What To Know When Adopting a Stray Cat

By PetMD Editorial. Reviewed by Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Mar. 27, 2024
brown tabby cat sitting in tall green grass

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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 seek 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 if you’re in this situation? Should you adopt the stray cat? 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?

Signs a Stray Cat Likes You

“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 pet parents 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 strays. 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 his new hangout spot, he 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.

Should You Adopt a Stray Cat That Likes You?

Before assuming that a cat needs a home, 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 a home, it’s your responsibility to make a genuine effort to reunite cat and pet parent.

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 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 home, or someone who takes care of local cat colonies will recognize him,” she says.

If you determine the stray cat is friendly and doesn’t have a home, you can begin the transition process. But, before you transition the outdoor stray cat into a domesticated pet, it’s essential that you earn the cat’s trust, bring him 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, 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 best way to earn a stray cat’s trust is by setting out food for him over several days or weeks.

Taking Your Stray Cat to the Vet

While food and shelter are important, Phillips says that the number one priority 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 him to the vet.”

It’s important to have a cat carrier when transporting the cat to the veterinarian. 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.”

At the vet, the cat should receive basic vaccinations, given a dose of dewormer, and be spayed or neutered if they aren’t already. The vet will also recommend starting your cat on a flea and tick preventative and test them for any parasites.

Transitioning a Stray Cat to Your Home

According to Delgado, if your new feline friend was once 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 says.

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,” Delgado says.

Do not trap a feral cat and bring them inside, Delgado says. “That can be frightening and stressful, as well as detrimental to your long-term goal of turning your stray into a house pet.”

Caring for Stray Cats That Prefer To Stay Outdoors

Sometimes cats that have lived their whole lives outside just don’t feel comfortable indoors. If this is the case with your stay cat, you should provide some kind of shelter.

During the spring and summer, provide your cat with plenty of shaded, cool areas to hang out as well as access to cold, fresh water. 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.

There are organizations that can help you make sure the kitty receives proper medical care. “Your local TNR program can help safely trap a cat, get him medical care, and then release him,” Phillips says. “There are so many cat-lovers out there who are willing and able to help in cases like this.”

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,” she says. “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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