What To Do If You Find a Stray Cat

When you see an outdoor cat, it can be difficult to determine if he needs help. Free-roaming cats may be feral (born in the wild), stray/abandoned, lost, or a neighborhood cat that’s allowed outside without human supervision. Some free-living cats are very skilled outdoor survivalists and, if spayed or neutered, can live happy and healthy lives in their respective outdoor environment. But others will need your help to return to safety.

Here’s what to do if you find a cat outside.

Determine if the Cat Is Feral or Friendly

If you find a cat outdoors, the first thing to do is figure out if the cat is feral or friendly. Closely observe the cat to see how he responds to you.

A feral cat is often shy and keeps his distance or hides from people, though he may come closer if food is offered. Sometimes, feral cats will be “ear tipped” (where a small portion of one of their ears is surgically removed in a straight line) if they have been trapped, neutered, and released by a rescue organization.

A friendly cat usually responds positively to humans. They can have a relaxed or happy body language when spoken to, and may even approach you, purr, or meow.

Remember that these are generalizations. While we generally think of cats in human care as friendly and feral cats as fearful or impossible to touch, that’s not always the case. A cat’s behavior toward an unfamiliar person is not always an indication of whether the cat has a home with humans or is free-living. But how an outdoor cat responds to you is a good indicator of what you should do next.

If You Found a Feral Cat

If a cat is not friendly and cannot be approached, don’t try to touch him. If he seems healthy and has an ear tip, leave the cat be—he’s doing just fine.

If he doesn’t have an ear tip, check with your local municipal shelters, SPCAs, cat rescues, or local veterinarians for information on Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) in your community. Some organizations offer a volunteer trapping service, others offer rental traps. A TNR program will be able to capture the cat for a spay or neuter surgery, and they may also be able to check for a microchip (just in case).

If it looks like the cat is unhealthy or in pain, contact a local rescue organization about the situation. Signs that a cat is unhealthy can include:

If You Found a Friendly Cat

Even if a cat seems friendly, do not try to grab him or pick him up. Instead, follow these steps.

1. Check for Identification

If you’ve found a friendly cat who is rubbing on your legs or headbutting you, check to see if he’s wearing a collar with a name tag and pet parent contact information. This is the easiest way for his home to be located. He may also have a microchip—but to find out, he’ll need to be caught and transported to a veterinarian or shelter for a microchip scan.

2. Provide Water and Food

Offer the cat fresh water and, if necessary, food. However, if the cat has a good body condition score (meaning he’s not very skinny), it’s best to not immediately offer him something to eat. The friendly cat may have a home where he is fed the proper amount.

Despite myths that say otherwise, cats should not drink milk, so do not offer any. Giving cats dairy can cause severe diarrhea, stomach upset, and vomiting.  

3. Move the Cat to a Safe Space

If you suspect that the cat is someone’s lost pet, find a safe place to move him to. Do not try to pick him up—instead, use a live animal trap, crate, or carrier and lure him in with food. Put him in a calm, quiet space with:

If you have cats or dogs of your own, do not let your pets interact with the found kitty until you’re certain he’s healthy and free of parasites. You don’t want him to get your own animals sick.

4. Check Local Discussion Boards

Take a picture of the found cat and post it on your social media accounts, local neighborhood message boards, and local pet loss programs. Look for any “missing pet” posts online and posters at your local coffee shops, post offices, or grocery stores.

5. Contact a Vet

As soon as you’re able, have the cat checked for a microchip at a local vet. The vet can also give you information on the cat’s gender, neuter status, age, and breed. This information will help locate the missing cat’s family.

Shelters can also check for a microchip and can be a good resource for helping a lost cat, but do not leave the cat at a shelter. Most cats, especially ferals, become stressed in a shelter environment. Even cats who are friendly in a home can become so anxious in a shelter that they exhibit fearful or aggressive behavior.

Many cats in shelters stop eating and become sick, and they ultimately might not have a positive outcome once they enter a shelter. It’s always better to keep a found cat in a home until the cat’s family can be found. When all efforts fail to find the family (or if it’s assumed the cat doesn’t have one), find him a new home instead.

A good way to do this is through local rehoming websites—for example, the San Francisco Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Home-to-Home program. Your local shelter can provide you resources on rehoming the cat without surrendering him.

How To Keep Cats From Becoming Lost

Losing a cat can be devastating. To keep your cat from becoming lost, only let him outside if he’s supervised, contained to a catio, or on a harness and leash.

Every cat should be microchipped, including indoor-only cats who might escape. You can also fit your cat with a breakaway collar and ID tag, though those can break off.

Featured Image: iStock/electravk

Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA


Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA


Dr. Berger obtained her veterinary degree and completed her doctoral thesis in Zurich, Switzerland. In 1998 she moved to California to work...

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