What to Do When A Stray Cat Adopts You

By PetMD Editorial. Reviewed by Katie Grzyb, DVM on Feb. 28, 2019

Image via iStock.com/deepblue4u

By Kate Hughes

According to the ASPCA, there are tens of millions of feral and stray cats in the United States.

Many of these cats avoid people; however, stray cats will sometimes yearn for human interaction (or the full bellies that these interactions tend to guarantee).

In these cases, it seems as if stray cats decide to “adopt” an unsuspecting person as their new caretaker. Basically, these fuzzy interlopers can show up on your doorstep asking for cat food, shelter and attention.

So, what do you do if you happen to be the target? How do you make sure that your new stray cat neighbor stays happy and healthy under your care, especially if he won’t come inside? And, if you’re unable to care for the little guy, how do you find someone who can?

How You Know You’ve Been Adopted by a Stray Cat

“When a cat starts coming around your house and looking for attention, begging for food or trying to sneak in your front door, there’s a good chance you’ve been adopted,” explains Megan Phillips, BS, ADBC.

Phillips is a cofounder of Train With Trust, a Colorado Springs-based company that offers personalized behavior solutions for owners of all types of animals. “And if you start leaving food out, there’s no question. That cat will keep coming back.”

Phillips does note, however, that not all cats that come around begging are necessarily stray cats. She suggests that some cats may be “indoor/outdoor cats that belong to a neighbor; [the cat may just like] something about your yard or area.”

Elise Gouge, a certified dog and cat behavior consultant and owner of Pet Behavior Consulting, LLC in Granby, Massachusetts, notes that while you may feel special that a cat has chosen your yard as her new hangout spot, she might have other ‘adoptees’ in your area. “Some cats are good at making the neighborhood rounds and having several friends they like to visit,” she says.

Before assuming that a cat wants to adopt you, you should check to see if he’s wearing a cat ID tag or bring him to a nearby animal hospital or rescue group to have him scanned for a microchip. If the cat has an owner, it is your responsibility to make a genuine effort to reunite cat and owner.

Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant and cofounder of Feline Minds, a company that offers cat behavior services in the California Bay Area, recommends turning to social media in these sorts of situations.

“Take a picture and post it online, asking if anyone knows the cat hanging out in your yard. Sometimes you can find the cat’s owner, or someone who takes care of local cat colonies will recognize him,” she says.

Social networking apps like Nextdoor are especially helpful for quickly finding out which neighbors have been adopted, or where the cat actually resides. This can also be helpful in determining whether the cat has been taken to the vet or is on flea and tick medicine.

What to Do With a Stray Cat That Has Adopted You

You have some options when it comes to deciding what to do with a stray cat that has “adopted” you. It’s all about figuring out what is best for the cat and for you.

Adopting a Stray Cat Into Your Home

If you are set on adopting this stray cat into your home, and you know they do not belong to someone, then you can begin the transition process. But, before you transition the outdoor stray cat into a domesticated pet, it is essential that you earn the cat’s trust, bring them for a vet for a checkup and have all the necessary cat supplies ready.

Earning Your Stray Cat’s Trust

Some stray cats will be friendly right off the bat, but with others, it may take time and patience to establish trust. “If a cat is not comfortable with humans, they will mostly scratch or bite if you attempt to handle them. Go slow and always allow the cat a way to leave the situation so that they don't feel cornered,” says Gouge.

Martin Fernandez, a trap-neuter-release (TNR) program trainer and stray cat expert who works with the Cypress Feline Rescue in Brooklyn, New York, says that earning a cat’s trust is partially a waiting game.

“You need to have time, and you need have patience. The cat will come to you when he’s ready. If you try to force it, he will run,” Fernandez says.

The main way into your new feline friend’s heart is through his stomach. “Food is critical,” Phillips says. “Start approaching the cat slowly, over several days or even weeks. Eventually, you’ll be able to get pretty close without scaring him off.”

Taking Your Stray Cat to the Vet

While food and shelter are important, Phillips says that the number one priority, especially if you have other cats, is confirming that the stray cat is healthy. “You have to ensure that their basic veterinary needs are being taken care of, so if you can, try to catch the cat and bring her to the vet.”

It is important to have a cat carrier when transporting your new cat to the veterinarian. The vast majority of veterinarians will require you to use a cat carrier when bringing any cat to the vet. This helps ensure safety and security for all involved.

Phillips recommends putting food in the crate or cat carrier. “First, just let the cat eat in the carrier for a few days. Then, start closing the door a bit while he’s eating. Then, close it all the way. Then, try latching it. The key is to do everything gradually,” she says. “Then, after you visit the vet, keep the carrier out. Keep putting food in it. You want the cat to stay used to the carrier.”

For feral or stray cats that may not be familiar with cat carriers, your veterinarian may ask you bring them in a trap. 

“At the vet, the cat should receive basic vaccinations and be spayed or neutered if she or he isn’t already,” Phillips says.

Fernandez says that by working with rescue organizations, you can usually find a veterinarian who will do vaccinations and spay/neuter procedures at a reduced cost, or even for free. “They may also test for feline leukemia, FIV and parasites, and offer low-cost microchips.”

Most veterinarians work with government-recognized nonprofit organizations, which enables them to offer low-cost options, although they do not have the resources to offer services to every feral cat that is brought in.

If the vet finds that your new cat does have parasites, you will want to invest in a cat flea and tick treatment, like a cat flea shampoo or topical flea treatment. You should also talk to your veterinarian to see if they recommend a more comprehensive prescription flea and tick preventative that will help handle the current problem and prevent future ones. Prescription flea and tick for cats can also help to prevent heartworms, hookworms, roundworms and ear mites.

If getting close to your kitty isn’t an option, you can sneak oral flea and tick medication for cats into their wet food. You can also discuss flea and tick treatments for your home and yard.

Transitioning a Stray Cat to Your Home

Before transitioning your stray cat into your care, you will want to make sure you have all the right cat supplies.

According to Delgado, if your new feline friend was previously a house cat, the transition indoors should be relatively easy.

“If a cat is hanging out on your back porch, she’s probably lived inside before and is socialized to interact with people.” In this case, Delgado recommends earning the kitty’s trust with food and then providing necessities indoors. This includes a cat litter box, a place to snuggle up, and food and water. “[Having a routine] and a cozy environment will help the cat transition into this new life,” she notes.

However, if the stray is a feral cat, this process will take a little—or a lot—more time. “You have to gradually increase their comfort by associating your presence with something they really like—usually food,” she says.

Delgado says, “You absolutely don’t want to trap these cats and bring them inside overnight right away. That can be frightening and stressful, as well as detrimental to your long-term goal of turning your stray into a house pet.”

To start the process of bringing a feral cat inside, you can put out a cat bowl full of wet food, and then sit near it while the cat eats, moving the bowl closer to you over time until you are able to pet or scratch the cat while he eats. It could also involve a similar process with cat treats. Whatever whets your new cat’s appetite should be your go-to.

Once your stray is interested in coming indoors (again, this could be after weeks or even months of building trust), Delgado suggests bringing as much of the outside into your home as possible. That includes providing enrichment activities like cat puzzle toys and areas where they can climb and play.

It may also involve testing out different types of cat litter to find the one that most closely mirrors what the cat was relieving himself on outside. “There’s actually a litter meant to help transition cats from outdoor to indoor living—it’s called Touch of Outdoors [Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat Touch of Outdoors cat litter],” she says.

Caring for Stray Cats Who Prefer to Stay Outdoors

If your new kitty just won’t come inside, you should provide some kind of shelter. “You can make a feral cat box—there are lots of online tutorials—or you could even open up your garage on really cold nights,” Phillips says.

If you’re not able to make a feral cat box, you can also buy one. There are cat heated beds and unheated options as well as “houses” that can be used as shelters for stray cats.

Also, if you live in a cold climate, a heated water dish might be a good investment.

During the spring and summer months, you will also want to make sure that you provide your cat with plenty of shaded, cool areas to hang out as well as access to cold, fresh water.

You can use a cat bowl like the Neater Feeder polar pet bowl to help keep a fresh source of cold water available for you cat throughout the day. You can also provide a cooling pet pad, like The Green Pet Shop self-cooling pet pad, so your outdoor kitty always has a place to relax and cool down during hotter days.

“It’s important to be realistic about the outdoor kitty that you found,” says Delgado. “A feral just isn’t going to try to get into your house.”

If you’re unable to take on the care of a stray cat or a cat is too feral and aggressive for your safety, you still have options.

There are organizations that can help you make sure the kitty either finds a good home or—in the case of feral cats—receives proper medical care. “Your local TNR program can help safely trap a cat, get him medical care and then release him back into the wild. There are so many cat lovers out there who are willing and able to help in cases like this,” says Phillips.

If the cat is friendly, Fernandez recommends contacting local rescue organizations, which have resources to rehome cats. “Sometimes it’s just about finding the right fit for a stray’s personality. You never know when you’re going to find a person that just connects and will make a great forever owner,” he says.

Delgado says that anyone looking to find another home for a stray cat should familiarize themselves with the resources available in their neighborhood. “Some cities have much better support for community cats than others, and oftentimes, taking a cat to a shelter is a death sentence. It’s best to look at all of your options, even if that is feeding the cat somewhere away from your house or contacting a TNR group to get the cat medical attention before releasing him back into the community.”

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