How to Identify and Help Feral and Stray Cats

Summer and winter are polar opposites in the outdoor environment. While the summer days can, at times, reach triple digits, blasting cold can be intense during the winter. Some animals, such as squirrels and raccoons, have methods of hiding from the cold, but other animals, such as cats, struggle more. Identifying and telling the difference between feral and stray cats will help you greatly in determining how to best approach and help them during any weather condition.


Identifying Cats

  1. Know the definition of a stray cat. Lost or abandoned cats who still hold any domesticated characteristics will most likely be a stray. Depending on the degree range, a cat will quickly approach a human who offers food or be afraid, but will show a small interest over time.
  2. Know the definition of a feral cat. Feral cats have lived a huge part of their lives in the outdoor world and have no domesticated habits. These cats will shun humans however they can.
  3. Watch the cat’s interactions with other animals. Feral cats tend to create groups of their own, also known as colonies, while stray cats will roam and live by themselves.
  4. Analyze the body language. Feral cats will stray away from body communication, especially the eyes. Stray cats will be more apt to look directly at humans. Hissing, striking, and growling are common defense tactics used by feral cats, while strays tend to be more quiet in defending themselves, from small meows to low hissing.
  5. Observe the environment during the day and night. Both stray and feral cats tend to hang out where food can easily be found: near dumpsters, restaurants, abandoned structures, or under porches. Because strays retain some domesticated behavior, they can been seen more often during the day. Feral cats, on the other hand, are nocturnal and tend to come out of their hiding places for food runs during the night.

Helping Feral Cats

  1. Avoid hesitating to help a cat. Whether a cat is found to be stray or feral, both need the support of humans in their own way.
  2. Seek experienced help if trapping a feral cat. Because of how wild and untamed feral cats are and their reactions to humans, it’s best not to trap them yourself.
  3. Research and call a local cat organization that performs “TNR”. TNR stands for “Trap-Neuter-Return”, which is simply trapping the cats, neutering them, and returning the cats to their original “home area”.
  4. Consider making a homemade shelter for feral cats. If you know a colony resides in the vicinity, get friends or neighbors to help you construct one or several “homes”. Leftover lumber or small dog houses are most convenient and may be the easiest resources to find. Remember the bigger the house is, the less body heat is retained in the house. Straw is the recommended bedding material and don’t forget to lay out food and water nearby.[1]

Helping Stray Cats

  1. Use a trap to most effectively catch stray cats. To avoid injuries to both yourself and the cat, you should never handle them with your bare hands, even if you have been nurturing it for a while. Choose to use bait, such as cat food or white chicken meat to lure the cat into the trap.
  2. Keep the timing in mind when planning your catch. If you are planning to visit a veterinarian within 12 hours, you may keep the cat in the cage or trap during that time. Using this method will eliminate the need to release the cat and then have to re-trap it. If the veterinarian visit is planned for a time that is further in the future, designate a closed, warm space in your house and provide food and water for the time being. Suitable areas might be the basement or a quiet, unused room.
  3. Request that the veterinarian check for a possible microchip. At the size of a grain of rice, microchips sit just underneath the skin between the shoulder blades. Scanning a microchip provides contact information about the animal owner.
  4. Think of creating lost and found notices. Craigslist, weekly newspapers, or social media sites are great ways to reach out to the community. Add a picture of the cat, a specific description, and include the area where you found the cat.
  5. Consider putting the stray cat up for adoption. Many animal shelters are typically loaded with animals, and non-adopted ones are usually put to sleep after some time to avoid overpopulation. Many people will put up a re-homing fee; this is to help ensure the cat will be going to a safe and loving home.
  6. Consider adopting the cat yourself. Taking stray cats off the street is a great alternative for pet adoption rather than using pet stores or shelters.
  7. Help your cat adapt to the new home environment. Your home environment may have a lot of obstacles and conditions the cat either may adapt after several months or years, or not at all. Some obstacles that are typically more difficult to overcome are young children and existing pets, especially dogs. High levels of patience are required and it helps if you are able to provide a dedicated room for the cat the first few months.
  8. Provide lots of encouragement for the cat. This helps the cat adjust to new territory and will likely pay off in the end by establishing a warm relationship.
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