Many questions come with the topic of feral and stray cats. People often ask what the difference between the two is, where to take them if they are hurt and how to help them survive in the winter.
In this article, we will answer various questions and we'll outline how you can help a homeless cat. In short, here’s what we’ll cover:
If you find a homeless cat and cannot do anything else, please contact your local shelter or rescue organizations and alert them that you have spotted a stray or feral cat. They may send a volunteer to help the animal if you can’t.
If you want to adopt the cat, follow the link below to read how you can help a cat adjust easily. The guide answers questions about cat food, litter, introduction to other animals and so on.
The difference between stray and feral cats
Stray cats are abandoned or lost pets. They are used to the human touch, and, although they might be shy or disoriented at first, stray cats are usually friendly. Also, they are often found alone near houses, asking for attention.
On the other hand, feral cats were born in the wild and avoid people. They are not tame and don’t allow human handling. Most feral cats are fearful and run into hiding places when approached. Feral cats could be alone or with other cats (a colony) and usually live away from populated areas. Also, they might have a “tipped” ear to show they have been fixed and returned.
What to do if you find a cat
If you see a homeless cat, the first thing you need to do is figure out if the animal is lost. If you can, provide food, water and shelter to the cat and then contact your local animal organization. You can find such organizations and adoption groups in your area by using Petfinder’s search tool.
Ask to place the cat on the “found” list because this could be someone’s pet. Also, ask if the shelter staff could scan the animal for a microchip that gives an ID number. If the microchip is present, you could look through a database to find the owners’ information and reunite them with their lost cat.
If the cat is not chipped, you could still take steps to find the owners. Contact your local shelter and ask:
- Do they have a traditional or digital bulletin board where you could post a picture and details?
- What might other organizations be able to help you?
- Could they take the animal if it’s still on the street?
- Do they have any other advice?
Once you have talked to the local shelter, report the cat to your local law enforcement agency. Take the time to put your statement in writing because, even if police are unable to locate the owner, the incident may find its way into the local news.
Finally, don’t forget to speak with your neighbors and post flyers. In searching for a possible owner, you could even find someone interested in adopting the cat. And remember, if you are bringing the animal into your home, separate it from your other pets until you are certain that it’s healthy.
TIP: If you cannot take care of the cat untill you find its family or a new home, take it to a no-kill shelter. If you are dealing with a feral cat that is sick or injured, find a group that specializes in feral cats, so it can humanely trap the animal and get it to a vet.
How to catch a feral cat
If you need to catch a cat, it is best to consult organizations that work with feral cats to be the best source of practical information. A few preparations to consider:
- Buy or borrow traps. Feral cats are captured in the same traps used for small animals such as raccoons. These traps can be ordered at most hardware stores or rented from local organizations.
- Start a feeding schedule for the cat and place food in the trap itself, so the cat gets used to walking into it.
- To make sure the cat is hungry, don’t feed it 24 hours before trapping.
- Bait your trap with an adequate amount of food. You need to put a little food at the entrance and more food at the end of the trap. It’s best if the food has a strong smell that will attract the cat.
- Once the cat is caught, immediately cover the trap with a large towel – this will help calm the animal.
- Put the trapped cat inside your vehicle with you. It is not a good idea to put a scared animal in the trunk.
- Always wear heavy gloves and use the trap’s handle when moving the cage.
- Alert the vet if you are planning to release the cat back into the wild, so he or she knows to use dissolvable sutures.
How to spay or neuter a homeless cat
If you choose to keep the stray animal and it has not been spayed or neutered, check with your local shelter for low-cost neuter services. Make an appointment in advance. You could, of course, also contact a vet of your choice.
If you think the cat is feral and doesn’t have a tipped year, contact a local shelter to ask what organizations participate in a trap-neuter-return program (TNR). TNR captures feral cats, neuters and returns them to their habitat. The advantage of the program is that it ends the reproductive cycle of the cats. This is important because our feline friends reproduce frequently and with great litter size, leading to overpopulation (very well illustrated by thе infographic below from the East Tennessee Spay & Neuter center).
When dealing with feral cats, it’s also essential to talk to community members to figure out how many cats exist, where they hang out, and who is feeding them.
This is important because a TNR program is only successful if the whole colony gets sterilized. If only a few cats get fixed, the colony will breed to make up for the reduced reproductive capacity, so, to make a difference, a community has to strive for 100-percent sterilization or as close to it as possible.
Keep in mind that if you are going to spay or neuter the cat, you have to prepare in advance to bring it home after the surgery. Set a clean, confined area where the animal can recover for 24 hours. Please ensure the doors and windows are securely shut before the cat is there. Scared cats can be very quick to get out!
Keep the cat indoors through the night and make sure the cat is completely conscious before returning to its original spot. You could also consider boarding the cat in a vet’s office. This will cost some money, but you could ask for a discount since it is a rescued cat.
The cat will come back from the vet in the trap or carrier you used initially, and you can use it to take the animal back to its original surroundings. Once you get the trap to the site, open the door and walk away. Do not get worried if the cat takes some time to come out.
TIP: A feral kitten can be domesticated if it's properly socialized. Watch how a feral kitty is trapped, tamed and turned into a beautiful pet:
How to take care of a cat that lives outside
After you fix and vaccinate a stray cat, you have the option to adopt it. Don't worry if you cannot always keep it indoors. Cats can live well outside if you put together a warm, dry and size-appropriate shelter. You could build it yourself – plenty of tutorials exist online – and if you are not into building, check pet stores for options.
A few things to keep in mind as you prepare an outdoor cat house:
- Straw is a great insulation option and it helps the animal stay warm in cold nights. If the straw is not available, pillow cases with shredded newspapers should do the trick.
- Don’t put blankets, towels or used clothing as shelter insulation because the animal can’t get under them, and these materials suck up the body heat from the cat. They also absorb moisture.
- Don't use hay. It's not a good option because hay is made up of different kinds of plants that could poke the cat.
- In extreme weather, cover the house's walls and the floor with BoPET plastic sheets (available under various brand names such as Mylar, Melinex and Hostaphan). The sheets will trap the heat in the shelter.
- Keep the doorway relatively small (so bigger predators cannot get in) and attach a plastic flap to it. That should keep the warmth in and the wind, rain and snow out.
- Don’t put food or water inside the shelter. The food could attract scavengers like raccoons, and the water might spill and freeze.
- Keep the shelter clean: Replace the straw or the pillowcases whenever they are dirty or wet.
- If possible, place the shelter in a secluded section of your yard, rather than in a publicly visible spot, so the animal feels safe.
How to pick а cat shelter's material
Keep in mind the climate in your town when choosing the shelter's material. If the weather gets cold and wet in the winter and hot in the summer, wood is probably your best bet. It’s suitable for all four seasons and can withstand both freezing and blazing weather.
Plastic has its advantages as well – it offers more colors and is less expensive. However, plastic shelters don't last as long; they can fade in the sun and crack in harsh weather.
One good possibility is cedar wood because it's rot-resistant, durable and a natural insect repellant. Additionally, this type of wood is anti-fungal and smells great. Keep in mind that some cedar-wood cat houses even offer thick foam insulation as an option, so you don’t have to worry about that either.
How to choose the right size cat house
People often ask if stray cats can survive winter or if feral cats can freeze. This is where the shelter’s size plays a key role: The cat shelter should not be too big. You should pick a shelter that offers enough space so your cat can move around, but not so much space that the cold air gets inside and prevents the accumulation of warmth.
Consider these tips when making or buying a house for your outdoor cat:
- The shelter’s door height should be at least three-quarters of your pet’s shoulder height (from the cat’s neck to the ground).
- The house's length and width should be at least equal to the distance between the cat’s nose and the root of its tail. However, the cat’s shelter's length and width should not be more than 25% larger than the distance between the cat’s nose and the root of its tail.
- The cat shelter's height should be at least 25% bigger than the height of the pet when it stands tall. However, the height should not exceed 50% of the height of the pet.
How to get a cat to use an outdoor shelter
One of the most asked questions about shelters is how to get a cat to actually use it. Here is what you can do to encourage a cat to use its new house:
- Give the cat some time to investigate the new house.
- Place the shelter in a more quiet and private area, such as near shrubbery and away from traffic.
- Allow the cat easy exit routes – if cats feel that they could be ambushed, they would avoid the shelter. The best cat shelters have two doors.
- Leave food nearby or even treats inside.
- Sprinkle catnip.
- Plug-in a heated water bowl, so water won’t freeze.
- Provide a heated pad cover.
Keep in mind that earning a stray cat's trust can be a difficult process and a cat may not sleep inside a shelter at first. Usually, food is the most effective way to win the animal and eventually start interacting with it.
TIP: Though feral cats avoid people, most of them take care of the rest of the cat colony. This means that you can have a shelter that houses more than one cat at a time and the animals will be thankful to cuddle together. Consider this when building or getting a shelter.
How to find a home for a stray cat
If you are not able to keep a homeless cat, you could try to find a new cat parent in several ways:
- Consider contacting a few local veterinarian clinics – they may know people looking for a pet or people who have recently lost one and may welcome a cat into their family.
- Contact breed-specific groups. If the stray cat is a recognizable breed, such a group may quickly place the animal.
- Post information and pictures on the bulletin boards of pet-supply stores, rescue organizations, and social media channels.
- Spread the word among family and friends.
Get ready to interview potential adopters and do not offer the animal for free! Unfortunately, some people collect animals for research, for dog-fight training and other gruesome purposes, so be selective. You could also ask people at a rescue group to help with the interviews – they know how to do it and are usually up for it.
The questions below can help you when interviewing potential adopters and their answers should give you an idea about each applicant. Use common sense – if something seems off, then it probably is.
- Have you ever had another pet? What happened to it?
- What preparations will you make for the animal?
- Is this cat for yourself or as a gift for someone? Who will be the primary cat caregiver?
- Do you currently have any pets?
- Are you aware of the need to introduce the animals gradually? What will you do if they do not get along?
- Do you have children at home? What if they have allergies?
- Are you aware of a cat's average lifespan (up to 20 years) and are you prepared to give it a home for the rest of its life?
- Can you take the financial and physical responsibility to care for this cat? Vaccinations, veterinary check-ups, appropriate food, time and attention?
- Are you willing to allow a home check?
- Could you provide references?
In the infographic below, we have visualized the most important things you should consider when choosing a cat shelter.
About the author
Viva Bolova holds a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas. She spent 14 years doing work for major brands and writing for various publications. Now she writes on travel and pet-related topics and has experience as a PR expert for an international airport.