If you’re a person who genuinely likes cats, then you might find it extremely difficult to ignore any cat who happens to cross your path. And if the cat in question isn’t wearing a collar, looks disheveled, or seems to actively be seeking your attention and assistance, you may find yourself worrying about their safety. Today’s topic is helping stray cats in your neighborhood, so “dog people” might want to sit this one out. If you’re a fan of felines, though, then read on!


Stray vs Feral

Although folks sometimes use the words “stray” and “feral” interchangeably when they’re talking about cats who lack owners, the two terms are not synonymous. Stray cats and feral cats are very different beasts, and you’d be wise not to mistake one for the other:

  • Stray Cats

    were once pets (or at least lived in a place with humans) but are now homeless for one reason or another. They could have been abandoned by their owner, chased into unfamiliar territory by a predator, or wandered outside one day and simply got lost. Sometimes, “stray” cats aren’t even strays at all; they have a loving home but just prefer to spend most of their time outside! The bottom line is that stray cats tend to associate humans with food and shelter, so they’ll often approach people with their tails held high or meow to get someone’s attention. If you’re out walking and a cat randomly approaches you, rubs on your legs, lets you pet him, or even tries to follow you home, then he’s probably a stray.

  • Most

    Feral Cats

    were born homeless and have lived their entire lives with little or no human contact. As such, they’re essentially wild animals. Feral cats don’t want to be adopted or taken into a human home; they’re perfectly content being out in the wild and will resist any and all attempts to be “rescued.” Feral cats generally see humans as predators, so they’re far more likely to run or hide when they spot a person—no amount of beckoning or making kissy noises will coax them into coming towards you. If you’ve been feeding a homeless cat for a while but she still bolts whenever you try to approach her, then she’s probably feral.

It’s worth mentioning that stray cats can become feral if they’re left alone for a very long period of time and eventually lose their familiarity with humans. In the same vein, kittens born to feral mothers aren’t necessarily “doomed” to become feral themselves; if they’re rescued and socialized at a very young age, (ideally before they’re eight weeks old) they can very easily adjust to being housecats.

What You Can Do for Stray Cats

So, say that there’s a stray kitty that you often see wandering around your neighborhood. You’ve checked with your neighbors, and she doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. The cat is friendly and appears to be pretty tame; you’ve even gotten her to come over to you a few times, and she didn’t get scared when you tried to pet her. What can you do?

  • Offer her some edibles.

    This doesn’t mean leaving bowls of food and water on your porch all day and night—doing so can attract pest wildlife to your yard, and that’s something that we should all try to avoid! However, if you notice that “your” cat is nearby, place a small amount of food and a bowl of water in a conspicuous place, and then try to get her attention. A particularly outgoing cat may walk right up to you, while a shy cat will probably wait until you leave to come inspect your offering. Either way, give her a few minutes to enjoy her snack, and once she leaves, bring the dishes inside. If she begins to associate seeing you with receiving food or water, she’ll probably become more sociable and—eventually—lower her guard.

  • Try to catch him

    . Keep in mind that even a very friendly cat isn’t necessarily going to jump into your arms, walk obediently into your garage, or even happily accept being confined to a box or a carrier. Cats, like all animals, can lash out when they’re afraid, and being carted off by a stranger is often very frightening! But once you’ve gained the cat’s trust, you might be able to wrap him in a blanket and place him in a box (with a lid and air holes!) or a carrier with minimal fuss.

  • See if she’s microchipped

    . Once the cat is in your custody, your next task should be to find out if she has an owner. You can do this by taking the cat to your local vet or animal shelter and having them scan her for a microchip. The vet or shelter employee will also be able to tell you if anyone recently reported a missing cat that matches “your” cat’s physical description.

  • Think about the future.

    If the cat’s owner can’t be found, then you’ll have to decide how you want to proceed from here. Leaving the cat at your local animal shelter is one option, but do keep in mind that shelter animals are often euthanized due to overcrowding. You can try turning the cat over to a local rescue group or no-kill shelter, but they might not accept him because they just don’t have any available space or resources. And, of course, if your lifestyle and financial situation allow it, you can adopt—or at least temporarily foster—the cat yourself. This is probably the ultimate way to help a stray cat in need!

What You Can Do For Feral Cats

Once again, feral cats don’t want to be rescued—in fact, they’ll probably be frightened or enraged by any attempts to “save” them! However, if a feral cat has taken up residence in your neighborhood and you really want to help him, it is still possible to do so:

  • “Enroll” the cat in a TNR Program.

    Trap-Neuter-Release programs, as their name implies, involve catching feral cats, having them spayed or neutered, and then releasing them back into the wild. While doing this does not provide a loving, safe home for the cat, it will at least prevent him from reproducing and adding more feral cats to the general area. It will also help curb some of the behaviors that make feral cats nuisances, like yowling to find mates or “spraying” to mark their territory. Running a web search for “TNR programs in [your city]” will yield information on programs operating nearby, and a representative from the group will be able to give you specific advice for trapping the cat in a safe, humane manner. Please note that a feral cat who is missing the tip of his left ear (and it looks like the tip was cut off cleanly) has already completed a TNR program! Vets deliberately “mark” neutered feral cats in this manner so that they’re not subjected to repeated captures.

  • Offer her shelter.

    Winter can be rough on animals, and feral cats are no different. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy (and cheap) to slap together a feral cat shelter out of a couple plastic/Styrofoam storage containers and several handfuls of straw. Detailed instructions for putting together and placing these kinds of structures can be found online, and they can literally be a lifesaver for cats who get stuck outside in the cold.

Just so we’re clear, you absolutely should not adopt a cat that you aren’t able (or willing) to take care of for the rest of its life. That’s extremely irresponsible, and you may just wind up causing more problems for both yourself and the cat in the long run. But just because you can’t bring a stray (or feral) cat into your home doesn’t mean that your hands are completely tied. Whether your actions are as direct as offering up some food, or as indirect as simply providing a warm place to sleep, any cats you come in contact with will definitely appreciate your efforts!


Image courtesy of Naitokz on Flickr.