What to Do If You Find a Stray Cat
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In this AnimalWised article, we address an important issue regarding animal welfare. In this case, we are specifically dealing with cats which do not have a home with a human family. We do so by explaining what to do if you find a stray cat. There are various issues regarding stray cats and their well-being. Considering the different issues stray cats have to face, there are certain things we can do to help them. Not all of them involve direct intervention. It is important we prioritize the needs of both adult stray cats and kittens over our own desire to interact with them.
Whether you have stray cats coming to your home or you have noticed them living nearby, we have a practical guide to help. This involves knowing more about feeding stray cats, providing shelter and the related health issues which come from living on the street.
How to tell if a cat is stray
When we refer to domestic cats, we may think of a cat which lives in a home. While cats as companion animals and all of their different breeds are types of domestic cat, the term actually refers to a cat species (Felis catus). Many domestic cats are companion animals (pets) which cohabitate with humans. However, many of this species do not live as a companion animal.
While many domestic cats may live independently in the wild or near human settlements, this doesn't mean they are the same species as true wild cats. Most of them are what we refer to as feral cats. These are cats which have never been companion animals, even if they may have descended from them. If the cat grows up in a non-human environment, they are feral.
This makes identifying a stray cat somewhat difficult. A stray cat is not exactly the same as a feral cat. They are a domestic cat which once lived with humans, but no longer does so. This is where the term ‘stray’ comes from, implying that the cat has become lost. However, the cat may have been abandoned rather than lost.
A feral cat which has lived alone their entire life will probably have physical evidence that this is the case. Their fur may not be as healthy looking due to an inadequate diet or be matted due to outdoor living. For similar reasons, they may be quite thin or have distended bellies due to malnutrition. They may also have scars, wounds or pieces of ear missing due to fights with other animals.
Stray cats may develop these problems after living outside of a human family for a time. However, if you see a cat with healthy looking fur and a sense of general wellness, it is possible they have become lost. A recently stray cat may also be more approachable thanks to their familiarity with people. In these cases, we need to make an effort to find the cat's owners.
The difficulty is explaining exactly what is a stray, a feral cat or not. A cat may have lived all of their lives away from humans, may have once been in a family or may have only recently found themselves to be free roaming. For the purposes of this article, we explain what to do if the cat is stray or feral and may use the terms interchangeably.
What to do if you find a stray cat
If the cat is likely a stray, we will need to do all we can to find their owners. To do so, we need to follow the following steps:
- Take them to a veterinarian. At the clinic they will have a microchip reader which is passed over the cat to see if they have been chipped. If so, the address and other contact details of the owners should appear on the database.
- If there is no chip, then you will need to contact your nearest animal shelter and see if anyone has reported the cat missing. You can also put up some posters in the shelter and leave your details with them in case the owners go there also. If you are unable to look after the cat, even temporarily, you can tell the animal shelter and they will likely take them in, although this may depend where you are.
- Put up posters in your neighborhood with your information and a picture of the cat.
- Go on to local internet forums to see if anyone has posted a lost cat update which meets the description of the stray cat which has come to your house.
- After some time has elapsed, it is likely you will not find the cat's original owners. In these cases, you will either have to give the cat up to an animal shelter, find a suitable family yourself or meet the responsibility of their care.
If the stray is a feral cat which has no human family to return to, then it is less likely they will adapt to living in a home. This does not necessarily mean they will not approach you, nor does it mean there are not things you can do to help them.
How to call a stray or feral cat
As we stated above, a feral cat may not be willing to approach a human. This is usually because the difference in size is intimidating to the cat and they simply haven't been properly socialized with humans. However, the cat may be willing to come near your home. Since they are looking for resources in the form of food and shelter, they may be willing to get over their fear and come nearer to you.
If this is the case, the best thing you can do is let the cat dictate the pace. Make them aware of your presence, but do not scare them. Bring them some food (see below) and call them gently. When the cat approaches, let them make the first move. You can tell by their body language whether they are scared or receptive to interaction.
Slowly, offer your hand and let them smell or rub against it. This way the cat will develop some trust. Be careful if you see any signs of fear. A feral cat may attack. If they scratch or bite you, they may transmit disease since they are predispsoed to these problems in the wild.
Once the cat approaches you without fear and allows interaction, you will still need to be very gentle. Do not try to pick them up and be careful not to show any signs of aggression, even if this is unintentional. We also have a more in-depth look at how to approach a feral cat.
What to feed stray cats
Especially in a rural setting, stray cats will have access to various small prey, including birds, mice and even lizards. Feral cats which live near humans, may also supplement their diet with refuse and any food which is left out for them. This happens more in cities were human refuse is often plentiful.
Although often a solitary animal, many feral or stray cats will live in cat colonies. This is usually due to the cats coming together to help with their resources and meet any social needs they may have. Some cat colonies exist on their own, but others are engendered by human intervention. As a result of leaving food out, feral cats may congregate together and tolerate each others' presence.
The food we provide to a feral cat is exactly the same as we would for any domestic cat. Despite their different circumstances, their physiology is the same. We need to feed them a diet based on animal protein. A good quality commercial cat food is ideal, but you can make homemade food if this is not available. Just ensure you avoid any food which the cat cannot tolerate.
Also be careful when leaving food out for stray cats. It may also attract other animals, such as ants, rats or raccoons. Ideally, only leave the food out when they you are present and remove any they don't eat.
Shelters for stray cats
In addition to providing food, another thing you can to do help stray cats is provide shelter. They are subject to the elements, so adverse weather conditions can harm them. By providing a sheltered area, you can protect them from cold wind, rain and even sun. Ideally, we can even make one ourselves. Even a plastic crate or wooden box with the right covering can be a suitable shelter for cats.
Where we place the shelters for stray cats will depend on where the colony is. If you place the shelters too near your neighbor's property, they may be annoyed. Also, you should avoid anywhere which is likely to be vandalized. Finally, we should also speak to our local animal authority. There are various laws and guidelines which may may helping a cat colony difficult. There may also be campaigns to help stray cats in place, so ensure you are helping and not hindering such programs.
What else can we do to help stray cats?
Ideally, all cats will have a guardian who is able to take care of their needs. Since they are domestic animals, their are ideally suited to human companionship. Another issue is the overpopulation of cats in general. Since humans have contributed to their proliferation, we have unintentionally created a situation where there are too many cats for the ecosystems they inhabit.
An overpopulation of cats can lead to various problems. These include the negative effect it has on local fauna as well as the problems these cats themselves face. For this reason, many trap-neuter-return programs have been initiated to limit cat reproduction among stray cats. It not only prevents unnecessary litters, but we prevent the spread of disease which can occur through mating or fighting over mating. Neutering cats can also provide them with overall better health, a boon to feral animals since they don't have access to veterinarians.
Feral and stray cat colonies can easily lead to the spread of disease, especially viral problems such as feline immunodeficiency virus or feline leukemia virus. If we see that one of the cats in a colony is particularly unwell, we should take them to a veterinarian if possible. This will help reduce the possibility of the other animals developing the same problems.
Whatever the situation, it is vital we look around at what animal organizations in our local area have to say. We should enquire to see if they have any cat colonies which can take the cats. They will likely have better resources available than we do. For example, they can provide cover when other guardians take holiday, etc. They will also be able to inform us about any issues there may be locally about stray cats.
Another important factor is that professionals will know how to best take care of the stray cats. They can monitor for health conditions, provide a safe space and meet their general needs. Many will also be rehabilitation sanctuaries. This means they help the stray cats to be healthy, socialize them properly with people and can find homes for them to have better lives. They will also take care of various health needs.
Deworming stray cats
Especially in areas where there are controlled cat colonies, there may be local ordinances which determine deworming programs for strays. Deworming is a preventive measure which helps to avoid both internal and external parasites in cats. If you have stray cats regularly coming to your home, deworming is beneficial to both the cats and anyone who lives in your home.
If you are unsure what to do, contact animal associations in your area. They can advise about the best products to use. Some deworming products may not be useful since we cannot easily administer them to cats. Tablets in their food may be the best course of action.
How to trap stray cats
Whether due to nuisance issues or wanting to protect them, some people will want to trap a stray cat. This is not advised for people with no experience. If you have issues with feral cats and do not know what to do, contact your local animal rescue services. They can determine the best course of action and trap them humanely if it is suitable. They will also have a special cage to trap them without causing harm.
It is also important to know the law regarding trapping cats. If you have started a large enough feral cat colony, it is possible there may be some legal issues. You may have to contact your local authority to ensure you are allowed to operate a cat colony. Applying for a license may also be entailed, depending on where you live.
Legally, owning a stray cat is also a gray area. Contact your local animal services to ensure you are doing everything right.
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1. Morris, D. (1988). Observe Your Cat. Barcelona: Plaza and Janés.