Adopting a stray cat can be a very rewarding experience. It is an experience that benefits both the cat and the adopter just as long as things are done in a certain way. But therein lies the rub. It is entirely possible to adopt a stray only to not handle the animal in an appropriate way, leading to an uncomfortable experience for both human and animal.
This guide is intended to act as a bit of helpful advice for adopting a stray cat. It is by no means exhaustive. Anyone seeking to adopt a stray cat should take advantage of every available resource of information. That includes asking questions of veterinarians, shelter workers, animal charity organizations, and other experts.
1. Learn the Difference Between Stray and Feral
The first and most important piece of advice anyone could give is for you to learn the difference between a stray and feral cat. Not only is the difference big, but it will ultimately impact the adoption scenario.
A stray cat is one that is or was a pet. A stray cat is used to being around humans; it is probably not used to surviving outdoors and alone. A feral cat is just the opposite. A feral cat has never been a pet. It was born ‘in the wild’ and has always lived as such. That means it has had very little human contact.
Knowing the difference is important if you are planning to adopt a cat who seems to have adopted you by showing up on your porch looking for food. If there is any reason to suspect you are dealing with a feral cat, adoption is not a wise idea. Feral cats very rarely make good house pets.
2. Consider Adopting from a Shelter
With the idea of feral cats out of the way, some experts recommend limiting adoption to cats already living in shelters. These are cats that have been brought to the shelter either by owners who could no longer care for them or people who found them roaming around in their neighborhoods.
One of the benefits of adopting from a shelter is that the shelter will have done a thorough physical examination of the cat before offering it for adoption. When you adopt from a shelter, you know you will be getting an animal that is in reasonably good health. The cat should be current with its shots as well.
Also note that shelters are unlikely to put a cat up for adoption if they believe the animal cannot be properly socialized as a pet. This means you can be reasonably sure that the animal you adopt is not going to exhibit violent tendencies or other antisocial behaviors.
3. Make Medical Care a Priority
Whether you adopt from a shelter or take in a stray cat that showed up at your door, make medical care a priority. Strays are often unhealthy because they have spent some time alone in an environment they are not familiar with. They may be malnourished; they may be suffering from injury or disease.
An immediate medical evaluation is appropriate for a stray cat you adopt from your neighborhood. That same medical care will be provided by default in a shelter environment. After adoption though, you should make medical care a routine practice until such time as your veterinarian is confident that the animal is in good health.
Hand-in-hand with medical care is knowing the regulations in your local area. Some municipalities require immunizations for cats just as they do dogs. Other municipalities don’t care. Should you plan to allow your cat to spend some time outdoors, also note that there may be ordinances in place regarding spaying and neutering.
As long as we’re talking about spaying and neutering, don’t take any chances with your adopted cat. Unless you have adopted a female that you know for certain you want to breed, have her spayed. Remember that cats are prolific animals. One of the reasons there are so many strays and feral cats is that they reproduce so quickly.
4. Be Patient with Socialization
Some stray cats warm-up to their new owners very quickly and without hesitation. But others, especially if they have been rescued from shelters, take some time to warm up. If you find yourself in the latter situation, be patient. Cats are naturally social creatures – but only if they are comfortable with their surroundings. It will take time for your adopted cat to reach a level of comfort that encourages interaction with humans.
Here are some tips specific to socializing a skittish cat:
- Do not Force Things – Far too many cat adopters try to force socialization on their animals. They pull their cats into their laps and begin stroking the fur, even as the animals are trying to get away. If you are forcing socialization, you are only making your new pet more skittish. Don’t do it.
- Create Hiding Spaces – By nature, cats run and hide whenever they feel threatened. They like to go to safe, quiet spaces where they can process what is going on around them. This is all very normal. You can help the socialization process by creating hiding spaces. Don’t worry, the cat will find them without your help.
- Keep It Down – Even well-socialized cats tend to be wary of loud noise. While your new cat is still warming up to you, do your best to keep it down. Think peace and quiet.
- Leave Out Food and Water – A skittish cat that spends a lot of time in hiding may not get enough food and water. You can help the situation by leaving food and water out in multiple locations. You don’t need a lot; just a little bit at each location is sufficient. This will solve the feeding issue and build confidence in your cat at the same time.
- Ignore the Cat – Believe it or not, the best way to help a skittish cat be more comfortable around you is to ignore it. A cat that is ignored does not feel threatened. It won’t take long before the animal begins to rub up against your leg, for example, to make sure you are marked with its scent. Just continue ignoring until the cat stops its skittish behavior.
5. Establish a Feeding Schedule
Once your newly adopted cat gets over the initial fear and apprehension that has her hiding throughout most of the day, it’s time to pull back on the food. Stray cats that have been left alone long enough begin to act as though they are always starving. They eat anything and everything they can get their paws on.
This habit has to be broken for the cat’s health. The best way to do this is to establish a feeding schedule. Set food and water out at the same time every day. Give the cat a certain amount of time to eat, then take the food away. Your cat will eventually adjust to the schedule. You will benefit by not having to constantly worry about a full food dish; the cat will no longer be tempted to overeat.
While we are on this topic, you may find that your cat is a finicky eater. Don’t make things worse by constantly changing the food you provide. Once you find something that the cat likes, stick with it. There is no need to continually buy different food varieties to keep things new and exciting. Animals do not view food the same way humans do. They don’t care if it is ‘gourmet’, ‘artisan’, or anything else. And they certainly don’t need variety in the same sense that we humans do.
6. It’s Okay If the Cat Won’t Sleep on Your Bed
As far as sleeping arrangements are concerned, newly adopted strays are often not comfortable enough with their new owners to sleep with them. So while you may prefer that the cat jump up on the bed and snuggle in for the night, that may not happen. He may prefer to go find a secluded corner where he feels safe and protected by the furniture surrounding him.
You may end up having a cat that will jump up on the bed, but only after you have fully settled in for the night. The cat may also jump down and run away as soon as you begin stirring in the morning. This sort of behavior suggests that the cat is comfortable enough with you sleep on your bed but still apprehensive enough to stay away while you are awake. Give it time; the cat will eventually come around.
7. Work with Your Cat to Stay Sharp
Our final piece of advice is to work with your cat to stay sharp. Cats are, by nature, predators. They love to hunt. In fact, the average cat sleeps for the majority of the day while using the rest of the time to answer that instinctual call to hunt.
Have you ever noticed how cats tend to wander around the house while they are awake? They do this because they’re looking for something to hunt. You can take advantage of this instinct to keep their skills and mind sharp. You do this by playing. Using things like cat toys, balls of string, and flashlights gives a cat an opportunity to use those natural hunting skills.
For example, you can take a piece of yarn and drag along the floor from room to room. Stop every now and again to give your cat the opportunity to formulate a plan of attack. You’ll notice that he occasionally tries to pounce on the end of the string. This is normal, natural, and healthy.
Cats love to chase their prey, too. This is where a flashlight comes in handy. Project the flashlight on the floor and move it around slowly. Your cat will begin following. If the cat is especially enthusiastic, you can speed up the movement until chasing ensues. This is great mental and physical exercise for your cat.
Adopting a stray cat requires a certain level of commitment. If you are willing to put forth the effort, adoption can be a very rewarding experience for you and your cat. Hopefully, the advice you gleaned from this guide will be useful to your endeavors as a pet owner.
If you have any questions about pet adoption, your local shelter can probably answer them. Any medical questions should be referred to a qualified veterinarian. Above all, know that you will get out of your cat adoption what you put into it. The more time and effort you give to your cat, the better your relationship will be.