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You’re going about your day, minding your own business, when all of a sudden, you spot a stray cat. In that moment, you have a few different choices for how you manage the situation—but which choice is best? Do you get the cat food and water? Do you try to get them into your car and to a vet or animal shelter? Do you just keep walking? What do you do?!
Let’s take a look at the steps you should take when you stumble upon a stray (or a feral) cat:
Step 1: Approach the cat cautiously
According to the ASPCA, before you take any steps to capture or otherwise handle a stray cat, you need to make sure it’s safe. Approach the cat slowly and cautiously, using a soft, gentle voice. Put your hand out in front of you and let the cat come closer as they feel comfortable.
If the cat acts aggressively as you approach (for example, by hissing or arching their back), don’t attempt to get any closer; you never want to put yourself at risk by trying to contain a stray cat who would rather not be captured! Instead, call your local animal control and give them a description of the cat, the location of where you found them, and any other identifying details.
Step 2: If the cat appears calm and friendly, attempt to contain them
If the stray cat seems calm, friendly, and open to your approach, the next step is to try to contain them so you can figure out the best plan of action. If you can, spend a few minutes building trust with the cat (this is a great time for a few behind-the-ear scratches!)—then, it’s time to make your move.
Cats typically don’t like being held, so you need a safe space where you can contain the cat while you assess the situation. If you have a cat carrier, great! If not, you can temporarily put them in a box with air holes or in your car (just make sure the car has plenty of ventilation and isn’t overly hot).
If the cat seems reluctant to get into the carrier/box/car, you can try luring them with a treat. Place food towards the back of the carrier/box/car and, once they’re inside, shut the door/close the box.
Step 3: Get the cat food or water if necessary
You want the cat to be comfortable as you figure out next steps—so if they seem malnourished (or if it’s just a hot day), make sure to give them a bit of food and water. (Plus, according to the ASPCA, food can be a great way to lure a stray cat into a carrier, car, or another containment area so you can get check them for ID.)
Step 4: Look for an ID tag
Once you have the stray cat contained, you’ll want to check to see if they have an ID tag. If a cat has a collar with an ID tag, look on the tag for the owner’s contact information—then, give them a call and let them know you have their cat. If there’s an address on the ID tag, you can also drive the cat to their home to reunite with their owner.
Ideally, the owner will be available to get the cat. But, even if they’re not, you don’t want to take a cat who clearly has an owner out of their neighborhood and to an animal shelter—and that includes cats with a collar and no ID tag. It could just be an outdoor cat that’s wandering around the neighborhood. It could be that the cat’s ID tag fell off their collar—but they’re actually just a few doors away from their home. But even if the cat is lost, they have a much better chance at finding their way home if they stay geographically close; only 5 percent of cats who are brought into shelters are reclaimed by their owners.
If you know the cat belongs in the neighborhood, it’s best to leave them in the neighborhood. If you’re concerned for the cat’s safety, you can try to bring them home and keep an eye on them until you can get in touch with their owner.
Step 5: Alert the community
If you don’t know if a cat has an owner, you need to alert the community. Back in the day, if you found a lost animal, the only way to let your neighbors know was to put flyers up around the community. But thanks to today’s technology, there are plenty of easier, faster, and less labor-intensive ways to get the word out.
If you find a stray cat, you can leverage a variety of digital resources to let your neighbors know (and, hopefully, find the cat’s owner in the process), including:
If you want to hedge your bets and reach the highest volume of people in your area, you can, of course, also post flyers around the neighborhood.
Step 6: Take them to the vet
Next step is to take the cat to a local veterinary office so they can scan them for a microchip. If a cat’s microchipped, the vet will be able to easily pull up the owner’s contact information—and get in touch to let them know that their cat is safe and sound.
If you find a stray cat later in the evening—and the vet’s office is closed—do a Google search for your local emergency, 24-hour vet.
Step 7: Take the cat to a no-kill shelter or humane society
If you’ve taken all of these steps and you’re no closer to finding the cat’s owner, it could be that you’re dealing with a fully stray or feral cat. And if that’s the case, the next step is to take the cat to a no-kill shelter or humane society.
Both the shelter and humane society are equipped to deal with stray and feral cats; they’ll get them checked out by a vet, deal with any health issues, and post their information on their website to make sure that, if an owner is looking for them, they have the opportunity to find and claim them. Depending on the cat, they may also be able to put them up for adoption—and help them find their forever homes.
If a cat is truly feral, adopting them out isn’t the best solution. Many shelters have Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs, which will allow the cat to be examined and spayed or neutered before being returned to their familiar environment. This improves the long-term health of the cat—while helping to keep the feral cat population under control.
If you stumble upon a stray cat, the best thing you can do is make the effort to help get them the help they need—whether that’s finding their owner, getting them adopted, or providing them with the medical attention they need to thrive.
More about cats
- 8 Ways Cats Can Make You Healthier
- The World’s Best Cat Cafes
- How to Deal With Destructive Cat Scratching
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