an owner’s contact information.[5]

 

Should you microchip your cat? Read more here.
 
 
Be wary of those claiming to be the owner. It’s hard to believe, but not everybody has the best intentions and wants what’s best for the cat. Before you give the cat up to the alleged owner, ask the caller/emailer to describe the cat in more detail than your post or flyer would have provided, and ask for a veterinarian’s reference. Consider asking the caller/emailer to provide a photo of the cat that they have in their possession to help prove that the “owner” knew the cat before you found him.
 

What to do if you can’t find the owner of the stray cat

 

Not every lost cat can be reunited with his family. Not every stray has a family who is looking for them. There are all kinds of reasons that cats become strays, and not all of them will make you proud of mankind.

 

two stray cats

Think carefully before you capture the cat and relinquish it to a shelter, thinking you’re doing the “right” thing. In many parts of the U.S. and the world, shelters are overcrowded and don’t have the funds or space to accommodate one more cat.[6] You might be giving her a fighting chance by leaving her exactly where you found her as she may be quickly euthanized in the wrong shelter, especially if she is young (under eight weeks old), older (over five or six years old), pregnant, or has any even treatable health conditions.[7] Some shelters don’t even allow public adoptions or rescue groups to come in to save these cats from euthanization, which is beyond my comprehension.

 

Leaving a stray cat where you found her is not the worst thing that you could do. According to Alley Cat Allies, a cat advocacy organization, 60% of lost cats find their own way home.[8]

 

If you decide to leave the cat to his own devices, you can still support the cat with food, water, and shelter, just as if he was a feral. (Watch the videos above to learn how to make a cat shelter.) Those efforts alone may be enough to help him bridge the gap between lost and found.

 

Do you want to keep the stray cat?

 

stray cat

If, after you’ve done everything within your power to reconnect the cat with her family, your heart has gone out to the homeless cat, you might be asking yourself if you should just expand your own family by four more paws.

 

If so, that’s a very noble and humane impulse. I thank you from the bottom of my kitty-loving heart for considering it.

 

But go into this endeavor fully educated. Be aware that there might be state, county, or town ordinances that govern found pets. There may be a waiting period dictated by law that prevents even the most good-hearted Samaritan from becoming a pet’s new owner immediately. Even then, when the holding period expires, most states require you to take certain steps, including providing vaccinations and obtaining a license, to become the cat’s legal guardian.[9] Check with your local animal control office to learn more about local mandates.

 

stray cat

If you have cats at home already, do not toss the new cat into the mix thinking everyone will become one big happy family. You must have the stray cat examined by a vet and vaccinated to prevent any diseases he may be carrying from spreading to your existing cats. Keep the new cat in a spare bedroom or unused bathroom until then and do not let the cats interact. Give the new cat his own litter box, food and water dishes, and a little blanket or kitty bed until your vet gives the OK to move to the next step. Then, read this post about how to safely introduce the new cat to your existing cat family:

 

How to introduce a new cat to your cat

 

And then, thank fate, chance, or your lucky stars for the serendipity that caused the path of this cat to intersect with yours. I’m quite certain the cat will be doing the same.

 

 

 

_______________

FOOTNOTES

[1] Becker, Mikkel. “Your Guide on How to Socialize a Kitten.” Vetstreet, 29 Jan. 2007, www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/your-guide-to-socializing-a-kitten.

 

[2] “Feral and Stray Cats-An Important Difference.” Alley Cat Allies, www.alleycat.org/resources/feral-and-stray-cats-an-important-difference/.

 

[3] “Why Trap-Neuter-Return Feral Cats? The Case for TNR.” Alley Cat Allies, www.alleycat.org/resources/why-trap-neuter-return-feral-cats-the-case-for-tnr/.

 

[4] “Feral Cat Winter Shelter.” Neighborhood Cats, www.neighborhoodcats.org/how-to-tnr/colony-care/feral-cat-winter-shelter.

 

[5] Smirnova, Vicki. “Where Can i Take a Stray Cat ᐉ US Organizations to Take a Stray Cat.” ThePets, 2 Nov. 2020, thepets.net/where-to-take-a-stray-cat/.

 

[6] “How to Help a Stray Pet.” The Humane Society of the United States, www.humanesociety.org/resources/how-help-stray-pet.

 

[7] “So You Found a Cat.” Stray Haven, strayhavenrescue.org/so-you-found-a-cat/.

 

[8] “How to Find a Stray Cat's Home.” Alley Cat Allies, www.alleycat.org/community-cat-care/how-to-find-a-stray-cats-home/.

 

[9] “How to Help a Stray Pet.” The Humane Society of the United States, www.humanesociety.org/resources/how-help-stray-pet.

 

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