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Stray Cat Tips
What to do if you find a stray cat... or one finds you

Helping An Outdoor Cat

If you see a new cat outdoors, you may think he's lost.  But with many feral cats living as wildlife, and many pet cats allowed outside (without collars), proceed cautiously.  Rescuing may not be necessary or even the best decision.  Unless the cat is in danger, observe him for a few days to ensure he really needs help.  First you want to determine if this is a pet that goes out, a feral cat, or a lost cat:

Outdoor Pet Cat Characteristics.  Friendly, well-groomed cats are probably pets that go outdoors.  They're comfortable with people and may try to come inside.  Females and neutered males are usually neighborhood cats -- they seldom roam -- but intact male cats do -- so they may live far away.

Feral and Lost Cat Characteristics.  It's hard to tell a feral cat from a lost cat because pets revert to feral behaviors when they're lost and scared.  Both come out at night and hide during the day.  When approached, they can both show signs of aggression (hiss, growl, bared teeth, arched back) and will run if you make eye contact.  The differences are subtle. 

A feral cat may be better groomed, than a recently-lost pet who hasn't adjusted to living outdoors.  If you start feeding them, eventually both will trust you -- but the pet will begin acting like a companion while the feral cat will stay skittish -- especially around others.

Companion Cat Tips

Locating A Lost Companion Cat's Guardian

If the cat looks lost, try to find his guardian -- that's what you would want if you lost your pet.  Don't assume the cat is lost because the guardian was "uncaring or abandoned him" -- anyone can lose their cat.  If the cat's hungry or dirty, that probably happened after he got lost -- street life takes a quick toll on house cats.  Here how to find the guardian:

  • To make sure that the apparently-lost cat isn't really an outdoor pet, put a collar on with a note -- if someone is caring for him, they'll call.

  • Alert neighbors.  A lost indoor-only cat is very frightened and will hide even from the guardian.  Also alert neighborhood children -- they know the local pets.

  • Have the cat scanned for a microchip ID tag.

  • Notify shelters.  If you can, foster the cat rather than turning it in.  Shelters hold strays for only a few days and may euthanize them after that.  If you foster, make sure your pets and children are kept away until the cat is seen by a vet.

  • Put photo posters in pet stores and vet clinics -- and use the poster to also solicit a new guardian if the original one isn't found.

  • Check classifieds for lost pets.  Run an ad including a brief description and location but holding back an identifying detail for safety.
If your attempts to find the cat's home fail, continue caring for the cat as an outdoor pet until a new home is found -- or if not possible, try a shelter.

Feral Cat Tips

Feral Cat Options

If the cat is feral, there may already be a caregiver providing food, water and dry shelter -- and there are probably other cats living there that you don't see because they are more timid.  If there isn't a caregiver, unless you're prepared to become one, leave the cat(s) alone -- that's their home and they've adapted to it -- it's probably better than any alternatives.  Feral cats are not adoptable so removing them usually results in euthanasia.  Most major animal groups today recommend feral cat management (TNR) over removing cats -- and TNR is also the most effective and most humane way to reduce their numbers.  Here's how it works:

Managing A Feral Cat Colony

First, secure property owner permission -- feeding the cats raises their visibility -- which, without permission, may not be in their best interest.  Begin feeding meals -- leaving food and water out for about a half-hour and then taking away the excess.  Pick a convenient time -- in the daylight. It's important to be dependable and consistent.  If you're unavailable, have someone sub for you.  Feeding is a management tool -- over time you'll meet the entire colony and can monitor them for newcomers.

In the winter months you'll also want to make sure they have adequate shelter -- under a porch, a dog house filled with straw, an accessible shed or outbuilding.  Cold is not a major problem.  Cats grow heavy winter coats just like other wildlife, but have no house-building skills and can die from hypothermia if they get wet and cannot dry off.

Feral Cat Sterilization Is Key

Once you have the colony managed, it's time to trap the cats and get them spayed or neutered.  This limits the colony size, and keeps the cats healthier.  Intact tom cats fight and their injuries eventually catch up with them.  Females become emaciated from repetitive pregnancies.

If kittens are born before the colony is completely neutered, you can either leave them to sterilize when they are a few months old, or preferably, pull them at a very early age (under10 weeks) to socialize and find indoor homes for them -- for details on this, see our Kitten Care and Sociization" handout.

Managed, feral cats can live a quality life for over 10 years -- and caring for them can be very rewarding for both you and the cats.

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