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What to Do When You Find a Lost Cat: Crucial Steps & Tips

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

a stray cat sitting at the sidewalk

If you see a cat wandering around alone outside, it’s natural to want to try to help it. The streets can be dangerous places for animals. Traffic, extreme weather conditions, predators, and no access to shelter or food all make it difficult for cats to survive outdoors.

Maybe you’ve seen a cat outside before and wanted to help but didn’t know how. In this article, we look at what to do if you find a lost cat and how to tell if they need your help.

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Feral vs. Lost or Stray

There can be confusion about feral cats versus cats that are lost or stray. If you come across a cat that you can easily pet or that seems friendly, it’s not a feral cat. Lost or stray cats know what people are.

Cats aren’t supposed to live outdoors because they are domesticated animals. However, there are no other options for feral cats. They are the result of the cat overpopulation crisis. These are homeless cats that have not been socialized with humans. They will always fear humans because of this. These cats are born outside, and they will live their entire lives outside, never knowing what a human home is. Once a feral kitten reaches 6 months of age, it’s difficult to tame them. If the mother is feral, she will teach her kittens to fear humans. The cycle continues with these cats struggling to survive on the streets and continuing to breed.

Stray cat
Image Credit: Dimitris Vetsikas, Pixabay

TNR Programs

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs work to help feral cats and make their lives on the streets a little easier. Feral cats are trapped using humane box traps. They are then spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned to their original locations. During the spay or neuter surgery, the ear of the cat is “tipped” to give it a flat appearance in contrast to the other pointed ear.

If this cat winds up in a trap again, the ear serves as a universal sign that the cat has already been altered. If you see a cat with a tipped ear outside, it’s likely a feral cat, and you don’t have to do anything unless the cat is in obvious distress (bleeding, limping, unable to move, stuck somewhere, etc.).

If you come across a feral cat that needs help that you can’t provide, call your local animal control to report the cat to them. You can also contact your local TNR group for further assistance.

If you find and manage to capture a feral kitten, there is a good chance for socialization to occur if the cat is young enough. This usually happens quickly because kittens, especially those under 2 months old, are easy to tame. If you can’t keep the kitten yourself, take them to a shelter or rescue so they can be adopted.

Signs a Cat Is Feral Cat

  • Tipped ear
  • No direct eye contact is made
  • They stay silent and don’t meow
  • More active at night
  • Will run away and hide if you approach
  • May live with other cats in a group
grey stray cat
Image Credit: Gansstock, Shutterstock

Stray and Lost Cats

Stray and lost cats will need your help because they are used to having a home and don’t know how to fend for themselves on the street.

A stray cat is one that had a home but has been displaced. They either lost their home or were abandoned, so now they are forced to live outdoors. They can look disheveled and dirty because they don’t know how to care for themselves outside. They also may be fearful of people as time goes on, but they are more trusting than truly feral cats.

Lost cats got out of their home and now don’t know what to do. They may be wearing a collar and tag, but even if they’re not, it doesn’t mean they are not lost. You may see signs and ads posted around the neighborhood and online for the cat. If you approach a lost cat, there’s a good chance that they are used to people, so they will be friendly and let you pet them. Some lost cats seek out people for help, so you may be approached by the cat instead.

What to Do With a Lost or Stray Cat

Approach the cat with caution, even if they seem friendly. Cats can get scared easily, and you don’t want to spook them and cause them to act aggressively. If the cat allows you to approach, see if you can touch them. If the cat is wearing a collar with an ID tag, simply call the owner and keep the cat confined somewhere safe until they can pick them up. If there is no collar or ID tag, read on for more information.

Petting a ginger cat outside
Image Credit: dashkabudich, Pixabay

Case 1: If You Can Touch Them

  • Speak gently, and see if you can pick the cat up. If you can, bring them inside. It’s important to first get the cat safe. The cat should be kept in a secluded location in the house, like a bathroom or spare bedroom. Do not allow the cat around any other pets, especially your own cats. Diseases can spread easily, and since you don’t know what the cat may be carrying, keep them separated at all times. Set up the room with food, water, and a makeshift litter box. You can use an aluminum pan or cardboard box filled with litter.
  • Contact your local police stations, veterinary offices, and animal shelters, and let them know that you found a cat. Give them a detailed description of the cat, along with your personal information. The owner may be calling the same places looking for their cat. Check for signs posted in your area, posts on social media in lost pet groups for your town, and post yourself in the groups, without giving too much information away about the cat’s description. You want to make sure the real owner of the cat can identify them, so keep specific details to yourself, such as if they have one white toe on the back left foot or a black spot next to the nose. The owner of the cat should be able to say these things to prove that the cat is theirs. Just stick to basic colors, their sex, and the location where they were found. If you’re posting fliers, put the same basic information on them.
  • When possible, take the cat to your nearest veterinarian to have them scanned for a microchip. This is a free service and you don’t need an appointment. If the cat does have a microchip, the vet will be able to retrieve the owner’s information from a database.
  • If you can’t foster the cat until an owner is found, take the cat to a shelter. Without a tag or microchip, you won’t know when the owner will be found, if ever. Cats are held at some shelters for 7–10 days on stray holds. After that, if they’re not claimed, they go up for adoption. You may also choose to adopt the cat yourself after this period. Once the cat receives a clean bill of health from the vet, they can be slowly introduced to any animals that you have at home.

Case 2: If You Cannot Touch Them

feral cat hiding from human
Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay

Maybe the cat isn’t feral but is just so scared that they won’t let you get too close. They still need help, but it might take more work to get them.

  • Call your local animal control to come and get the cat if you can’t. This is especially important if the cat appears to be injured or in danger.
  • Set a trap for the cat. Use a stinky food as bait, like tuna or liver sausage. Put a towel over the trap once it’s set so the cat won’t be so anxious when they’re caught. Don’t remove the cat from the trap until you’re in a safe place to do so, like a vet’s office or a room inside your house.
  • If you can’t capture them, take a photo of the cat and post it to lost animal websites and social media groups with the location information.

What If It’s Just an Outdoor Cat?

While it may not always be safe to do so, some cat owners let their cats outside to roam during the day. These cats know where their homes are and return to them for food and shelter.

These cats normally don’t roam too far from their homes. If you see a cat outside near someone’s property, knock on the door and ask if the cat is theirs. If not, they may know where the cat lives.

It’s hard to tell the difference between an outdoor cat and one that is lost. They may both look clean and healthy. Strays tend to look rugged because they have been outside for a long time without any care. Feral cats usually look clean because they know how to care for themselves.

Final Thoughts

If you find a cat outside, the first thing to do is determine if it’s feral, lost, or stray. Feral cats live outdoors, but lost and stray cats will need your help to find their original or new homes.

Ask people in the area if they recognize the cat. The cat could just be an outdoor cat that roams during the day and returns home at night. But if it’s a lost or stray cat, with your diligence and willingness to help them, you could be the reason that they are reunited with their owner or have a chance at a new, happy life.


Featured Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay

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