How to Approach a Stray Cat

Published: 7/22/2021

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

So, say you find a helpless feline on the street and you want to help. What's the process? There's plenty to consider when picking up a stray, including whether they're feral or abandoned and the best way to approach them. Need some tips on how to approach a stray cat? Here are a few pointers.


Practice road safety during a rescue

Often, you'll see a stray cat at an inconvenient moment, like while driving down a highway. During a stray cat rescue, always practice road safety. You could endanger yourself and others by suddenly pulling over to help a feral feline

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.


Approaching a stray cat

Approaching and securing a stray cat is generally trickier than a stray dog. Cats, especially feral cats, are wary of humans and can escape to tiny spaces thanks to their free-floating clavicle. Unless you're lucky, you'll need lots of patience when approaching and catching a stray cat.


Watch for signs of aggression

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

When approaching stray cats, 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 seem calmer.


Tips on how to approach a stray cat

The best way to entice a cat is with some food and water. Placing some strong-smelling cat food close to you will help draw them out of hiding and build trust.

When approaching a cat, whether they're feral or not, you'll want to adopt a low stance, as the cat will find it less threatening. Speak to the cat in a soft, reassuring voice, which will help keep them calm as you approach. 

Cats see eye contact as a way of establishing dominance, so you should avoid looking a stray in the eye. A side-on stance is also a good posture to take, as it makes you look smaller and less threatening. 

Once the cat gets close to you, try extending a finger for them to smell and see their reaction. If they rub up into your hand, they're likely a stray cat rather than a feral. Do not immediately reach for or grab a stray cat.


Securing a stray cat

Coming prepared to rescue a stray cat is key to success. 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 around 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. 

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 ones with trigger plates. However, traps can be costly 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 SPCA. If you live in a rural area, you may need to contact the police for assistance.


What to do with a stray cat

Once you've secured a stray cat, you might be unsure of the best course of action. The first thing to do is to take the cat to a local vet. Your local vet will be able to check the cat for a microchip and tell you for sure if a cat is stray or feral.


Difference between feral and stray cats

There's a big difference between feral and stray cats, but both types of cats should be rescued to help reduce cat populations. Feral cats are domestic cats that have lived outside their entire lives and avoid human contact. Meanwhile, stray cats are pets that have been abandoned or lost. 

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. Most animal shelters have a trap-neuter-release (TNR) policy. This ensures the feral cat isn't euthanized but also can't contribute to the feral cat population. Feral cats that are neutered and vaccinated will live longer, happier lives. 

After neutering a feral cat, the shelter will clip the end of the cat's ear to signify to others that they've been part of a TNR program. Check with your local shelter/humane society to see if they have a TNR program. 

If you find an abandoned or lost cat rather than a feral cat, they may purr, make eye contact, and blink at you. Abandoned or lost cats may also approach you, which is rare for feral cats. Stray cats will usually walk with their tails up, while feral cats are more guarded. 

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


Keeping a stray cat as a pet

If you find an adorable stray which 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 differs 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 checking their microchip, posting online, and putting up flyers around your neighborhood to see if someone lost their cat. 

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

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