What to do if you find a cat you think is a stray

It can be worrying to come across a cat you believe to be unowned (a ‘stray’). Perhaps the cat is lost, or has been abandoned. However, cats are naturally roaming creatures; therefore, a cat you find could simply be in a normal part of, or exploring potential new expansions of, its home range.

Tabby cat outside

Feral vs. stray

If the cat you find is very fearful of humans, it likely to be a feral. Feral cats are cats which have been born in the ‘wild’ away from human company, and so remain wary of human contact. In this case, it will be detrimental to the cat’s welfare to try to take it into a rescue/rehoming centre or your own home, or to try to find it a home with people. In addition, you will not be able to approach a feral cat closely or handle it, and you may be injured by the cat. Feral cats are best left where they are found, but it is important that they are neutered to reduce the population of unwanted cats, and also for their own health. The cat will be ‘ear-tipped’ after being neutered – a small part of the tip of the left ear is removed while the cat is under anaesthesia. This enables people to recognise that it is a feral cat that has already been neutered. If you think you have found a feral cat which is not already ear-tipped, call local or national rescue/rehoming organisations, who may be able to help capture the cat with special traps and cages and get it neutered. They will then return it to where it was found.

Feral cat

If the cat does not appear to be very fearful, then the first thing to do is to try to find out if the cat has an owner. If the cat is lost, there is likely to be a distressed owner out there missing their pet. Assuming that a cat is unowned and taking it away from its home may cause distress to both the cat and the owner. Furthermore, within the UK at least, there could even be legal implications for taking a cat without making adequate effort to determine if it is already owned. Cats are recognised as property within UK law, so taking an owned cat is classed as theft. Being able to show that you made all the necessary effort to locate an owner protects you.

While you are waiting to hear if anyone owns the cat, if it is friendly and you are concerned about its welfare if it is left where it is, for example if the cat is old or appears weak (see below if you are concerned about the health of the cat), you may wish to take them home with you to keep them safe. If you do take the cat home, keep it in a quiet room away from all other household pets and provide it with food, fresh water, a litter tray and somewhere to sleep. If you leave the cat where you found it, provide it with clean water and food, and consider offering some shelter, such as a cardboard box with waterproof covering and a blanket. 

If you are concerned about the health of the cat,then you should take the cat to see a vet. If you cannot keep the cat in your home, staff at the veterinary practice may also know of someone in the local area who could foster the cat until an owner is located, or to help rehome the cat if no owner is found. A local homing centre or cat welfare organisation may also be able to house the cat until the owner can be found, or help to rehome the cat if no owner is found.

If the cat is not wearing a collar with contact details on, the advice below can help you locate an owner.

Check for a microchip

A vet or vet nurse can check whether the cat is microchipped, which can be used to locate the owner if it has one. They will do this free of charge.

Cat at vets

If you are catching the cat to take it to the vet, care must be taken to prevent injury to both the cat and yourself, and to minimise the cat’s distress.

Remember that the cat may be scared, injured, or ill. Fear and pain can cause a cat to lash out. Approach the cat slowly from the front, talking to them in a calm, quiet but friendly voice. Use tasty food or treats to try to encourage the cat to approach. It is best to use a towel or blanket to pick up the cat, to prevent you from being bitten or scratched and to help the cat feel safe, before placing them in a cat carrier. Move quickly and decisively but be gentle and do not risk hurting the cat or injuring yourself.

If you are at all concerned about catching the cat, call a local or national rescue/rehoming organisation, who may be able to catch the cat for you.

Social media is a powerful tool to help trace a cat’s owner. Use Facebook and Twitter to post a picture of the cat, a description, where it was found and the date, and ask as many people as possible to share/retweet the post. Post on the pages of local and national rescue and rehoming organisations too. Many places have a local Facebook page, where people post things relevant to the area; post on these pages too. 

Phone around local rescue/rehoming centres and veterinary practices. An owner may contact these places to ask if their cat has been handed in, so they may be able to help reunite the cat with its owner.

Speak to people in the local area, such as neighbours, staff in local shops and pubs, to find out if anyone is missing a cat.

Put posters up in the local area, with a picture of the cat, description, where it was found, the date and your contact telephone number. Ask to place these on local notice boards and in shops and pubs to increase your reach.

Paper collars are a good way of establishing whether a cat is owned. These are strips of paper with a request for the owner or anyone with information about the cat to get in touch via a contact telephone number supplied by you. Paper collars should only be used if the cat is friendly and approachable – do not put yourself in danger. Attach the collar carefully around the cat’s neck, making sure that you can get 1 – 2 fingers underneath the collar to ensure that it is not too tight, and that the paper is left partly uncovered (ie, without sticky tape) so it can tear off if the cat becomes trapped. The cat must then be left where you found it to allow for people with information to get in touch. Here is an example of paper collars supplied by the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals in the UK, with instructions for their use:

Paper collar

If you have found a kitten or kittens, eg, in a hedge or shed, that look too young to be independent, then the best thing to do is to wait to see if the mother returns to them. The mother may be temporarily away from the nest, for example to hunt, and she may be away for a few hours or more. It is the best thing for a kitten’s health and welfare to remain with its mother. Do not wait close to the kittens – you should be out of sight, otherwise you may prevent the mother from returning. If after a few hours the mother does not return, then call your local vets or rescue/rehoming centre for advice. Their advice may depend on how old the kittens seem to be and the local circumstances.

If the kittens look to be dumped ie, they are in a box or bag, they look in poor health and/or are crying excessively, then take them to your nearest vet.

If the mother returns and she is friendly and approachable, follow the same steps above to try to locate the owner of the mother. If she is very fearful of you, she may a feral. In this case the mother and kittens should be left where they are, until the kittens are old enough to be captured and neutered (some vets will neuter kittens from as young as 8 weeks of age), for their own health as well as to reduce the population of unwanted cats. You should contact your local rescue/rehoming organisation for advice in this case. In the meantime, consider providing food and water for the mother, but avoid scaring her off – this may result in her abandoning the kittens. 

If you find a kitten which looks old enough to be independent, follow the steps above to try to locate the owner.

If you are at all concerned about the health or welfare of the mother or kitten(s) in any of the above situations, take them to see a vet, or contact your local rescue/rehoming organisation for help.

Mother and kitten

 

If no one comes forward for the cat, then contact local and national rescue and rehoming organisations to ask for their help in finding the cat a new loving home. The standard advice on amount of time to wait for someone to get in contact about the cat is two weeks; this is to account for owners who may be on holiday and so will not be able claim the cat straight away. However, if you are concerned about the health or welfare of the cat then you should act sooner than this – take the cat to see a vet.

Useful information to give the rehoming centre

If you do take the cat to a rehoming centre, then it will be helpful to give the staff as much information about the cat as possible. Here is a list of information you should consider giving the centre staff:

  •  How long have you been aware of the cat?
  • Was the cat seeking human interaction, contact, food or shelter?
  • Are you aware of somebody moving home locally or has a business closed down recently?
  • Are you aware of any events locally that might have scared the cat, eg, fireworks, building work, incidents, other disturbances?
  • Has the cat had any interactions with any other people in the area to the best of your knowledge?
  • Are you or anyone else currently feeding the cat, if so what is the cat being fed and when?
  • Will the cat tolerate physical contact, if so, under what circumstances?
  • What steps have you taken to establish if the cat has an owner?
  • Where was the cat found or the area where the cat was known to be living?
  • Since you have been aware of the cat, do you know where it has been sheltering?
  • What is the reason for bringing the cat in?
  • How was the cat put into the carrier or how was it caught?
  • Was the capture stressful for the cat or for you, if so, why?