Cats living outdoors face many dangers, including disease, starvation, extreme weather and injury. So if you’re an animal lover, the first thing you might think when finding a stray cat is, “How can I help?”
It’s a great question! But the answer isn’t always straightforward, and it largely depends on what type of cat you’ve found. There are two distinct kinds of homeless cats—stray and feral—and each have different needs, dispositions and programs designed to assist them. We're walking you through how to help.
In This Guide:
Stray Cats vs. Feral Cats
To the untrained eye, all free-roaming felines may look the same. But in fact, so-called “community cats” fall into two categories: stray and feral. Although they’re the same species (Felis catus), strays and ferals have many important differences.
What Is a Stray Cat?
A stray cat is a cat who lived indoors with humans at one point before becoming lost or abandoned. If an outdoor cat approaches you in search of food, pets or attention, they’re likely a stray.
“A stray cat is currently or was somebody's pet,” says Dr. Jonathan Roberts, BVSC, a veterinarian at Hout Bay Veterinary Hospital in South Africa who has extensive experience working with shelter cats. “Stray cats, with a bit of TLC, can easily re-integrate into your family as a loving pet.”
What Is a Feral Cat?
Feral cats, on the other hand, are closer to wild animals. These cats have either never had contact with humans, or have lived separate from humans for so long that they’re no longer accustomed to interacting with us. While strays are often found alone, feral cats live together in colonies and avoid people.
“Adult feral cats rarely lose their wild streak and tend to remain undomesticated,” says Dr. Roberts.
Feral kittens, however, can be socialized if found at a young age. Dr. Roberts’ own cat, Blue, was born to a feral mother. “When he first came into my clinic at 4 weeks of age he was very wild, hissing and charging at me,” he says. “He is now the most loving cat and lives for human attention.”
How to Tell the Difference Between Stray and Feral Cats
Stray and feral cats have some telltale characteristics. Consider the following when trying to determine the difference.
May approach people or lounge on porches
Hides from people
Seems to be alone
Lives with a group of outdoor cats, known as a colony
Has friendly, relaxed body language, including an upright, swishing tail
Displays fearful body language, including pinned-back ears and a low tail
Meows or purrs
Doesn’t meow or purr, but might hiss
Visible during the daytime
May be visible during the day, but more likely to be nocturnal
How to Help Stray Cats
As former indoor pets, stray cats are unequipped for outdoor life and need assistance to survive and thrive, especially in cold winter weather. So what do you do to help a stray cat?
Consider the following tips from Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM, a veterinarian and rescue advocate in Greeley, Colorado.
1 Ask Your Neighbors
Keep in mind that the collarless cat strutting through your garden might not be a stray. “If the cat seems friendly and well cared for—good weight, shiny haircoat—then they probably belong to one of your neighbors,” Dr. Wooten says. “They are likely just touring the neighborhood.”
That means your first step should be asking around the neighborhood or posting a picture of your visitor on your community’s Facebook page. You just might be able to reunite this cat with their forever family!
2 Check for a Microchip
After determining that the cat doesn’t have a family nearby, the next step is to have them scanned for a microchip at a veterinary office or shelter.
Handling an unknown cat comes with risks including bites and scratches, which can become easily infected, as well as rabies. If you intend to pick up or touch the cat in any way, it’s important to wear appropriate clothing (long sleeves and pants, as well as thick gloves) and only approach friendly animals.
"Protect your skin, and do not attempt to pick up a frightened or aggressive cat," cautions Dr. Wooten. "Transport the cat securely in a crate."
3 Contact Your Local Shelter
When you find a stray, contact your local shelter or animal control office and provide a detailed description, Dr. Wooten says. It’s possible someone is looking for their lost pet, or will be in the near future. Even if you’re willing to give your new feline friend a home, local laws may require a “holding period” at the shelter to give the cat’s parents a chance to claim their pet.
4 Consider Fostering (or Adopting!)
Shelters, of course, take in stray cats. But if you have the resources, consider providing a temporary foster home—or even adopting a stray cat permanently. “If the cat has no family, then maybe you can be their family,” says Dr. Wooten. “If you choose to adopt a stray cat, you are giving a home and getting a friend.”
If you choose to adopt a stray cat, you are giving a home and getting a friend.
How to Help Feral Cats
Like stray cats, feral cats could use a little help from their human friends. But because of their wild nature, ferals don’t benefit from interventions like fostering or being taken to a shelter. Instead, consider the following tips from Dr. Megan Conrad, an Oregon-based veterinarian and caretaker of two rescue cats, Wallace and Fiona.
1 Skip the Animal Shelter
Many well-meaning animal lovers assume that all outdoor cats should be brought to shelters. However, because they aren’t used to human contact, ferals become extremely stressed at shelters, and can almost never be adopted as pets.
“Feral cats are often born outside and have had little to no interaction with people,” says Dr. Conrad. “They’re too fearful and aggressive to become pets, and run the risk of being euthanized at the shelter.”
2 Volunteer With a Trap-Neuter-Return Program
Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs train community members to safely and humanely trap feral cats so they can be spayed or neutered, vaccinated and given any necessary medical care. While under sedation, cats who receive surgery have an ear “tipped,” or snipped a small amount at the tip, to indicate they’ve been sterilized and treated.
Whether you’re concerned about one kitty in particular or want to help the entire colony, becoming involved in TNR is an effective way to help improve the lives of ferals and reduce the number of homeless cats, says Dr. Conrad. “Most areas of the country have TNR programs these days,” she says. “Simply run a Google search for TNR and your city or county name, or call your local shelter or humane society.”
3 Provide Winter Shelters
Feral cats need to find warm, dry, well-insulated spaces to survive harsh winter weather. If you’re concerned about an outdoor colony, consider investing in insulated outdoor cat shelters. The TRIXIE Natura Insulated Cat House, for instance, has an insulated floor, roof and walls to keep cats warm. Alternately, you can search Google for “winter shelters for feral cats,” and find a number of easy online tutorials using simple materials such as foam coolers and plastic storage bins. (We like this one from the ASPCA.)
How Shelters and Rescues Help Stray and Feral Cats
If you want to help our feline friends, you’re not alone. Shelters and rescues have plenty of programs to benefit both strays and ferals, including:
Behavioral issues such as biting, aggression and urine marking can make it more difficult for stray cats to find forever homes. To increase cats’ chances at adoption, some shelters enlist professional behaviorists and specially trained volunteers to work with cats using positive reinforcement training (aka offering rewards for good behavior), counterconditioning (learning to associate something they fear or dislike with a positive outcome, like praise or treats) and desensitization (slowly exposing a cat to something they fear to reduce the severity of their reaction to it).
Stress can cause many behavioral issues, and unfortunately, shelters can be extremely stressful environments for some cats. Enrichment programs seek to make cats more comfortable by providing physical and mental stimulation while in the shelter. Enrichment can be as simple as providing fun cat condos, engaging food puzzles and extra playtime with volunteers.
TNR programs are the most common resource for assisting feral colonies. Volunteers learn how to trap and transport cats to clinics, where they receive spay-neuter surgeries and veterinary care before being released back into their colony. The mission is two-fold: to reduce feral cat populations over time, and to reduce unwanted “nuisance” behaviors such as spraying and fighting, which are more common in unsterilized cats.
Working Cat Programs
Some cats fall into a “gray area” between stray and feral. While not strictly wild, they lack socialization and are accustomed to outdoor access, making them difficult to adopt as traditional pets. For these cats, some shelters have developed “working cat” programs, which match them with untraditional homes, such as farms, factories, churches and warehouses. The cats enjoy free-range lifestyles, while the facilities gain hard working, live-in mouse hunters.
Learn more about working cat programs.
More Ways to Get Involved
If you’re like us, you’re in awe of the important work that shelter staff and volunteers do every day, and you want to support their mission. That’s where Chewy’s Wish List program comes in. This game-changing platform connects shelters and rescues in need with supporters who are happy to help. Getting involved is as easy as 1, 2, 3:
- Visit the website to enter your location and find a rescue near you.
- View your chosen organization’s Wish List to see which items they currently need, from cat food to dog toys to bunny bedding.
- Add an item (or more!) to your donation cart and check out. Chewy will deliver it to the shelter’s doorstep and let them know you sent a generous gift.
If you’re ready to expand your four-legged family, Chewy can help with that, too. Visit our adoption portal to view adoptable pets in your area with the click of a button.
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