What To Do With a Stray Cat: Feeding, Adoption and All You Need To Know

Many of us will have come across a stray cat and wanted to bring it home. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are 30 to 40 million community cats (its umbrella term for strays and feral cats) across the country.

"The temptation to rescue a stray cat can be strong," according to Dr. José Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Chances are you even know someone who took in a stray cat and went on to share a wonderfully rewarding life with them."

Below, Arce and other cat behavior experts outline what you should do if you encounter a potential stray "to ensure the best possible outcome for the both of you."

How To Get a Stray Cat To Come to You

Be cautious when approaching an unknown cat, Arce advised. It may be fearful and attempts to capture it could lead to injuries for you or the animal.

Some strays may be friendly and approach you for food or attention, while others may be too scared to let you get close, said the Humane Society. "But they will usually eat immediately if you put food down for them."

A pair of homeless cats on pavement.
A pair of homeless cats sitting on a pavement. The Humane Society estimates that there are 30 to 40 million "community cats" in the U.S. iStock/Getty Images Plus

What To Do With a Stray Cat

Check for an Owner

Arce said: "Should an unknown, uncollared cat find its way into your heart and home, it's important to remember that someone else might be missing that cat."

You need to verify whether the animal is "truly a stray or simply a neighborhood resident making the rounds."

Check whether the cat has an ear-tip—when the very top of one ear is flat instead of pointed). This is "the badge of a community cat," according to the Humane Society, indicating it has been spayed or neutered through a local community program and has an outdoor home.

An uncollared cat isn't necessarily a stray, Arce pointed out."Many owned cats do not wear collars and should be left alone. They are typically not lost and will find their own way home."

If you do have reason to believe a cat is a stray or you are concerned about the animal's health or welfare, Arce advises these steps:

  • Post a message about the cat on your neighborhood social-networking platform, such as Nextdoor
  • Check out any websites that reunite lost pets with their owners, such as lost.petcolove.org
  • Get the cat scanned for a microchip that holds the owner's information. You can get this done at a local veterinary clinic, animal care and control office or shelter.

It's helpful if you can provide shelter for the cat while you look for a possible owner.

Bring Them Inside

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals believes you should not simply leave food for stray cats without capturing them to ensure their safety. It's essential to get the animals off the street, according to the advocacy group.

Catie Cryar, a PETA spokeswoman, told Newsweek: "Because cats struggling to survive on the streets face freezing winters, scorching summers, speeding cars, contagious diseases and attacks by roaming dogs and cruel humans, PETA encourages everyone who encounters homeless cats or kittens to take them inside."

Food should only be used as a means of trapping the stray cat safely, according to PETA. "Otherwise, feeding just serves to help homeless cat populations proliferate."

You can lure the cat into a humane trap with food, feeding it at the same time and place every day to establish a routine, said the Humane Society.

The PETA website provides detailed advice on how to trap a stray cat. Cryar also offered these three tips to help you capture shy, scared or unsocialized cats:

  • Add a soft lining to a humane or box trap
  • Use a strong-smelling food as bait
  • Stay within sight of the trap at all times.
A stray cat resting on a wall.
A stray cat resting on top of a ledge outdoors. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Be Careful with Kittens

Before you step in to take care of potentially stray kittens, Arce recommends that you contact your local animal care and control office or shelter for advice.

Stray kittens can be "especially tempting to bring home," he said. However, "this may not always be best for the kitten," as they may be still nursing and their mother may be nearby but hiding or searching for food.

If anyone tries to move the kittens, the mother may reject or even kill her offspring, warned the U.K.-based Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

You should take action only if you don't see the mother within a few hours or the kittens seem to be in distress or in an unsafe location, according to the Humane Society.

A group of stray kittens.
Before you scoop up a group of adorable stray kittens, contact your local animal care and control office or shelter for advice. iStock/Getty Images Plus

What To Feed a Stray Cat

Dry cat food is the best option, according to the Feline Foundation, a group that rehabilitates stray cats in the Indian city of Mumbai. Kibble is convenient since it can be stored and distributed easily, and is less expensive than wet food cans or pouches.

Your leftovers, or even meals that you prepare for the stray, may not meet the cat's nutritional requirements, the foundation said. Commercial cat food will.

A grey cat near a food bowl.
A grey cat staring at kibble on the ground next to a bowl held out by a person. Rather than simply leaving food out for strays, you should use feeding to trap a stray cat and make sure it's safe. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Where To Take a Stray Cat

Bring the stray to a local veterinarian. Cats that have been outdoors may have parasitic, fungal, viral or bacterial diseases, some of which also affect people. Stray cats may also be undernourished or injured, Arce said.

The veterinarian will examine the cat thoroughly for any parasitic diseases—such as ear mite or flea infestation and tapeworm infection—and may recommend appropriate treatments.

Further tests, vaccines or parasite prevention products may be needed, depending on the cat's approximate age, health status and needs.

How To Adopt a Stray Cat

If you've checked the cat for a microchip and have been unable to locate an owner, you can decide to take the cat on yourself, said the RSPCA.

"Adopting any cat is a big responsibility," said Cryar. "Potential adopters should first ensure that they have the time, space, and resources needed to provide a cat with lifelong affection, food and veterinary care."

You should also consider how well the cat will fit in with your family, including other pets, plus what care it will need to enjoy a healthy and happy life, Arce said.

"If a suitable home can't be found, cats should be taken to an open-admission shelter, where they'll have the best chance of finding a loving indoor home," said Cryar.

You can also contact local cat charities, as many have former strays available for rehoming.

Stray cats seen near a wall opening.
Stray cats seen near a wall opening. You might be tempted to adopt a stray, but make sure you have the time, space and resources to look after it properly. iStock / Getty Images Plus