What to do with a Stray Cat

  • By:

    Dr. Linda Simon

    Dr. Linda Simon is a veterinary surgeon working with seven years of experience. She is a fellow of the British Veterinary Association and specializing in animal medicine. Also, she has been the Woman magazine resident vet for the past two years and writes a regular column for them, focusing on pets and their health.

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  • Updated on: 17/04/2020

The sad truth is that there are a high number of stray cats roaming the streets in practically any country you go to. Not only do these cats have a poor quality of life while on the streets, they are highly likely to be involved in incidents such as cat fights, falls from heights and being hit by cars.

what to do with a stray cat@user9995248 / Freepik

Is a stray cat the same as a feral cat?

It’s important not to confuse stray cats with feral cats. Ferals are not tame and could cause serious injury to a human if approached as they are basically ‘wild’ animals who are fearful of all humans and have never been socialised. They usually breed at young ages, are often hungry and are typically unclean and riddled with parasites. Some of the luckier feral cats may have been involved in a local ‘catch and release’ programme whereby they have been caught in a cage, neutered and then released. These guys will usually have the top-notch of their ear removed so they are identifiable and are not trapped again.

How do you know if a cat is a stray?

Though it’s not always immediately obvious if a cat is a stray or not, strays are usually new to the area, cautious but quite friendly and they may look a little dirty and dishevelled. Those that have been stray for longer may be under-weight and have old scars and scabs from fights they have been in. Females might be pregnant and may have visibly enlarged mammary glands, while males might not be castrated so will have visibly testicles under their tail.

If you think you have a stray cat coming to your neighbourhood but aren’t sure if they are owned or not, you have a few options. If tame, check them for a tag or collar. If they do not have one, they could be brought to a local vet in a carrier. The vet can then scan them for a microchip and, if found, could contact their owner to see if they are missing (or just being a bit adventurous!).

If not tame enough to bring to the local clinic or shelter, you might be able to put a paper collar around their neck. This collar should have your contact details on it and a message such as ‘Call me if this is your cat’. If not contacted, you may well be dealing with a stray.

If the cat is not approachable or is simply too wily to be caught, the next best thing is to take a photo of them. Use this photo on posters you can put up around the neighbourhood and hand in to local vet clinics. Similarly, put a message up on Facebook on your local neighbourhood group, asking if anyone recognises the cat.

What to do with a stray cat?

If we establish that the cat is a stray, a decision needs to be made: Are they sociable and could you offer them a home?

§ If yes, fantastic! It’s important to have them vet checked, vaccinated, neutered and microchipped ASAP. Settling into your home may take time, although some will take to their new plush surroundings like a duck to water.

§ If you cannot offer them a home, consider asking around to see if anyone you know can. If not, contact local rescue charities and shelters, who may be able to lend a hand.

So, should I take on a stray cat?

should I take on a stray cat@pereslavtseva / Freepik

This is a very personal question and depends on your circumstances. As with any animal, you will need the appropriate space, time and resources. Would you be able to afford the vet bills if they have any underlying medical issues such as chronic cat flu or arthritis caused by old injuries?

If you already have a cat at home, consider the risk as the stray may have viral diseases such as Feline Aids Virus or Feline Leukaemia Virus. They may not have been socialised well from a young age, so may not get on well with other pets or children. If they are female, they may well be pregnant, so you would need to know you have options for re-homing the kittens.

These are all important considerations; taking on a stray is a big decision. However, if you think you can save them from the streets and offer them a roof over their head and a square meal every day, that’s your good deed done for at least the next year!

What does it mean when a stray cat follows you?

Stray cats may follow people if they are being sociable, craving human companionship or feel there is a chance they could get some food. If they are following you, they are unlikely to be afraid of you and there is a good chance they have been well socialised when younger. This means they would be more likely than a timid stray to settle in well to a new home.

Of course, don’t assume that any cat that follows you needs a home. Some are owned and are simply being curious and friendly!

Can I take a stray cat to the vet for free? 

can I take a stray cat to the vet for free@kalinovskiy / Freepik

If you find a cat that is injured or obviously unwell, it is important to seek veterinary care for it. Contact your local vet clinic who will advise you on whether or not they can see the cat. Some will have arrangements with local charities and will be able to treat the cat free of charge. Other clinics may be able to see the cat but would expect you to cover the bill (or at least a portion of it). While this may seem harsh if private clinics treated every stray brought in to them free of charge they would be out of business within a week! If a stray cat is seriously unwell and is suffering, any vet should be able to treat its pain or put it to sleep free of charge.

Who to call to pick up stray cats?

If you find a stray cat that is healthy and don’t want to rehome it, you need to call the local cat charity, animal shelter or animal control agency. They should be able to arrange to have them collected (either in person or by setting up a cat trap).

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