What To Do If You Find A Stray Cat

Follow these steps and you can help reunite a lost pet with her owner 😻

It was just another Monday morning for Eli Ralston. He woke up, dressed for work and started walking to the subway when his commute was interrupted in the cutest way possible.

“I’m walking and I see this cat standing there in the middle of the sidewalk, and I think ‘Well, there are neighborhood cats around here, she’ll skit away from me and run under a car like they tend to do,’” Ralston tells The Dodo. Unsure of what to do with a stray cat and a train still to catch to his job as a video editor at The Dodo, he continued on his way — when something odd happened.  

“As I walked by her, she came up to me, and pointed up as if she wanted me to pet her,” he says. “I was confused, so I tried, and she let me pet her.” When Ralston attempted to pull his arm away, the cat pawed at his hand for more. Ralston knew immediately that this tabby was no ordinary street cat — he also knew he couldn’t leave her, even if it meant being late for work. (Luckily, The Dodo understands when an employee needs to step out for a surprise animal rescue.)

With tens of millions of cats living on the streets in the United States, Ralston’s feline confrontation is by no means unique. Luckily, there are a few simple guidelines that you can follow to safely rescue an animal in need:  

Determine whether the cat is a lost pet or wild

Eli Ralston

When figuring out how to best help a stray cat, it’s important to identify whether the feline is a feral community cat born and raised in the wild, or a pet who has become lost or abandoned.

Community cats tend to go to great lengths to avoid people. While some may tolerate a bit of contact (especially when food is involved), most are far too fearful to be handled, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Due to this behavior, community cats are largely considered unadoptable and make up a large percentage of cats euthanized in shelters. The ASPCA recommends the policy of trap-neuter-return (TNR) to humanely manage and care for community cat colonies.

Stray domesticated cats, on the other hand, have difficulty coping with life on the streets and tend to be reliant on humans. They are comfortable around people and will exhibit housecat-like shows of affections, such as rubbing against legs, purring and meowing — behaviors which Ralston quickly noted.

“She came up to people, she was walking with her tail up, she was going near houses and nudging at doors, so I thought, ‘I’m going to try to pick her up and if she tries to run away, then she’s obviously fine with staying out here,’” Ralston says. “She let me do it, and let me carry her all the way back to the apartment.”  

Though the stray was showing signs of domestication, Ralston was still unsure. “I was definitely second-guessing myself constantly, like, ‘Is this a housecat or did I just pull a feral cat out of here?’”

Capture the cat and check for a microchip

Eli Ralston

Ralston returned to his apartment with the cat, who settled in right away, sniffing around and looking out the window. Ralston and his wife named her Roberta, and immediately contacted nearby animal hospitals and rescue groups to have her scanned for a microchip.

“If you are able to transport the animal, take them to the nearest animal shelter and see if the animal has a microchip, which can lead you to contact the owner,” Rachael Lewis, manager of communications for the ASPCA, tells The Dodo. “Make sure you keep your resident animals separate; the found animal could be sick, fearful or aggressive with other animals. Keep any identification, such as collar or tags.” Rescuers should also contact nearby shelters and animal control office and give them a description of the animal in case the stray’s owner is searching for them.  

Begin a search for the cat’s owner

Eli Ralston

Sadly, Roberta did not have a microchip or collar, so the Ralstons had to resort to less tech-savvy means of locating her owner. They posted her picture on a local lost pets Facebook group, Twitter and created a “found pet” flyer, stapling it to the pole near where the cat was found.

To widen your search, the ASPCA recommends posting notices at local animal shelters, veterinary hospitals and on websites, such as Tabby Tracker or Petfinder, and social media groups, which could have unexpected positive outcomes. “In searching for a possible owner, you may even find someone interested in adopting the cat,” Lewis adds.

Make the cat comfy in your home for the time being

Eli Ralston

After learning that all the local shelters were full, the Ralstons decided they would keep the cat for a week, and see if the flyers and social media outreach worked. To keep the cat comfortable and happy they went to the local pet store and bought the basic necessities to foster the cat, including cat food, litter and a cat carrier. Disposable litter boxes are an excellent solution for those who will only have the cat for a short stay.

Reunite the cat with its owner

Happily, they didn’t even have to wait 24 hours before the phone rang. “A guy called me the next morning and said, ‘I think you found my cat!’” Ralston explains. They learned the cat’s name was Lucy, and that she lived nearby. She had been missing for four days when her concerned owner spotted their “lost cat” flyer. The Ralstons now have an open invitation to visit Lucy whenever they like — and a few extra cans of cat food for next time.

Or: help find the cat a new home

Eli Ralston

When owners don’t come forward to claim lost pets, it can put the rescuer in a difficult position.

If you decide that you can take on the responsibility of caring for a new pet and would like to keep the cat, check to make sure it is legal for you to do so. If there are no restrictions on keeping found cats in your area, be sure to bring the cat to a veterinarian for a thorough examination. The vet will be able to tell you the cat’s gender, approximate age, whether she has been spayed or neutered and if she is up-to-date on vaccinations. Once the cat is given a clean bill of health, you can start preparing your home for your new pet!

If you are unable to commit to housing the cat full-time, contact local rescue groups and shelters that can help match the cat with the right home. This may be an emotionally difficult decision, but ultimately it will be best for both you and the cat.

Learn more about how to become a cat colony caretaker and help save the lives of community cats here.