How To Determine the Status of a Stray Cat

Stray cats are very common, and for a compassionate observer they pose a unique challenge. The challenge we often face as compassionate observers is figuring out whether the stray cat has merely wandered further than normal from a loving home, is truly lost, has been abandoned or is not really stray, but rather feral (never having been a pet). Before you take in a stray cat as your own, you must figure out the status of the stray cat. Here are some tips.

  • Grooming. Is the cat well-groomed or does he have a disheveled, dirty look? Believe it or not, an unkempt cat is less likely feral than it is recently lost or abandoned; it takes time for indoor cats to adjust to outdoor living, and for a while they will appear pretty dirty. A feral cat, on the other hand, knows how to groom himself in his outdoor surroundings, and an indoor/outdoor cat with a loving home will appear better groomed as well.

  • Collar. The presence of a collar indicates ownership. It's still possible that the cat was abandoned (and the owner was just careless enough to leave the collar on the cat), but in all likelihood, a collared cat is either an indoor/outdoor cat with a loving home, or a cat who has gotten lost and needs your help finding her family. Cats often find ways to lose their collars anyway, and even a cat with no collar might have microchip ID.

  • Gender. Is the cat female or male? If male, is he neutered? Un-neutered male indoor/outdoor cats have a tendency to roam greater distances from home. Females and neutered males, on the other hand, stay closer to their homes when playing outside.
  • Behavior. Despite our common expectations, feral cats and lost cats often behave in much the same skittish and defensive ways. However, their attitude toward you will differ as you begin to provide food; the lost pet will take far less time to express affection than the feral cat, who seldom loses his wariness.

  • Any one of these bullets, by itself, won't help you determine the status of the stray cat, but the combination of these observations can lead to a more accurate assessment. For example, if you notice a neutered male stray cat that you haven't seen before, and he has no collar, examine his hygiene. If he's dirty, then most likely he has found himself outside for a longer period of time than he has ever been before. His dirty coat suggests that he is lost or abandoned, and as an un-neutered male he wouldn't have strayed far from home naturally. What do you do now?

    Once you have derived all that you can from observation, these observations can inform your final proactive efforts.

    1. Have the cat scanned for a microchip ID. Many cat owners know that their cat hates collars and will rip them off at the first possible chance.

  • Talk to neighbors. Explain your observations of the cat, asking them if they know of an owner.

  • Post pictures up on telephone poles and street lights around your neighborhood. Sprinkle some over a greater vicinity as well, in case the lost cat has managed to wander further from home.

  • Utilize the classified section of your local newspaper. It's always a good idea to check this section for "lost cat" postings as well as make your own posting. Remember to guard against fraudulent claims on the cat, however. Describe the cat well enough that any owner will take notice, but keep a recognizable physical feature omitted from the ad. That way, when people call, you can test their familiarity with the cat.

  • Communicate with local shelters and veterinary offices. Tell them about your situation because, if the cat does have a loving family looking for her, they are probably checking at local shelters as well.

  • If your observations led you to believe that the stray cat is feral, then you should still talk to neighbors. Feral cats tend to stay in an area where they can rely on food, so there's a good chance that one of your neighbors is already feeding the stray cat (and most likely others as well). Whether you find a neighbor who takes care of the feral cats, or you're the only one who recognizes the stray cat issue, you should address the following concerns.

    • Make sure food is provided (and removed) at predictable times for the cats.
    • Cats need shelter in wet and cold weather. A small wood hut filled with straw works well.
    • How many cats live in your neighborhood? Have any efforts been made to spay and neuter the members of the feral community? Generally where there's one feral cat, there are several more. They may not show themselves until they are used to your feeding routine, but once you encourage their familiarity, you (or whatever neighbor cares for them) should trap each one individually for spaying or neutering.
    • If your feral cat community has any kittens already, these should be separated from the group, vaccinated and given good homes.

    Cats deserve our attention and love, whether they are lost, abandoned, feral, or merely roaming far from their loving homes. If you've taken the appropriate steps to determine the status of the stray cat, and want to bring the stray into your family, check out our article, "How To Adopt a Stray Cat."


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