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

by Elizabeth Arguelles December 4, 2015 at 1:30 pm 20 Comments

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 http://www.alleycat.org/

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: www.justcatsclinic.com (under “Client Resources)

  • Animallover

    We have a stray we’re feeding but he’s really shy and runs from people, we bought him an outdoor shelter but not sure he’ll use it. It’s really sad, he’s a pretty Siamese, we’d take him in if he was willing. I’ve checked all the shelters, rescues, postings and asked around the neighborhood, nobody’s looking for him, so we think he’s officially a wild one. Makes me pretty pissed someone would dump an animal, we took in another stray 3 years ago, he’s a beautiful boy today, so hopeful we an make another connection here.

    • HajjFredHMinshall

      I hope you do, as well. I’ve always been fond of Siamese. But neither they nor any other breed should be allowed to remain outdoors unrestrained. Feeding feral cats may seem like a kindly act, but if you don’t ultimately trap and retain or house the animal, you’re doing more harm than good.

      Domestic cats are wired to kill animals regardless of whether they’re hungry. Providing them a shelter doesn’t change that. Spaying/neutering doesn’t change that. They’re wired through selective-breeding to be addicted to ‘thrill-killing’. If you truly have compassion for living things, you should reconsider enabling this abandoned, non-native domestic animal to remain unrestrained out-of-doors.

      Feral cats are also vectors of disease such as toxoplasmosis, rabies and even plague. Attracting an outdoor cat by feeding it without ensuring it’s vaccinated disease is also irresponsibly inconsiderate of your neighbors, their children and your community as a whole.

      The best case scenario would be if you can get it to adjust to your presence so you can keep it in your home. But if you can’t, it should be safely euthanized rather than leaving it outdoors.

      The main problem with this article is that its myopic author doesn’t ONCE mention considerations for native mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians threatened by feral cats, to say nothing of people threatened by the diseases they carry. Go to the CDC website and see what they say about cat-vectored diseases.

      • Richard Winchester

        On this we agree. We have a cat we got that turned up on our front porch as a kitten in a snow storm. We took him in, had him fixed, gave him a name and he is content and happy. Although he is no fan of my wife.

      • Animallover

        I agree as well, we’d take him in if we could, it’s a tough case on this one. He’s probably been abused, has a serious distrust of people but every day we get a little closer. We have 2 siamesies already so he’d fit right in here, hopefully we can gain his trust and get him inside soon.

        • HajjFredHMinshall

          Inshaa Allah (God Willing)

    • Cathie Gorman Freeman

      Fairfax County’s shelter n is a no-kill shelter. There’s a good chance he/she is lost or dumped/abandoned. They’ll check for microchip but it’s important to get it into the shelter quickly in the event that it’s not spayed. Also, to keep it safe from dogs, etc. I have carrier but not a trap.

      • Animallover

        I would not take him to the shelter even if I could trap him, there are better rescue options than that but I appreciate your thought. The problem is he’s afraid of people and we can’t get close to him, but he does come by for food. Also to mention, my neighborhood has trapped and fixed feral cats, and adopted them as indoor cats. He is most likely not truly feral but a stray that’s been abused by people, so it’s going to take some time to gain his trust. We also have 3 indoor cats, one was a stray also dumped in this neighborhood but he was a kitten and very easy to integrate into our cat family. We actually called all of the shelters at the time we found our little boy, and all of them told us they were full and couldn’t take any new kittens. Pretty sad huh?

        • Cathie Gorman Freeman

          When was that? I think it’s important to get that guy inside to safety ASAP. How long have you been feeding it

          • Animallover

            It’s been months, we have a heated outdoor cat house for him, if he chooses to use it. You can’t force cats, he’s afraid of people so we can’t get close enough. He may change his tune when it gets colder, we’ll see.

  • kitcatkitty

    Acceptable to whom? Neighbors who don’t want them defecating in their yard and vegetable gardens? Those what have created wildlife-friendly backyard habitats for the native animals that actually belong outdoors? Children who may acquire various parasitic diseases?

    TNR is not effective as a population reduction method, TNR is a scourge on natural resources, TNR increases risks to public health, and TNR infringes on property rights.

    Adopt, contain, or euthanize. Time to cut out this nonsense of warehousing ‘community’ cats outdoors!

    Not humane or ethical.

  • HajjFredHMinshall

    The best way to deal with feral cats in one’s neighborhood is with a .22

    • Richard Winchester

      You must live in the country, here in town they frown on that and I have squirrels I would love to terminate with a .22 as chew their way under the eves. City says no snake loads either. I tried my BB gun but even a headshot on a squirrel won’t do, I need an air type BB gun with about 2x the velocity.

      • HajjFredHMinshall

        I live in Alaska. It’s illegal to release domestic animals in the wild, and per Anchorage Municipal Ordinance 17 legal to shoot a domestic animal found harming or harassing wildlife. That applies, by definition, to ANY feral or at-liberty domestic cat.

        • Richard Winchester

          That’s in town? Here once out of the town in to the farmland yes, in town in the housing tracts that is one big fat “NO!”. No gun fire within the city limits. If caught discharging a gun in town they arrest you and your gun is no longer yours. Then there is the court, the judge, a fine, maybe some jail time… It can get ugly fast.

          Far wiser in my case to just trap them and call the animal control officer.

          • HajjFredHMinshall

            It is a municipal ordinance. There usually a disconnect between laws and their enforcement, particularly when it comes to these noxious, invasive, predatory disease-vectors. Most people ‘TNRing’, feeding and otherwise practicing outdoor cat-hoarding are violating a bunch of laws, beginning with Federal ones such as the Migratory Bird and (sometimes) Endangered Species Acts down to local ones against animal abandonment. But as many shelters are themselves violating local laws by returning feral cats to where they were trapped and re-releasing them, which is why they’re not my first choice unless I know they’re a kill shelter where their charges have a fixed ‘expiration date.’ And investing in a high-powered air gun and noise suppressor, and using it circumspectly and CAREFULLY, means never having to say you’re sorry…

            PS: Yeah, probably most Alaskans are ‘gun-happy’ types.

          • Richard Winchester

            I am a gun enthusiast, I was in to competitive shooting at the world level before settling down at 40 to have kids. At the gun club 3 days a week. 50,000 rounds of ammo a year. Good times for sure. I don’t miss the travel from range to range but the prestige and cash made it worth it.

            I am funny about it though… When your really good you get invited to charity events. I got invited to one where the birds were live. I do not care that they are only pigeons… I will not kill for sport. It’s either food, self defense or pest control. I have yet to meet a man willing to eat pigeons. That may be different some other place in the world but not here.

            Having kept birds as pets I have found some to be pretty smart.
            I have never done but admire falconry.
            Present me with a chicken and I will make a meal of it. But just to kill without reason or cause… Not me.

          • HajjFredHMinshall

            I don’t believe in killing anything for sport, or unnecessarily.

    • Richard Winchester

      The best solution to getting rid of feral cats is the humane trap as it does not upset the cat lady and a call to animal control so they handle getting rid of the evidence.

      It works for me. Your mileage may vary.

      • HajjFredHMinshall

        Certain times of pellet guns can be purchases with noise suppressors. That may help with the mileage thing.

  • Animalover

    Try it in my neighborhood and the .22 will be pointed on your ass, sir.


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