What to Do with a Stray Cat

It happens to people all the time. You’re sitting in your house or apartment and you hear a faint meowing coming from outside your door. You open the door to find a pair of adorable little eyes staring up at you looking longingly for a home. You try to ignore it at first, but after a couple days it becomes clear that you have made a new friend. So what do you do when a stray cat chooses you to direct its pleas? There are a few steps that should always be taken in this situation, but many of your options are really up to you.

The first important distinction to make in this situation is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat. Though domesticated animals by practice, some cats have never properly lived in a home and have no desire to do so. These cats should be treated differently from strays. Feral cats are usually afraid of humans. They don’t like being touched or picked up, and they generally try to fend for themselves when it comes to food. Unfortunately, most feral cats find that they can’t subsist on their hunting abilities alone, so they often adopt a human caretaker purely as someone to put out food for them. If the cat you hear outside runs away when you try to come to his aid and has a “scrappy” look about him, he’s probably feral.

You can choose to start feeding him, but in doing so, realize that you are setting up an agreement between yourself and the cat. Once he associates you with food, the cat will know to keep coming around, so be ready for the responsibility of providing continued sustenance. Your other option is to just ignore a feral cat. Eventually he will move along to try to find someone else willing to fill a food bowl.

Not all stray cats are feral cats. If the cat that haunts your porch is willing to let you approach and pet him, he’s probably used to being around people. Furthermore, if the kitty looks like he’s not used to fending for himself independently, it’s a safe bet that he was either lost or abandoned. Both options are equally likely, so don’t immediately assume the cat is unwanted. If the cat seems especially friendly, the best first step is to take him to a local shelter or veterinarian and have him scanned for a microchip. It could be that someone out there is frantically looking for their lost cat, so you could be part of their reunion.

In order to get the cat into your car, you’ll likely want to restrain him somehow since driving with an unfamiliar animal isn’t the best idea. Find a neighbor who owns a cat and ask if you can borrow their carrier to make the trip. This way you can be sure you won’t end up with your backseat torn to shreds by rogue claws.

If the shelter or vet finds the owner, that’s great. Your job as a responsible citizen is done. If not, you’re left with several choices. Your first option is to leave the cat at the shelter. While many shelters have fees to surrender an animal, this will almost always be waived for the good Samaritan bringing in a found kitty. Unfortunately, you must come to terms with the shelter’s rules. Most shelters all over the country are well over their capacity and have very high kill-rates as a result. There are no-kill shelters out there, but they are rare. Realize that by leaving your found cat at the shelter, he might not have longer than a few days to be adopted out.

Your next option is to bring the cat back home with you. Put up signs around your neighborhood advertising a “found cat.” If your kitty was lost by someone in the area but isn’t microchipped, you could still find the owner this way. Be sure not to include too much information about the cat on your signs. If the owner comes looking, he should be able to describe his lost cat to you. Do your best to make sure you’re actually relinquishing to cat to his proper home because, unfortunately, there are bad people in the world whose intentions are less than honorable.

If you don’t hear from the kitty’s owner within a week or so, you’re unlikely to find him. Now you can decide if you want to keep the cat as your pet. If so, that’s great news. Make sure you do your research about how to be a good cat owner and provide your new friend with a good home. This includes taking your new kitty to the vet immediately to have him microchipped and given a thorough checkup. If you already have cats at home, keep your new cat separate from them until after the vet has been able to test him for the slew of communicable diseases that can be passed between cats.

If you can’t have or don’t want to adopt the cat, that is perfectly understandable. After all, you didn’t ask for this kitty to show up on your doorstep, and extenuating circumstances like allergies or no-pet clauses in your lease might make keeping him impossible. Still, there are a few things you can do to try to make the stray’s life a little easier. Once again, you’re left with the decision as to whether or not to feed the cat. Once you do, the cat will consider you to be the source of his food until he has a better option. If you decide not to feed the cat, he will eventually move along to find someone who will.

If the kitty seems comfortable outside and you have the means to partially “adopt” an outdoor cat, you can take responsibility by feeding your furry friend and let him live his life outside. With this option, you’re agreeing to keep the cat fed and watered as well as to take responsibility for his medical expenses if the need arises. If you live in a warm climate, many cats can survive outdoor year-round meaning your lease forbidding animals or your allergies wouldn’t be a problem because you would keep the cat outside. If the cat looks less hearty, however, it’s only fair to realize that he wants to have a home again.

Once you’re sure that the cat’s proper owners aren’t coming for him and know that you can’t take care of him, try doing all you can to find him a new home. Ask around at work, school, or among your friends. If the cat seems friendly, hopefully you’ll be able to find someone you know you can trust who is looking for a new pet. Invite them over to meet and play with the cat to see if it’s a good match. You could make your friend and your found feline very happy.

In the meantime, while you’re helping the lost kitty with his home search, try your best to set up his temporary quarters as comfortably as possible. Buy a little cat food to put out and keep a bowl of water constantly filled. Keep an eye on how much he is eating, and remember that not all cats are used to dry food. If the kitty seems to be turning up his nose at your cuisine, you can try adding a little water to the dry food, you can cave and get a few cans of wet food. If the weather is nice, the kitty should be comfortable sleeping outside, but if it’s cold out, do your best to give him a warm place to sleep. If you’re allowed animals where you live, leave the cat in a small space like a bathroom overnight where you can be sure he won’t do too much damage. If you’re not allowed pets, putting out a cardboard box with a blanket could be the trick to making sure your feline friend doesn’t freeze.

Once you’ve exhausted all the options you know of, hopefully you’ll have found a new home for your lost kitty. If you’re still left without any leads, try calling around to find a cat rescue or a no-kill shelter in your area that could take him in. Many rescues have long waiting lists, but if you can keep the cat happy and healthy for a little up to a few months, a spot might open up.

All of these options might seem like a lot of work for an animal that just showed up on your doorstep. Don’t feel guilty if you simply can’t put too much effort into finding a new home for this stray. The more you can do for the lost animal, however, the better chance he has of finding a new life with someone who will love him as much as he deserves.

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