What to Do If You Find a Stray Cat

First, is the cat really a stray, or something else? Here's how to find out.

Updated February 9, 2024
Stray cats relaxing on city street

If you open your front door to find a stray cat, your first instinct might be to take them in as your own. This is a great thought, but before you start picking out names and shopping for toys, you'll want to make sure the kitty is, in fact, a stray.

It would be a huge bummer to open your home (and heart!) to a sweet kitty, only to learn that they already have a family who is worried sick about them. On the other hand, you don't want to leave a sick or lost cat out in the cold. Use these tips for figuring out if a cat is feral, stray, lost, or just a roaming pet, then learn what you can do to help them.  

Is It Really a Stray Cat?

Every outdoor cat isn't automatically a stray. It's important to know the difference between feral cats, strays, lost pets, and roamers.

Stray cat portrait

Stray Cat

A stray cat is one that's been socialized with people at one point in their lives. Maybe they were an indoor pet that ran away from home or were abandoned and are now forced to fend for themselves. Either way, they're familiar with human contact and are generally approachable. 

Feral Cat

Feral cats have never been socialized or had any human contact. Most feral cats were born outside or were stray cats who became feral over time. They're generally very fearful of humans and will retreat as soon as they see you.

Quick Tip

A stray cat is more likely to hang around your yard or outside your home versus a feral, who will probably run away as soon as they see you. 

Lost Indoor Cat

Indoor cats who slip out the door can become lost in their neighborhood. Depending on the cat's personality and the environment, they might be frightened and hide or may walk right up to you. 

Roaming Outdoor Cats

Some people have indoor/outdoor cats who roam around outdoors and aren't lost, nor are they stray. These cats often have collars, but not always. They usually roam around with confidence and might approach you for food or pets. 

Quick Tip

If a begging cat looks well-fed and well-groomed, they're probably not a stray at all but simply an opportunist.

If the Cat Is Sick or Injured

Regardless of the cat's history, if they look seriously sick or injured, you'll want to get them help ASAP. If you can coax the cat into a carrier or safely pick them up to place them inside, bring them to your local shelter or veterinary hospital. There, they can either locate the cat's owner or confirm they're a stray and give them the care they need. (Keep in mind that a veterinary hospital may not be able to treat a cat who is not legally yours.)

If you can't safely catch the cat or move it, don't panic. Some humane societies have emergency disbatch services or volunteers who'll come right to your house and take the cat to the hospital. You can also call your local Animal Control for help. 

Portrait Of White Cat Eating

What to Do For a Stray Cat

If the cat looks healthy and doesn't seem to need immediate veterinary care, you have a little time to figure out if they truly need help. The first thing you can do is determine if they're a feral, stray, lost, or roaming cat. 

Offer Food and Water

Start by setting out food and water for the cat. If they're wary of your presence, back up and observe them while they eat. 

Check for an ID

See if the cat has any identification, like a collar with an ID tag. A collar means they're definitely a pet, but it's possible they might have slipped out of their house and aren't supposed to be out. If there's a phone number on the tag, call it and let the owners know where their kitty is. 

Another identifier that some people aren't familiar with is a tipped ear. Most Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs will clip the ear tip of feral cats to indicate that they have been spayed or neutered and returned. 

Quick Tip

If you find an ear-tipped feral cat, there's no need to capture or move the cat unless they're in danger. 

Snap a Photo

Take a picture of the cat and post it on social media. Most areas have lost/found pet Facebook and Nextdoor groups where you can post to see if anyone is missing this sweet cat. Ring also has a community platform where you can post and ask neighbors if they know who the kitty belongs to. 

Fast Fact

Don't ditch this one before you try it. Lots of cats are identified and returned home this way!

Place a Temporary Collar on Them

If there's a friendly cat that frequents your home and you're trying to figure out if they're owned by someone, a paper collar can help. Write a note - something like, "Hi, just wondering if this kitty has a home. Please call me at [your phone number]." — on a slim piece of paper and loosely secure it around their neck. If and when they get home, you should get a call and rest easy. 

Helpful Hack

Paper collars are available online or at most pet supply stores.

Be Patient

If the cat doesn't allow you to approach, give them time to get used to your distant presence. After a little bit, move in a little closer. Soft words and food can win the cat over much of the time. As soon as they're comfortable, try to lure them into a carrier so you can transport them. 

Consider a Cage Trap

If you can't get the cat to come near you, but you're worried they're lost or a stray, you may want to use a trap. Some local municipal and private shelters rent these out, or you can get them at many home supply stores like Walmart.

Bait the trap with some very enticing food, like some oily tuna or wet cat food, and place it in a quiet area. It might take some time, as you'll have to wait for the cat to decide to go in.

Helpful Hack

Ask online lost-pet communities before you run out and purchase these. Many people are willing to lend out their traps to help a kitty in need.

Once You Have the Cat

As soon as you're able to contain kitty, you have a few more options.

Bring Them to the Shelter

Animal shelters can take found-pet reports or keep found-cats in their care. They can also scan kitty for a microchip or post to their own social media outlets. Shelters are your first and best resource to help kitty get back home, if lost. However, many have to euthanize due to space, so you may prefer to work with the shelter while keeping the cat at your home instead of boarding them at the shelter (and taking up a cage).

Have the Vet Scan for a Chip

All veterinary offices have a microchip scanner and can quickly scan an animal at no cost to you. If the cat does have a chip, the veterinary staff can help call and locate the cat's owner. If they don't have a chip, you can contact your local shelter to complete a "Found" report. 

Locate the Owners

Another alternative to bringing the cat to the shelter is keeping it at home while you conduct a search their people. If you do, keep them separated from your family cats until they've been examined by a veterinarian and tested for infectious diseases. Likewise, keep them separated from children in the home since you don't have a complete health history on the cat. 

Take good photos of the cat and create flyers with descriptive information and your phone number or email address. Take several to your local shelters, local veterinary clinics, and post flyers in heavily trafficked areas, like coffee shops, the post office, pet stores, schools, and gyms.

Related: Stray Cat Diseases: What You & Your Cat Can Catch

Caressing the head of cute cat

What Happens If You Can't Find the Owner?

If you can't find the owners of the stray, or you find out that they've been abandoned by moving neighbors, your next decision is what to do with the cat. 

Add Them to Your Family

If you want to keep them, congratulations, you now have a new cat! Take them to your vet and make sure they're up to date on all shots and have been spayed/neutered to avoid unwanted spraying or territorial behaviors.

Foster Until You Find a Home

If you're able to keep the kitty for some time, consider fostering and finding a permanent home for them. You can place adoption ads on social media sites and place flyers in veterinary offices and pet stores. 

Some shelters and rescue groups will be happy to help you find a home for a cat if you're willing to house them in the meantime and will list them on their website with other adoptable cats.

Quick Tip

If you've fallen in love with the stray but already have too many pets or your existing pets veto their inclusion in your family, see if you have family or friends who would like to take them.

Talk to a Shelter or Rescue

Talk to your local shelter and rescue groups if you are unable to foster. Just because they may have to euthanize some cats doesn't mean they can't find your cat a great home. Talk to the staff and volunteers about their placement rate and see if you can do more to help promote the cat while they stay at the shelter. Consider becoming a volunteer yourself! 

Most private rescue groups have no time limit on how long cats can stay with them, but they depend on foster homes and may only be able to take the cat if they have an open spot.

You can also talk to your veterinarian, as some clinics will keep cats available for adoption or will at least be willing to promote them to their clients.

What Does It Mean When a Stray Cat Comes to Your House?

Sometimes, stray cats will pick a particular house to hang around for reasons only known to the cat. Most likely, a cat has fixated on your house because the location feels safe to them. For example, it might have low traffic or be a quiet area like a cul-de-sac. Check to see if there are hiding places on your property they might be attracted to or easily accessible garbage cans where they can find food.

It's also possible they may sense other cats nearby and are attracted to them. If you've just moved into a home and a cat is hanging around, it's possible the previous owners abandoned the cat or regularly fed the cat, so that's why they're sticking close by. 

Related: How to Humanely Keep Feral Cats Away

Don't Be Afraid to Get Involved

Looking after stray cats can be a wonderful experience and is the way many people acquire their heart's best pet. Who knows, maybe there's a stray in your future? Just be sure to take precautions if you have other pets or kids, and make an effort to find the cat's owners before you decide to keep them because they may already have a home. 

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What to Do If You Find a Stray Cat