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Finding a Stray Cat: What To Do & What NOT To Do

Finding a Stray Cat: What To Do & What NOT To Do

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It’s not uncommon to see cats in your neighborhood, during your daily commute, or running around in public.

Whether they’re outdoor pets, strays, or feral cats, most people can recall seeing them at least once in the past few weeks.

But if you do happen to come across a stray cat, what should you do? Should you try to catch it or leave it alone?

The answer is…it depends. There are different ways to handle cats you find outside, and the methods for helping them largely rely on whether the cat is a stray or feral.

Thankfully, it’s easy to find resources on how to help these animals.

Keep reading to learn what to do if you find a stray cat or a feral cat.

Is The Cat Stray Or Feral?

Though the terms are often used interchangeably, ‘stray’ and ‘feral’ have two very different meanings. 

Stray cats have been socialized and likely owned as a pet in the past, but are currently without human contact and a home.

Feral cats have either never been socialized or have been without human contact for a very long time, usually the majority of their life. 

After four months of age, it’s very unlikely that a feral cat can ever be socialized.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how stray versus feral cats act and react:

 Stray CatsFeral Cats
HumansMay approach people or human-habituated areas, such as houses, porches, etc.Will most likely avoid all contact with people and areas where humans are present
Other CatsWill most likely be aloneMay either be alone or belong to a colony
Body LanguageMay walk with their tail up and make eye contact; i.e., act like a normal housecatWill usually stay low to the ground; may crouch, crawl, hide, and protect its body with its tail; will not make eye contact
VocalizationMay be vocal and meow, purr, or otherwise interact with youWon’t vocalize around humans or interact with you
ActivityMay be active primarily during the day (again, like a housecat)Will most likely be nocturnal or be active during dawn or dusk
AppearanceWill most likely be dirty and disheveled, unused to the elementsWill most likely have a clean and tidy coat; used to the elements

Regardless of whether the cat is a feral or stray, they should still be approached with extreme caution.

Cat bites and scratches can be very painful and become infected easily.

What To Do If You Find A Lost Pet Cat

When you find a lost cat, try to assess whether it’s a pet or a stray. One of the easiest ways to do this is to see if the cat approaches you.

To accomplish this, sit down in a place where the cat can clearly see you. Be patient and see how the cat reacts.

  • If They Approach You – If the cat does approach you, be gentle and quiet. Don’t make sudden movements or try to reach out when the cat comes close enough; let them sniff you and become comfortable.
  • If They Don’t Approach You – If the cat doesn’t want to come to you, don’t try to force them closer or go to them. Skip to the What To Do If You Find A Lost Feral Cat section to learn more about what to do next.

Food is also a great way to entice a cat closer to you. Wet food is usually the most attractive to cats since it has a more pungent smell.

Cats Feral Cats Animals Street Cats Stray Cats

Assess The Cat’s Condition

To a degree, this depends on how comfortable the cat is with you. If they approach you or you’re close enough to see the cat, you’ll be better able to assess their condition.

If at all possible, try to determine: 

  • What the cat’s gender is
  • The cat’s spay/ neuter status
  • Whether the cat is pregnant
  • If the cat is injured or sick

Some of these factors can be very difficult to tell, especially if you don’t know what to look for.

You should, however, be able to quickly tell whether or not the cat is in very poor or even life threatening condition. 

Also, look for other physical characteristics that might hint at the cat’s history. For example, if the cat has advanced hair loss, scars, or seems malnourished.

Try To Identify The Cat

Whether or not you can catch the cat, there are a few steps you can take to try and find an owner. These include:

  • Take Pictures – Take as many pictures as possible of the cat, preferably from different angles. Try to make sure the pictures are clear and close up.
  • Post Online – Using the picture, post on social media about the cat. Make sure to describe it and note the location you last saw it.
  • Put Up Posters – Just like when you post online, use pictures to put up posters around your neighborhood with the cat’s description and last known location.

If you are able to catch the cat, there are more concrete ways to try and find the owner:

  • Check For ID – Give the cat a quick exam to check for a collar or other form of ID; if there’s one present, call the contact information that’s listed.
  • Go To The Vet – If you can afford it, it’s also wise to schedule a vet appointment. They can check for microchips and make sure the cat is healthy.
  • Check Local Shelters – Many shelters have lost cat forms that searching owners can file. Call local shelters to see if they have any forms that match the cat’s description.

In case anyone does contact you, such as through a social media group in answer to your post, make sure to ask for proof before releasing the cat to their custody.

An easy way to do this is to ask the alleged owner for vet references and a photo of the cat.

This way, you can check the cat in the photo against the one you found.

What To Do If The Cat Isn’t Identified

If it’s safe for you to restrain and capture the cat, keep them in a safe place until the owner comes forward or can be identified.

A secluded, quiet room is the best place to keep the cat after the rescue. 

If there are any other animals in the house, make sure to keep them away from the stray until a vet can confirm the cat is free of diseases.

You can use some of the methods identified above to try and find the owners, such as posting in pet or lost and found groups online.

If the cat can’t be identified, you can also seek help from local rescue organizations.

As a last resort, there are also plenty of shelters that are equipped to care for and rehome stray cats.

Before you take a cat to a shelter, be sure that it is a no-kill shelter.

Some shelters across the country get so full that they must euthanize animals that are brought to them.

If at all possible, it is best to avoid bringing an animal to these institutions.

What To Do If You Find A Lost Feral Cat

Feral cats have either never been socialized or socialized a very long time ago, so they won’t be friendly or otherwise interested in you.

In fact, they’ll likely run from you and avoid you as much as possible.

Keep in mind, different states may have varying standards for what counts as a feral cat.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have laws defining what counts as a feral cat and generally giving local governments freedom to adopt their own solutions.

When it comes to feral cats, the goal isn’t to capture, socialize, and rehome them. More often than not, this is impossible once they’re adults.

Instead, your goal should be to capture, spay or neuter, and then release them.

Though it may not sound like it, this is the most humane option for most feral cats.

Trapping, spaying or neutering cats, and then releasing them has many benefits:

  • Prevents Overpopulation – Just one pair of breeding cats can produce over 400,000 offspring in seven years
  • Saves Lives & Money – Fixing and then releasing cats is cheaper (and kinder) than euthanizing them or placing them in shelters
  • Medical Opportunities – These programs allow cats to be treated for fleas, ticks, infections, etc. and vaccinated against common diseases
  • Increases Quality of Life – Releasing fixed feral cats reduces fighting and spraying behaviors, environmental and property damage, and unnecessary wildlife mortality

These are just some of the reasons that you shouldn’t feed or otherwise care for feral cats and feral colonies indefinitely unless you’re prepared to participate in a spay and neuter effort.

If you’re prepared, you can catch feral cats yourself.

Local shelters may also be willing to loan you the proper equipment, including humane traps.

You can also call animal control or a local organization and tell them about the cat’s location. These professionals are experienced with handling feral cats.

Many also have specialized programs that involve capturing, spaying or neutering, and then releasing feral cats.

These are called TNR programs (Trap-Neuter-Return).

Assess The Feral Cat

There are several more challenges to assessing a feral cat versus a stray cat. To make this process easier, below are some simple tips and tricks.

  • Keep Your Distance – Don’t try to approach the cat; this is both to avoid scaring the cat and prevent you from getting hurt.
  • Stay Calm And Still – When assessing the cat, don’t make any sudden moves; remain as calm and still as possible.
  • Look For Physical Markers – Just like when assessing a stray cat, look for gender, spay/ neuter status, pregnancy status, and obvious wounds.

Feral cats are generally on the street longer than stray cats. This means that they’re likely to have more physical evidence of their history.

Scars, evidence of fights, and missing parts of ears of tails are more common. Similarly, missing hair, missing teeth, and fleas or mites are not unusual.

If a cat’s ear has been notched or is missing the tip, they may already be spayed or neutered.

This is called ‘ear tipping’ and is a widely accepted method of marking a feral cat that was part of a TNR effort.

Establish Trust With The Feral Cat

To establish trust with a feral cat in the hopes of catching them, try offering regular food and water.

You’ll need to do this for at least a week for the cat to become accustomed to you; more than likely, it will take longer.

Providing shelter offers further incentive for cats to return to one spot. 

An open box with straw is an easy and affordable way to do this. For winter, you can also use a raised foam cooler.

Once you have the cat’s trust and can capture them safely, you’ll be able to handle their spay or neuter or surrender them to a local organization.

If you or the organization chooses to release the cat after its surgery, you can continue to provide food and/ or shelter if desired.

Call Rescue Or TNR Service

If you decide to involve a local rescue, shelter, or other organization with the feral cat’s capture and surgery, consider these steps to make sure the one you pick is prepared:

  • Ask what their protocol is for feral cats
  • Ask what they intend to do with the cat after it’s trapped
  • Ask if they have the capacity and manpower to take care of the cat

Not all places cover the cost of a spay or neuter surgery. Some require donations on your part to make this possible.

Shelters and rescues have different procedures when it comes to feral cats. These can vary widely.

For example, these organizations may try to do the following:

  • Try to socialize the cat and rehome it
  • Take the cat to a controlled sanctuary
  • Place the cat in a specific feral colony
  • Return the cat to its original location

If the feral cat is approachable and you’ve gained their trust, try to guide them into a carrier for transport to your chosen rescue.

But if the cat is unapproachable, you may need to resort to a humane trap.

Check with the rescue you’re coordinating with to see if they will loan you the equipment.

You can also purchase a humane trap of your own.

Click here to get the top rated humane trap from Amazon.


Both feral and stray cats are unfortunately common. It’s likely you’ve seen at least one in just the last few months.

One of the most important ways you can help them is to safely humanely capture them.

For strays, this means they can be reconnected with their families or adopted into a new forever home.

The future of a feral cat is more unclear. Though they’ll definitely be spayed or neutered, each organization has a different protocol after the surgery.

But no matter what the process is, they’ll be safer than they were before.

Everyone can help make the world a better place for animals, especially cats.

Keep an eye out for strays and feral cats. When you do spot them, lend a helping hand.

Whether it’s calling animal control or caring for the cat yourself, you’re creating a brighter and safer future for these four-legged friends.

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