Beyond Nine Lives: What to do When You Find a Stray Cat

Beyond Nine Lives

This is a sponsored post by Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles, veterinarian and owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. It does not represent the opinion of Reston Now.

As cat lovers, our care and concern for felines is rarely limited to the ones who share our houses. When we find stray kitties roaming the neighborhood, we often want to do something to ensure that those cats are fed, receive proper medical care and don’t end up at a shelter.

Unfortunately, this is not always easy or straightforward. Dealing responsibly with these cats takes compassion, but it also requires commitment and good judgment. In this article, we’ll discuss what to do with potential stray cats in your neighborhood.

Determine whether the cat has an owner

Though it might be natural to assume that cats roaming the streets are homeless, many are simply outdoor kitties living nearby or felines from other neighborhoods who have gotten lost. If you find a cat like this, the hope is that you’ll be able to reunite them with their owner. Here are some tips to help establish if the kitty has an owner already:

  • Look for a collar. This is probably the most obvious sign that a kitty has a home.
  • Scan for a microchip. A less visible but equally definitive way to identify an unknown feline is to have vet check for a microchip. If the cat has one, the chip should give you the information you need to track down its owners.
  • Check the cat’s appearance/condition. Cats that live indoors with humans tend to look groomed and better fed than some of their fellow outdoor felines. While this is not always the case, it can be an easy visual to help you establish whether you are dealing with an outdoor cat or an indoor cat that’s lost. It is important to note, however, that lost cats will sometimes actually appear more disheveled, as they might respond to the increased stress by not grooming.
  • Note the cat’s demeanor/behavior. Cats with owners are generally much friendlier and more comfortable around people. They might even try to come into your house to get out of the elements. Again though it’s important to note this is not always the case. Some very friendly indoor cats could be scared or stressed and may not react the same way to strangers.
  • See if the cat has been spayed or neutered. Though not all “fixed” cats have a home, spaying or neutering does indicate that the kitty has had previous contact with people. It can also give you a better idea of how far the feline is from its usual residence. Females and neutered males rarely roam too far outside their neighborhood, while intact male cats tend to travel a lot more.
  • Ask around the neighborhood. If the cat has a family, its parents will probably be looking for it. Checking with your neighbors might help you connect with the family very quickly.
  • Check with local shelters and veterinary clinics. Posting signs in places where cat people congregate is another good way to search for owners of lost felines.

Get the cat spayed/neutered

If you determine that the kitty does not have a home, the next step is to get it spayed or neutered. This is extremely important, regardless of what you decide to do with the cat in the long term.

Free-roaming felines are responsible for the majority of kittens born in the U.S. every year, and many of the millions of euthanasias performed at shelters around the country could have been prevented by sterilization. Neutering male cats also curbs aggressive behavior and reduces injuries and deaths caused by fights with other cats.

The approaches to sterilizing stray cats (felines that have been lost or abandoned) and feral cats (the offspring of stray or other feral cats) are a bit different. Because the former are used to being around people, they are usually easier to get to the vet. The latter, however, are generally not comfortable around humans, so humane trapping mechanisms are necessary to get them to a vet or shelter for sterilization.

 The veterinary medical professionals performing the spaying or neutering procedures will also administer a rabies vaccination and “tip” the cat’s ear to indicate that it has been sterilized.

 Though spaying and neutering can be somewhat costly, there are many shelters and clinics that do said procedures at affordable rates. Start by calling your local animal shelter for resources or contact Alley Cat Allies at

Find a long-term solution

Once you have ensured that the cat will not reproduce in the wild, you can turn your attention to identifying the best and most humane living situation for the kitty.

Because they have already been domesticated, the ideal solution for a stray is adoption. Though they can be hard to find, loving parents give a stray kitty the best chance to have a long, healthy life. Some strays may have socialization/adjustment issues, but the right approach can minimize these challenges.

If possible, try to avoid taking stray cats to a shelter. Instead try reaching out to local rescue groups that have foster networks. Shelters are always faced with space and resource constraints which can lead to incredibly difficult decisions. So if you are comfortable and able, foster any found kitties in your house until a permanent home can be found.

If that is not feasible, feeding and caring for them as outdoor cats is an acceptable alternative in the short term. Remember if you have other cats in your home, keep them separate from the stray until proper testing can be done to rule out any parasites or infectious diseases that could be contagious.

Dealing with strays in your neighborhood is not always easy, but the care and compassion that you show these felines goes a long way toward protecting their health, your neighborhood, and your own cats. In the next article, we’ll talk about the best way to care for feral cats living in your neighborhood.

For more information, please visit our Feline Health Library at: (under “Client Resources)

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