How to Help a Stray Cat
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How to Help a Stray Cat

Est. read time: 7 min.

Finding a stray cat can be a heart-wrenching, confusing, and potentially dangerous experience. With an estimated 70 million cats roaming freely in the US, it's likely you or someone you know will encounter one. We checked in with the folks at The Humane Society to find out how to help a stray pet.

Stray vs. Feral Cats

Remember that not every cat wandering around is stray—or feral for that matter.

Feral cats have had little-to-no contact with humans and are too poorly socialized to be handled and placed in a typical home. Kittens born to feral cats can be adopted and socialized, however.

Stray cats have strayed from their owner for some reason. They are tame and typically well-socialized, but may become wary over time. A stray's kittens, for example, may become feral.

Altogether, free-roaming feral and stray cats are part of the larger domestic cat family. To help determine if the cat you've encountered is stray or feral, consider the following:

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  • Stray cats may approach people, houses, porches, or cars, whereas feral cats will seek hiding places to avoid people.
  • A stray cat will likely live alone, whereas a feral cat may belong to a colony.
  • Stray cats might walk and move like a housecat with their tails up (a sign of friendliness), whereas feral cats may crawl, crouch, stay low to the ground, and protect their body with their tail.
  • A stray cat is more likely to look at you, blink, and make eye contact, whereas feral cats are unlikely to make eye contact.
  • Stray cats may meow or "answer" your voice, whereas feral cat's won't meow, beg, or purr.
  • A stray cat will be visible primarily in the daytime, whereas feral cats are more likely to be nocturnal and only occasionally out during the day.
  • Stray cats will probably be dirty or disheveled (feeling stressed and out of place), whereas feral cats may have a clean, well-kept coat.
  • A stray cat will not have an eartip, whereas feral cats are more likely to have been trapped, neutered, and returned under a TNR program, which marks the cats by clipping the tip of one ear.
  • Even after noting these distinctions, it may be difficult to tell if you're dealing with a stray or feral cat. Continue with caution.

How to Help a Stray Cat

Be Careful and Prepare

If you are driving and spot a stray animal, be careful not to cause an accident. Brake with care, pull over in a legal zone, and use your hazard lights if necessary. You may need to use emergency flares or signal other cars to slow down if the animal is in or near the roadway. Remember: you will be of no help to the stray if you're held up or injured.

Before you exit your vehicle or home, collect some items that might be helpful:

  • a collar, leash, rope, or your belt
  • a towel, blanket, or piece of cloth
  • strong-smelling food like canned tuna or liver
  • road flares
  • cell phone

Approaching the Stray Animal

We know you mean well, but the stray animal doesn't. It might be sick or injured, and it's definitely on guard. Move slowly and quietly to avoid frightening the animal and causing it to run away.

If the animal looks threatening or behaves aggressively, return to your vehicle or home and call your local animal control agency or the police.

Once you're in close range of the animal, use extreme caution. The closer you get, the more likely you are to be scratched or bitten—even if the animal hasn't been aggressive thus far. Move slowly and stay in the animal's line of sight; it's feeling vulnerable and may act to protect itself. Speak calmly and reassure the animal.

Entice it to come closer with vocalizations or the strong-smelling food. If you were able to locate a leash, carrier, or blanket, use it to restrain the animal. If successful, decide what you plan to do next: Do you need animal control to pick up the animal? Can you take it to an animal shelter? Are you planning to take it home and schedule a vet appointment?

Contact Your Local Animal Control Agency

If you cannot restrain the animal, but are "babysitting" it, call your local animal control agency. Let them know your location, the type of animal you have encountered, and what condition it is in. Ask if they are able to pick up the animal and how long it will be until they arrive.

If you are able to restrain the animal and get it into your car, take it to the nearest animal shelter. Protect your car upholstery and reduce the animal's anxiety by surrounding the animal with old towels or a blanket.

We do not recommend driving with an unrestrained animal in the car. It might become frantic, distract you, and/or wedge itself under a seat and become difficult (and dangerous) to remove.

At the Animal Shelter

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Shelter staff will perform an intake of the animal, oftentimes retrieving the stray cat from your car for you. They will ask you for whatever information you can supply (such as the location the animal was found), and you should ask what type of examination they will perform.

Request that the animal be checked for a microchip. If the animal has this type of identification, you'll be able to locate the owner right away.

Before you relinquish the animal, take a few photos of it. Capture the face, fur color and pattern, and size clearly, so you can post a found ad in your local newspaper, on Craigslist, your social media pages, and those of your city. Note the location where the animal was found and the shelter where it was turned in.

Before you leave, let the shelter know if you're willing to take the animal in the event no owner is located.

Taking a Stray Animal Home

You may decide to bypass the shelter and take the animal into your home. There are many reasons why you may not want to take a stray animal to a shelter in your area, like overcrowding, for example.

You should call your local shelters to inform them that you have found an animal and give a description in case the animal's owner has contacted them. You should also make time to visit the shelter, so they can check if the animal is microchipped.

Make sure to keep your pets separate from the found pet. It could be sick, fearful, or aggressive with other animals. Schedule a vet appointment and get the found animal checked out. Once you know it is in good health, carefully introduce the found animal to your pets.

Keep in mind that in most states, you don't become the owner of a found animal until a waiting period (as decided by your locality) has elapsed, which gives you time to find the original owner and/or take steps to prove that you intend to be the owner (like getting a license and vaccines for the animal).

Be Prepared, Dear Rescuer!

If you’re the kind of person who is always rescuing animals, it’s a good idea to be prepared and store some things in your car:

  • cat carrier or cardboard box (tip: store it flat and pop it open when needed)
  • heavy blanket
  • old towels
  • collars and leashes
  • strong smelling foods, such as easy-open canned tuna or dried liver
  • water bowl and bottles of water
  • flashlight
  • protective gloves
  • animal first-aid kit

A Final Thought

When you see a stray animal and you're not sure what to do, consider what you would want a stranger to do if you lost your precious pet. You'd hope that person would stop, be gentle and kind to your scared pet, and do all they could to get it care and find its owner—you.

That said, as animal lovers, we know there's a limit to the amount of time and money we can invest in rescuing a stray. For those times when you can't afford to invest too much, even a call to notify your local animal control or shelter that you have observed a stray in your neighborhood can be enough to provide a lead for a searching owner.