What to Do With a Stray Cat (2024)

If you find a stray cat, ensure its safety, then try to locate its owner. If you can’t, reach out to a local rescue group for help, or consider adopting it.

Lindsay VanSomeren
Lindsay VanSomeren
  • 8 years in insurance and personal finance writing

  • Former data scientist for U.S. Geological Survey

Lindsay is a freelance personal finance writer currently pursuing her Series 65 license. She enjoys helping readers learn money management skills that improve their lives.

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Ashley Cox
Edited byAshley Cox
Headshot of Managing Editor Ashley Cox
Ashley CoxSenior Managing Editor
  • 7+ years in content creation and management

  • 5+ years in insurance and personal finance content

Ashley is a seasoned personal finance editor who’s produced a variety of digital content, including insurance, credit cards, mortgages, and consumer lending products.

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Updated March 18, 2024

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So you’ve found a cute kitty outside, and you want to make sure it’s healthy and safe. You may even be thinking about taking it home.

First, check if the cat is in immediate danger. If not, figure out if it’s simply a neighbor’s pet that’s allowed to roam outside, a feral cat living in a colony, or if it truly is a domestic cat that’s lost or abandoned.

Here’s how to tell the difference so you can help your feline friend.

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How to determine if a cat is feral or stray

Not all cats who wander outside are lost and in need of help. Outdoor cats generally fall into four categories:[1]

  • Cats abandoned by previous owners

  • Found cats, with concerned owners trying to find their lost pet

  • Community cats living in a colony without any clear owner

  • Free-roaming cats owned by someone in your neighborhood

It’s not always easy to tell which type of cat you’ve found, and you’ll usually need to weigh a few pieces of evidence. Here are a few clues to look for:

  • Collar: Look for contact info on the cat’s collar. If the cat doesn’t have a collar, you can print out a paper collar or buy a break-away collar, and put your contact information on it with a note asking the owner to contact you.

  • Ear tip: Spayed and neutered community cats usually have the tip of their ear notched or surgically removed to give people a visual indicator of the cat’s status.

  • Microchip: This requires taking the cat to a local vet or the nearest animal shelter to be scanned, but it can provide the most direct answer about whether the cat has an owner.

  • Friendliness: Often, a very friendly cat indicates it’s someone’s current or former pet rather than a stray animal — although some community cats are friendly, too.

  • Body condition: Well-fed cats usually have someone else taking care of them. Very skinny cats are more likely to be feral, lost, or abandoned.

What to do if you find a lost cat

Most people’s first instinct is to take a lost cat to the local shelter, but the Humane Society of the United States recommends avoiding this if possible due to a lack of space and funding. Here’s what rescue organizations advise instead:

  1. Canvas the neighborhood. Most lost cats are found within one-third of a mile of where they went missing, meaning the cat’s family is probably nearby. Try knocking on doors first, and if that doesn’t work, post flyers with a photo of the cat in your local area and on social media.[2]

  2. File a report. Notify local authorities or animal control that you’ve found the cat. If the owner also filed a missing cat report, it’ll be easier to match the cat with its owner. It’s also a good idea to reach out to neighbors and local social media groups to see if anyone is missing their cat.

  3. Care for the cat. Provide food and water for the cat. If you’re able to handle it safely, see if you can collect it in a cat carrier to get scanned for a microchip at the nearest vet while you search for its owner.

What to do with a stray cat

If you’ve tried searching for the cat’s owner to no avail, here are a few great ways you can help:

  • Reach out to local community groups. Many formal nonprofit organizations or informal local groups offer help in these cases. Volunteers may be able to care for the cat if you can’t, assist you with trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, and more.

  • Lure the cat. Stray cats often form colonies. You can prevent this or slow their growth by trapping the cat and taking it to a local veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and treated for any diseases.

  • Check for a litter of kittens. Mother cats with kittens need special handling and care. Human contact is especially important for young kittens, who have a better chance of being adopted as pets than older kittens who may remain feral.[3]

  • Care for the outdoor cat. It’s rare for feral cats to adapt to pet life, and, generally, they’re best left alone with light human support. Provide a regular source of food and water, and consider building a safe place for the cat to stay during inclement weather.

What to know before adopting a stray cat

Not all homeless cats can adapt to indoor life, but many can. If you have a very sociable cat that allows you to handle it and perhaps even shows interest in coming inside your house, chances are it’s a good candidate to adopt. Here’s the best way to do it.

1. Take it to a vet

If you’ve already done everything you can to make sure the cat doesn’t have an owner, the next step is to take the cat to the vet for a checkup. The vet can scan it for a microchip (if not scanned already), and you’ll get a baseline report of its health.

Outdoor cats can host a range of contagious diseases for humans and other pets, so the veterinarian will check for worms, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), other diseases, and any injuries that need treatment.

You’ll need to have the cat spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and start it on any preventative treatment for fleas and ticks, if appropriate. It’s also important to have a microchip implanted under its skin so that if it gets loose again, you’ll be able to find your buddy.

Learn More: How Much Is a Vet Visit for a Cat?

Learn More: How Much Is a Vet Visit for a Cat?

2. Register its microchip

A microchip provides a unique number that a scanner can look up in a national database. If you don’t take the time to add your name and contact information to one or more of these databases, the microchip may be useless.

Unfortunately, about 40% of pet owners don’t register their pet’s microchip because they forget or don’t know it was required. Without current contact information, someone who finds your new furry friend won’t be able to return it to you in a timely manner, if at all.[4]

3. Introduce it into your home

You may need to take some time to get your new cat used to living in your home, especially if you have other pets. Keep your new cat isolated away from other animals for at least two weeks during a quarantine phase to protect your other pets. It’s a stressful time for your new cat, and it may be more likely to show any latent illnesses during this phase.

Over time, you can start getting your pets used to each other’s scent by swapping their bedding, before moving on to short supervised visits (ideally, across a baby gate at first). Keep a leash on your dog at this point until you know it’s safe to trust it around your new cat.[5]

4. Consider pet insurance

Veterinary costs for any cat aren’t cheap, even after you get over the initial visit. Purchasing pet insurance is often the best way to ensure your new cat stays as healthy and happy as possible once it’s joined your household.

With pet insurance, you choose a deductible and reimbursement rate, as well as the type of coverage you want (accident, accident and illness, or wellness). Compare quotes from at least three different pet insurance companies to find a policy that meets your needs.

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Stray cat FAQs

Caring for stray cats can be very rewarding but also challenging. Here’s some more information about stray cats that can help.

  • Is it OK to take in a stray cat?

    If the stray cat isn’t someone else’s pet and doesn’t pose a danger to you or your animals, it’s OK to take in a stray cat.

  • How can you tell if a cat is a stray?

    Stray cats often don’t have a collar or microchip. Community members can also provide clues about whether the cat has an owner or not. You can also report it to local animal control facilities, in case anyone reports it missing.

  • How do you adopt a stray cat?

    First, make sure the cat really is a stray and doesn’t belong to a neighbor who lets it roam loose. If it doesn’t have an owner, you’ll need to build trust so you can handle it and take it to a vet. When you can verify it’s healthy, you can integrate it into your home.

  • What should you do with a stray cat that you brought home?

    Report the cat to your local animal control agency, in social media community groups, and check with neighbors on the street where you found the cat. Keep it confined and separate from your other pets, with food, water, and litter, until you can verify its ownership.

Sources

  1. Humane Society of the United States. "How to help a “stray” or “found” cat."
  2. Humane Society of the United States. "How to find a lost cat."
  3. Humane Society of the United States. "What to do if you find kittens."
  4. American Veterinary Medical Association. "On Check the Chip Day, a lifesaving reminder to ensure pets are microchipped with current contact info."
  5. Humane Society of the United States. "How to introduce new cats to your home."
Lindsay VanSomeren
Lindsay VanSomeren

Lindsay VanSomeren is a freelance personal finance writer living in Suquamish, WA. Her work has appeared with FICO, Credit Karma, The Balance, and more. She enjoys helping people learn how to manage their money better so they can live the life they want.

Ashley Cox
Edited byAshley CoxSenior Managing Editor
Headshot of Managing Editor Ashley Cox
Ashley CoxSenior Managing Editor
  • 7+ years in content creation and management

  • 5+ years in insurance and personal finance content

Ashley is a seasoned personal finance editor who’s produced a variety of digital content, including insurance, credit cards, mortgages, and consumer lending products.

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