You step outside to retrieve a package from the porch when suddenly you hear what sounds like a cat meowing. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you spot her: the most adorable little cat you have ever seen in your life. You wonder who she belongs to.
A half-hour later you notice the cat still on your porch. Now you’re starting to think she’s a stray. You decide it’s your moral and ethical responsibility to take the cat in and care for her until her owner can be located. But do you know what to do? A lot of people don’t, and it leads to problems for the cats.
Taking care of a stray cat isn’t something to be taken lightly. If you find yourself in such a position, do plenty of research through reputable sources like the Humane Society. Your local animal shelter can also be a great source of information. Before I get into the details, here is a quick list of the 8 helpful points I suggest to get you pointed in the right direction:
- Determine if it’s a stray or a feral
- Feed it with care
- Create a shelter for it
- Seek medical care if needed
- Brush the cat’s hair
- Treat any flea infestation
- Be on the lookout for the cat’s owners
- Consider spaying or neutering
1. Determine If It’s Stray or Feral
The first thing to do if you want to help a stray cat is to determine whether the animal truly is a stray or not. There is a big difference between stray and feral animals. According to the Humane Society, a stray cat is a “pet who has been lost or abandoned, is used to contact with people and is tame enough to be adopted.” That’s simple enough to understand, right?
On the other hand, a feral cat is not a pet. It is an animal that lives apart from humans and is, therefore, not used to human contact. Why is this important? Because a feral cat can pose some level of danger. It can carry disease, or it could suddenly attack without warning if it feels threatened.
You can get a good idea of whether a cat is truly a stray or not just by observing its appearance and behavior. If the animal looks dirty, unkempt, and somewhat gaunt, there’s a good possibility you’re dealing with a feral cat. If the cat is groomed and appears well fed, it’s probably a stray. Also note how the animal reacts to you. Stray cats do not tend to be afraid of people where feral animals are.
2. Feed with Care
One of the first things you are likely to think of is feeding the cat. That’s fine, just feed with care. Don’t put a huge bowl of food on the porch along with an equal amount of milk or water. Cats, like other animals, will eat more than they should if you give them the opportunity.
It’s best to put out a little bit of food a few times per day. Some experts suggest putting out no more than the cat can consume in about a half-hour. Do that two or three times a day spaced out over 12 to 16 hours. If the cat stays around long enough, she will eventually be waiting by your door at feeding time.
Any food left over after feeding should be disposed of. Don’t leave it on the porch unless you are willing to attract other animals along with neighborhood insects.
3. Create a Shelter
Assuming you are unable to find the cat’s owner in a reasonable amount of time, you might consider building a shelter for the animal. Put it in a quiet, safe place if possible. A cat shelter should be 18 to 24 inches tall and at least a couple of feet long. It should be large enough for the cat to occupy comfortably but not so large that it doesn’t insulate. The opening only needs to be 8 to 10 inches wide – just wide enough to get through without allowing too much heat to escape.
You can put straw or something similar in the floor of the shelter. This will help create a dry and warm space for the cat to sleep in. Also do your best to keep the shelter off the ground. If you can put it on your porch, great. If not, put it on top of crates, large stones, or something else that will elevate it slightly.
4. Seek Medical Care
Hopefully your stray cat will warm up to you over time, to the extent that you can pick her up and pet her. This is the time to consider seeking medical care. Taking the cat to the vet will do a couple of things. First, she will get a thorough examination along with any care she requires. Second, the vet may be on the lookout for her after being informed by her owner that she has gone missing. The vet may be your key to reuniting the cat with her owner.
Assuming the cat passes the medical exam with flying colors, you’re good to go for the time being. But do not just assume good health moving forward. Remember that a stray cat is a lost family pet. She may not have any practical experience defending herself against other animals. She may arrive for her next feeding with a wound or two after tangling with another animal. The point is to just keep an eye on her in case she’s injured or shows signs of illness.
5. Brush the Cat’s Hair
According to the Petful.com website, it is a mistake to believe that self-grooming is adequate for cats. It’s not. Cats shed too much hair for self-grooming to take care of it all. The solution is to brush the animal on a regular basis. This will prevent matting and unnecessary dirt build up.
Long-haired cats should be brushed at least once per day. Cats with shorter hair can get away with a brushing one to three times per week. It’s important to brush more frequently during the spring, as that happens to be heavy shedding season for cats.
There is some debate over whether you should brush with or against the natural direction of a cat’s coat. Some say brushing against the natural direction pulls out more shedding hair than going with it. On the other hand, cats don’t necessarily take kindly to such brushing. You may find that your stray cat attempts to bite or scratch you if you brush in the opposite direction.
6. Help Her Fight Fleas
If you never reach the point at which your stray cat is willing to come into your home, you still want to help her fight off fleas. That’s one of the dangers of a cat living outdoors. Thankfully, there are a lot of commercial products available to choose from. Ask your vet or the local animal shelter what works best in your area.
Flea treatments are sold as medications, spot treatments, or collars. The flea collar is probably the least effective. It is also the least expensive. As for spot treatments, they come in multiple forms as well. You can buy them as shampoos, dusts, sprays, liquids, or gels.
Part of helping a stray cat fight fleas is to do regular flea checks. So while you are either feeding or brushing, take a few minutes to inspect the cat’s fur. You are looking for tiny, black specks bouncing around among the hair.
What do you do if you find fleas? First, comb the animal from head to tail with a metal flea comb. You can buy these combs at any local pet store. Also note that you’ll have to comb her several times a day while you are treating her with a medicine or spot treatment. By the way, combing removes adult fleas and eggs simultaneously.
A severe enough flea infestation might require the cat be dipped. This may not be a pleasant experience for either you or the cat. So if you’re uncomfortable doing it yourself, another trip to the vet will be in order. The good thing about flea dips is that their effectiveness is long-lasting.
7. Be on the Lookout for Owners
As difficult as it might be for cat lovers, an indispensable part of caring for a stray cat is to do whatever is necessary to reunite the animal with the family it belongs to. So be on the lookout for the owners of your cat. Check the telephone poles and trees in your neighborhood for signs advertising a missing cat.
Call your local animal shelter to see if anyone has reported a cat missing. Check the newspaper for classifieds, local stores where signs may have been placed, etc. The best thing you can do for your new friend is help her find her way back home, if possible.
You might also post signs or take out ads yourself. The more opportunity for people to know and talk about the stray cat, the greater the chances of a reunion.
8. Think about Spaying or Neutering
In a perfect world, your stray cat would be reunited with her original family and life would go on. That might not happen in your case. If a significant amount of time goes by without finding the cat’s owners, it might be time to think about spaying or neutering the animal.
Spaying and neutering will prevent one stray from producing multiple litters of, what could end up being, feral cats. Though it may seem cruel, it is in the best interests of the animal to have this done. Your vet can handle it for a pretty reasonable cost.
Caring for a stray cat is no small undertaking. Yet there are cat lovers across the country who do it all the time. The point is that caring for strays is possible if you are willing to put the time and effort into it. Just remember that there is a significant difference between a stray and feral cat.
You may find that taking care of a stray means you end up with a new pet of your own. There are plenty of cases of stray animals never being reunited with their original owners. Instead, they are adopted by the people who find them. You may have that experience yourself. But you may not, so be prepared to reunite the stray cat with her owners should they be found.
Finally, the day-to-day practice of caring for a stray cat is all about meeting her needs. Make sure she is fed, sheltered, brushed, and treated for any injuries or illnesses. If her owners come looking for her, you will have helped both them and her in the interim. And if not, you have gained a new furry friend.