When an unfamiliar cat roams into your yard or takes shelter beneath your deck, it’s normal for concern to kick in. You have no idea if this cat is sick, injured, lost, feral, or merely roaming the neighborhood on her daily escapade. So who should you call to pick up stray cats?
You should call a local animal rescue league or shelter to pick up stray cats. They’ll scan for a microchip and attempt to find the cat’s owner, possibly providing the cat shelter for your state’s 5-7-day hold period. Since not all roaming cats are strays, animal control may not pick up a stray cat.
Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t quite as simple as just calling animal control, as so many people believe. To learn about what you should do if you find a stray cat and who you should contact, read on!
Is That Really a Stray Cat?
Not all cats who roam the neighborhood or take a nap on your driveway are “stray cats.” In fact, there are some 70 million feral cats across the country, and some cats are merely indoor/outdoor cats—in other words, they split time between the house and the outdoors.
Before you make the call to your local animal rescue league or shelter, you want to identify whether this strange cat is feral, indoor/outdoor, or a real stray.
Feral cats don’t have owners now, and possibly not ever. A feral cat has either spent her entire life out in the wild and without human interaction or had become lost or abandoned years prior and reverted to a semi-feral state. The cat you found may be feral if she:
- Keeps low to the ground when walking (to go undetected to predators and prey)
- Avoids human interactions and won’t let you come close or touch her
- Doesn’t communicate with humans via vocalizations
- Only comes out under the cover of night
One of the most obvious signs that a cat is “feral” is that her ear is tipped. The surgical removal of the tip of a cat’s ear signifies that a feral or community cat is fixed (neutered or spayed). This cat is wild and does not require a call to the shelter—feral cats do not thrive in the home.
About 25% of cat owners report letting their cats go outside, so there’s a good chance that the strange cat in your yard has a loving owner who provides her with food, water, and shelter.
An indoor/outdoor cat will:
- Have a generally friendly temperament (does she meow or let you pet her?)
- Hang out around a specific area of the neighborhood or near a particular house
- Be of a healthy weight, not have any visible wounds, and have a clean and groomed coat
- Spend time outdoors while it’s still light out
Most cat owners who let their cat roam also affix a collar and tags around their kitty’s neck. And if the cat in your neighborhood only makes occasional appearances and doesn’t seem to be taking shelter outside, leave the cat be and assume she’s an indoor/outdoor cat.
There are two circumstances where a cat may become a stray: She was abandoned by her owner and released into the wild, or she strayed too far from home and is “lost.” It’s easy to confuse stray cats and indoor/outdoor cats because both may be friendly toward humans.
If the cat displays the following signs, she may be a real stray:
- Communicates with humans via purring or meowing
- Allows you to pet her (she may even rub up against you)
- Comes out during daylight hour
- Has injuries, appears underweight, or looks dirty (signs she lacks human care)
- Travels alone, not in a pack
Stray cats likely spent their entire lives being cared for by humans and may be unable to fend for themselves out in the wild for too long (other cats or predators may attack them). Stray cats are the one scenario where you should definitely call your local animal shelter or rescue league.
Unsure of the difference between a stray or feral cat? Watch the video below to learn more!
What To Do If You Find a Stray Cat
Now that you know the cat in your yard is a possible stray, your first instinct may be to call animal control or the local shelter to pick her up. But if you have a little time and a few resources on hand, you may be able to reunite this lost kitty with her owners without getting a middle-man involved. So if you find a stray cat, here’s what you should do:
Check the Cat For Tags
The first thing you want to do when you find a stray cat is to approach her cautiously to avoid spooking her. You may want to put out a bowl of food to lure her over to you and build trust. If the cat is wearing a collar around her neck, check her tags and look for a name, phone number, or address. Attempt to call the owner, let them know that you found their cat, and arrange for them to pick her up.
Provide the Cat With Food, Water, and Shelter
If it’s cold, rainy, snowing, or the cat seems to be injured (possibly with bite marks), provide the cat with a temporary shelter from the environment. But allow the cat the chance to come and go, as many cats will return home if they stay local to where they were found.
However, don’t bring the cat into your living quarters if you have other cats, as this stray cat may have highly-transmissible diseases like FIV or FeLV. A shed or a garage works well. Put out a bowl of food and water, lay down a blanket or cat bed, and make sure the place is warm.
Keep in mind that a sick or injured cat may act aggressively if you get too close, so don’t put your safety at risk by catching this cat.
Call Animal Control & Ask Questions
Your call to animal control isn’t necessarily about getting the cat picked up but rather finding out if anyone has reported this kitty missing. Make sure you provide them with your location and a description of the cat. Animal control may send out an officer (or a local shelter member) to collect the cat if she appears sick or injured and may allow you to file a found cat report.
Check Local Pet Forums & Groups
Most towns or counties have Facebook groups where locals can report missing and found animals. Check for recent postings about a cat matching the description, and make a post about how and where you saw this cat. You may be able to find the owner or get some tips about where this cat calls “home” without having to get animal control or a shelter involved!
Reach Out to a Local Animal Rescue
If you cannot find the owner yourself, your next step is calling your local animal shelter or animal rescue league. Some will send out a representative to pick up the cat to bring to the shelter, but this isn’t always the case.
There, shelter workers will check for a microchip to see if they can identify the cat’s last owner or home address and reach out to other shelters to find out if anyone has reported this cat missing lately. Some states have mandatory 5-7-day holds where an owner can come forward to reclaim their lost cat before the shelter can adopt her out.
Many animal shelters are consistently at capacity, so there’s no guarantee they’ll send somebody out to pick the stray cat up. It may be up to you to find the owner or adopt the cat out to a loving family yourself.
Does SPCA Pick Up Stray Cats?
The SPCA will pick up a stray cat, particularly if she’s sick or injured, but your local SPCA should be a last resort. Most towns suggest attempting to find the owner yourself, especially since many animal shelters are full and that “stray cat” may very well be an indoor-outdoor cat. However, this depends on where you live.
As it turns out, some of the cats you find roaming your neighborhood are feral or indoor/outdoor cats. In other words, there’s no need to call animal control, an animal shelter, or local rescue league every time you see a cat outside.
The one instance where animal control should be your first call is if the cat appears to be sick or injured. Otherwise, attempt to safely contain the cat and look for the owner yourself.
- Animal Humane Society: Found a stray animal?
- Wikipedia: Feral cat
- National Geographic: U.S. Faces Growing Feral Cat Problem
- Pets WebMD: Cat FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus)
- Pets WebMD: Facts About Feline Leukemia Virus
- VCA Hospitals: Microchipping Your Cat
- PetMD: Ear tipping cats in theory and in practice
- Catster: Indoor Cats vs. Outdoor Cats — Should You Ever Let a Cat Outside?