Note: We are a local animal rescue organization in Northern Virginia. We take in stray cats only from this geographic area (N VA, MD, Washington DC).

Steps to Take If You Find a Cat Outdoors (Feral or Friendly Stray Cat)

Feral Cats

What is a Feral Cat?

A “feral” cat has not been socialized toward humans. The cat was born outdoors and is essentially a wild animal. A feral cat will be very skittish toward humans, and not allow direct contact. Over time, a feral cat may become more comfortable outdoors with the person who is feeding them.

How to Determine If a Cat Is Feral vs. Friendly

It can be hard to determine initially if a cat is feral (not social with humans) or friendly (social with humans). Even a friendly cat may be skittish at first until the cat learns to trust you. A friendly cat will usually warm up to a human within a few days if you are providing the cat with food and water and you are patient and non-threatening. It can be harder to determine if a mother cat with kittens is feral because she is likely to hiss and spit if you approach her kittens. So more time and greater caution may be needed when trying to determine if a mother cat is friendly or feral.

If the Cat is Feral

  • Provide food, water, and shelter.
  • Take note of whether the cat’s left ear is tipped. If so, this means someone has previously trapped the cat and the cat is spayed/neutered.
  • If the cat has not been spayed/neutered, trap the cat (see Step #3 below); get the cat spayed/neutered; and return (TNR) the cat to where they were found. You also need to commit to providing food, water, and shelter (e.g., wood houses, dogloos) for the rest of the cat’s life.
    • For TNR advice or assistance:
      • Contact your local animal shelter.
        • Many local shelters will not trap the cat and won’t take feral cats into the shelter. However, many shelters provide training, traps, and access to free or low-cost spaying/neutering.
      • Contact a feral cat group (e.g., Metro Ferals). They may be able to refer you to a local rescue organizations that assist with TNR.
  • If the feral cat has kittens, see Step #6 below.

Friendly Stray Cats

What is a Stray Cat?

The word “stray” refers to friendly cats who are social with humans and don’t have a home. They are either lost or have been abandoned outdoors. Sadly, cats do get lost and far too many cats are purposely abandoned outdoors when someone moves away or simply decides they don’t want to care for the cat anymore.

Determine if the Cat is a Stray (i.e., Lost or Abandoned)

Try to determine if the cat is lost or abandoned, and not simply a neighbor’s indoor-outdoor cat.

  • Talk to neighbors to see if they know anything about the cat.
  • Post notices on online social or neighborhood networks such as Facebook or Nextdoor.
  • Post messages on online pet rescue groups or message boards such as PawBoost or the Missing Pet Network.
  • Place signs around the neighborhood asking if the cat belongs to anyone.
  • Contact local shelters to file a “Found Cat Report.”
    • Contact the shelter in the county where the cat was found, as well as neighboring counties if they are close by.

After Determining the Cat is a Stray (i.e., Lost or Abandoned)

Tips on Handling Stray Cats on Your Own

1. Provide Food and Water

  • Provide cat food, tuna, or cooked meat for adult cats if you don’t have cat food immediately available.  Cats are carnivores – meat eaters!
  • Provide kitten food for nursing moms and kittens, whenever possible.
  • Provide clean water. Do not give cow’s milk which is hard for cats to digest!

2. Lure the Cat Safely Inside a Carrier

  • Be cautious about picking up a cat since this could scare the cat.
  • It’s best to try to carefully lure the cat inside a carrier with food.
  • Once safely inside the carrier, bring the cat inside your home and let the cat out in a small, contained room.

3. Trap the Cat – Only If the Cat Can’t Be Safely Lured into a Carrier

  • Use a humane trap to capture a cat, if absolutely necessary.
    • A rescue organization or local animal shelter may be able to loan you one.
    • Otherwise, you can purchase one at home supply stores.
  • You must monitor the trap carefully.
    • Don’t leave the trap unattended for longer than 30 minutes.
    • Trapped cats may injure themselves trying to get out.
  • Traps should be covered with a towel.
    • This helps to lure the cat inside, and protects the cat once the cat is inside – it’s less likely the cat will injure themself trying to get out of the trap if they can’t see out of the trap.
  • Place a thin sheet (one or two pages) of newspaper on the bottom of the trap.
    • This protects the cats paws once they are inside and  hides the elevated plate the cat steps on to trigger the door to close.
  • Use smelly/fishy canned cat food, and lure the cat inside by:
    • Placing a small amount in front of the trap, and slightly inside the trap, and
    • Placing a larger amount in the back of the trap (on a paper towel or plate – not in the can which is sharp and can cut the cat’s tongue while trying to eat out of the can).
  • Let the cat out of the trap only inside a closed room, like a bathroom.

4. Evaluate Whether It Is Appropriate to Take the Cat to a Local Animal Shelter

  • Contact local shelters to determine how full they are and what their policies are regarding taking in friendly stray cats.
    • Explain what steps you have already taken to determine the cat is a stray (i.e., either lost or abandoned).
    • Be clear why you think the cat needs help (e.g., the cat is sick, malnourished, injured, etc).
  • Sadly, many local shelters won’t take in friendly stray cats or strongly discourage you from bringing them to the shelter, unless the cat needs dire medical attention.
    • Some shelters will argue that there is no reason the cat can’t just live outside.
    • While shelters are trying to prevent over-crowding, which can lead to euthanizing adoptable cats, many neglect friendly cats living outdoors who need help.
  • Be persistent when a cat needs help. Don’t take no for an answer.
  • It is never best to just leave the cat outside to fend for themself.
    • Stray cats are often hit by cars, get into fights with other cats or dogs, starve, or injure themselves.

5. Bring the Cat into Your Home and Provide Vet Care

  • Most people have the capacity to bring a cat or kittens into their home, at least temporarily.  If you have other pets of your own, just keep the cat/kittens in a separate room away from your pets.
  • Put the cat/kittens in a bathroom or separate room by themselves. Note: they feel safer in a small space, and if you have cats of your own, this will limit the possible transmission of diseases.
  • Take the cat/kittens to a vet ASAP for exams; testing for feline AIDS/leukemia (FIV/FELV); age appropriate rabies and distemper shots; treatment for worms and fleas; and spaying/neutering when appropriate based on health and age.
  • Keep the cat/kittens separate from your cats for at least 10 days to watch for possible infectious diseases, such as upper respiratory infections.

6. If the Stray Cat Has Kittens – How to Socialize Feral Kittens

  • If you found a friendly stray mom cat with kittens, it’s critical that the kittens be socialized properly.
  • Feral kittens (born outside without human contact) who are over 6 weeks of age are hard to fully socialize, although it’s easier if their mom cat is friendly and trusts people.
  • Some older feral kittens may learn to trust one person (their caretaker who is feeding and caring for them) after a longer period of socialization, but they don’t usually fully transfer that trust to another person in a new home.
  • Read more about Taming Feral Kittens.
  • Read more about Rescuing Homeless Kittens.

7. Find the Cat/Kittens the Right Home(s)

  • If the cat is over 4 months of age, get the cat/kitten spayed/neutered before releasing them to a new home.
    • If the kitten is younger, require the adoptive family to have the kitten spayed/neutered at the appropriate age (4-5 months of age).
    • Inform the adopter about discounted spay/neuter programs such as SPCA NOVA’s Spay Inc. program. They can also contact local animal shelters – many have low-cost programs.
  • Place notices on online social networks like Facebook and Nextdoor; post signs in vet offices and on community bulletin boards; and use word of mouth.
  • Make sure the cat is going to a safe, loving, life-long home. See our adoption policies for tips on what to look for in the right home. A few important items:
    • Do not allow declawing,
    • Insist the cat be kept indoors,
    • Kittens need to stay in pairs or placed in a home with another young cat, and
    • Young kittens should not go to homes with very young children/toddlers.
  • Finding the right homes for cats and kittens takes time and commitment.