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5 min read

How to Approach a Stray Cat


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You'll be hard-pressed to find a US city that isn't home to a stray cat population. According to some estimates, between 60 and 100 million stray cats live in the US. With roughly 85 million pet cats in the US, there are nearly as many stray cats as pet cats.

So if you find a helpless feline on the street and you want to help, what's the process? Read on to learn how to tell the difference between a feral and a stray, how to approach a stray cat, and how to care for a stray once you've successfully rescued them.

Try to determine whether the cat is stray or feral

There's a big difference between feral and stray cats. Feral cats are essentially wild cats that have lived outside their entire lives and avoid human contact. Meanwhile, stray cats are pets that have been abandoned or lost.

Stray cats are much easier to secure and interact with than feral cats. Often, you can lure an abandoned or lost cat into a carrier by setting food as a trap.

Both types of cats should be rescued to help reduce cat populations. While it's rare for feral cats to become family pets, it's still important to take them to your local humane society or animal shelter if you can.

Related: How to Take Care of a Feral Cat

calico cat sitting on stone steps

Avoid petting a free-roaming cat

Most free-roaming cats have not been vaccinated against deadly diseases. Petting or touching a free-roaming cat puts you and your pets at risk of diseases like rabies and bacterial infections like cat scratch fever.

It's a good idea to avoid picking up a free-roaming cat altogether, even to rescue them. If you're unable to secure them using a trap, call in the professionals.

Use food and water to lure them

The best way to get a stray cat to trust you is with food and water. Set down some strong-smelling cat food or treats to help draw them out of hiding.

While you may be tempted to feed them something more enticing, like a piece of ham, it's best to stick to cat food to prevent stomach upset. Avoid putting out any milk — contrary to popular belief, cats are actually lactose intolerant, and consuming dairy products could make them sick.

Try not to crowd the cat or stare at them while they eat. Cats, especially strays, are clever creatures that value their privacy. Be patient, as it may take some time to build trust.

Be mindful of your body language

When approaching a stray cat, you'll want to use a low stance, as the cat will find it less threatening. A side-on stance is also a good posture to take, as it makes you look smaller and less threatening.

Speak to the cat in a soft, reassuring voice, which will help keep them calm as you approach. Cats also see direct eye contact as a way of establishing dominance, so you should avoid looking a stray in the eye.

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Watch for signs of aggression

Chances are you'll be unsure whether a cat is feral or stray at first glance. As cats can quickly become defensive when frightened, you should wear long sleeves and gloves to avoid serious bites or scratches during a rescue. 

When approaching a stray cat, watch out for obvious signs of aggression. Signs of aggression and fear include:

  • Hissing
  • Raised hackles
  • Back arching
  • Tail fluffing
  • Flat ears
  • Dilated pupils
  • Low posture

If you notice any of these signs of aggression, give the cat space, and back off until they calm down.

Practice road safety during a rescue

You may see a stray cat at an inconvenient moment, like while you're driving down the highway. During a stray cat rescue, always practice road safety. You could endanger yourself and others by suddenly pulling over to help a cat stranded near the road.

Pull over at an appropriate place, and use your hazard lights to avoid an accident. If you can't pull over safely, consider coming back another time or calling the local animal control facility.

How long does it take for a stray cat to trust you?

The amount of time it takes to gain a stray cat's trust depends on the cat. If they're used to people and aren't fearful, a stray cat may immediately approach you. Stray cats that are injured or wary of people may take a month (or even longer) to trust you.

While you may be tempted to feed a stray cat for several weeks to gain their trust, use caution. Leaving out food for a stray may attract other feral or stray cats. These cats might carry diseases, which they could pass on to other pets in your neighborhood. If you're going to feed a stray cat, it's best to do it when the cat is around to eat the food immediately. 

A good way of building trust with a stray cat is to build a cat-friendly shelter near your home. This will give the cat somewhere warm and comfortable to rest, and it'll also help them get used to your presence. Try not to build the shelter too close to your house, as it might intimidate the cat.

long-haired ginger cat with dirt on their nose standing outside

How to secure a stray cat

Coming prepared to rescue a stray cat is key to success. Here are a few things you can do to ensure your rescue goes smoothly.

Packing a stray cat rescue kit

If you find yourself rescuing stray cats regularly, keep a rescue kit in your car. A rescue kit for a stray cat may include:

  • A sturdy cat carrier
  • Bottled water
  • Canned cat food
  • Blankets
  • A first aid kit
  • Information on local shelters and 24/7 veterinarians

Carrying a rescue kit with you will mean you're prepared to pick up a stray cat at any time, and you won't have to leave the stray alone to gather supplies.

Setting a trap

If you find a stray cat that won't get into a carrier, you can use a cat trap to secure them. A cat trap involves leaving out food in a trap and lying in wait. There are several types of cat traps, including drop traps and traps with trigger plates. However, traps can be expensive and difficult to use, so you may be better off contacting local authorities to help with the capture.

As cats are unpredictable, you shouldn't try to pick up or grab a cat by hand. Doing so could result in injuries to you and the feline. If you can't lure a cat into a carrier or a trap, you should contact animal control or your local humane society. If you live in a rural area, you may need to contact the police for assistance.

White and gray cat looking up and standing next to blue cat bowl filled with food

What to do with a stray cat

Once you've secured a stray cat, you might be unsure of the best course of action. Here are a few next steps you can take to keep the cat happy and healthy.

Take the cat to the vet

The first thing to do is to take the cat to a local vet. The vet will be able to check the cat for a microchip and tell you for sure whether the cat is stray or feral.

Ask the vet about local stray cat rescue facilities as well. While many of these facilities won't be able to take in or rehome stray cats, some will cover certain vet costs, like spay/neuter and vaccinations.

Keeping a stray cat as a pet

If you find an adorable stray that you'd love to give a "furever" home, there are a few things to consider. Just because you possess a stray doesn't automatically make you their lawful pet parent. There are different laws on pet ownership from state to state and city to city, so check with your local government. 

Usually, there's a holding period for strays before they lawfully belong to you. This holding period varies depending on where you live. During this time, you'll have to take appropriate steps to show that you're trying to find the cat's original owner. You'll also need to take steps to show that you are the new owner. 

You can prove you're trying to find the cat's original owner by having them checked for a microchip, posting online, and putting up flyers around your neighborhood. 

If you're unsuccessful in finding the original owner, you can take steps to show you're the new owner, like covering costs for microchipping, vaccinations, ID tags, flea treatments, etc.

Unsure what to do about a stray cat in your neighborhood? Chat with a veterinary professional for advice on how to help stray cats.

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