What to Know Before Adopting a Stray

He may be lost, abandoned or born to a feral cat, so be be patient, stay safe and look for signs he wants a home

Small plates and bowls sit on some front porches in a Dallas neighborhood of modest older homes. Like clockwork, a handful of homeless cats come out of hiding and hustle to the porches at dawn and dusk in anticipation of being fed.

Feeding these cats is the easy part. Determining if any would welcome being converted into indoor pets is the challenge. Questions abound. Is this a feral cat or an abandoned stray seeking a new home? Does this cat have contagious diseases that could harm my resident cat? Will they get along? Will this cat be affectionate toward me?

Just a Moocher?

“You also don’t know if that cat belongs to another neighbor and is an indoor-outdoor cat who is a moocher who makes his rounds getting breakfast at one house and lunch at another,” says Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, Ph.D., former president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and professor emeritus at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “This cat may be lost, abandoned or born in the streets to a feral cat. That’s why it is important to be patient, keep yourself safe and look for signs that this cat needs and wants a home.”

Be aware that it may not be all smooth sailing in deciding to adopt a cat who has been living on the streets. He could become aggressive with you or your other pets. He could take weeks, even months to stop hiding under beds or being skittish, unwilling to be petted. He may boycott the litter box or attempt to shred your sofa. He may even try to find a way to escape back outside.

Most kittens and cats — about 46 percent — are adopted from animal shelters or rescue groups, according to the latest pet ownership survey by the American Pet Products Association. About 27 percent are taken in as strays, 28 percent come from friends or relatives and about five percent are purchased from a professional breeder or pet store. While their pasts may remain a mystery, adopters can safely observe shelter cats. The cats receive thorough veterinary exams, vaccinations and temperament testing before being made available for adoption.

Dr. Houpt shares her home with Garth, a purebred Persian believed to be about 18 years old. Garth was found about six years ago on the streets of Buffalo, N.Y. No one knows how long he was outside, but all but one of his teeth had to be pulled and his severely matted coat had to be shaved,” says Dr. Houpt. “He must have been fending for himself for a while, but he clearly liked being inside when my son, Chuck, adopted him. The overwhelming reason cats are abandoned by owners — whether taken to a shelter or let out the door — is not using the litter box. Garth was that way in the beginning.”

If you’re considering bringing a homeless cat into your home, Dr. Houpt offers these tips in this order:

1. Study the Cat for Clues

If he shows up on your doorstep or back porch, observe his manner and analyze his appearance for clues to determine if he is feral, stray or a beloved pet who is simply lost. A feral cat, by definition, has had little to no human contact and lives on his own or in a feral cat colony. Feral cats will accept food but on their terms. They will wait to eat until after you’re back in the house and they assess the surroundings to make sure no predators are lurking around. Look for a notched ear tip that indicates this is a feral cat who lives in a colony and has been spayed or neutered to prevent overpopulation of feral cats in the neighborhood.

A stray or abandoned cat who previously lived in a home may be friendlier but still leery of your approach or touch. If he is not skilled at living outside, his coat may be matted and he may be skinny. An indoor-outdoor cat belonging to a neighbor may be more confident, boldly waiting for you to put down the food bowl and accepting the presence of other pets while eating. His coat will be well-groomed and he even may sport a belly.

“A cat who may be missing or abandoned and wants to be inside will try to push his way inside your house,” says Dr. Houpt. “The neighborhood moocher will be friendly but just wants the food on your porch because he prefers being in his own home.”

2. Build Trust Slowly

Even if the cat appears friendly, protect yourself. Do not reach down and stroke his coat or, worse, attempt to pick him up. Cats have flexible spines, sharp teeth and claws and can lash out at you, causing severe bite and scratch wounds. You could develop cat scratch disease, caused by the bacteria, Bartonela henselae, which can cause blisters, swelling, low-grade fever, headaches, fatigue and require hospitalization and antibiotic treatment.

“With cats you don’t know, you need to build trust,” says Dr. Houpt. “It is important for them to make the first move and come to you.” If the cat willingly approaches you, initially put on thick gloves and slowly extend your hand for the cat to sniff and even rub. “Move slow and steady and avoid direct eye contact as these can be challenging or frightening to a cat.”

3. Check his Physical Appearance

Look for signs of ill health, including watery eyes or mucous discharge, dirty ears, runny nose, wheezing and itching, suggesting the possible presence of fleas or a skin condition. Cats can spread a number of diseases to people, including rabies and the parasitic infection toxoplasmosis. Diseases that cats can transmit to other cats, including your resident cats, include feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus and feline panleukopenia. Always thoroughly wash your hands with disinfectant soap after handling an outdoor cat of unknown status and before you touch any pets living with you.

4. Contact Neighbors and Shelters

Post “Found Cat” posters in your neighborhood if this seems to be an indoor cat. Provide photos of him and information about when he first showed up.

5. Cat-proof Your Home

Before adopting the cat, make sure you do a room-by-room inspection to protect him from harm. Store medications in drawers to prevent accidental toxicity; remove poisonous plants such as lilies and have necessities — litter box, water and food bowls, several toys and a sturdy scratching post in place.

6. Encourage a Sense of Security

Initially keep the cat in a closed room. If possible, give him access to a window perch to view outdoor activities. When he is released from his room, let him explore the kitchen and living room and only gradually give access to the rest of the house. During your visits with him, sit on the floor to appear less threatening and let the cat come to you.

7. Time for a Vet Visit

Once the cat allows you to handle him, put him in a pet carrier — after feeding him in the carrier for a few days — and take him to the veterinarian for a complete physical examination, spaying or neutering and vaccinations.

8. Meeting the Others

Offer slow, supervised introductions. Some cats prefer to be the only cat in the house, Dr. Houpt says. A new cat can provoke aggression in your resident cat if you force an introduction too hastily. “It is important to consider the wants of your current cat,” she says. “Just because you would like another cat, doesn’t mean your cat does.”

For at least a week, separate the two cats physically. Let them sniff one another under a closed door. Rub the same towel on both cats to exchange scents. At mealtime, have the new cat eat in a closed carrier in the presence of your resident cat. The goal is to create a positive association with the presence of the new cat during the pleasant experience of mealtime.

Once the new cat starts to feel safe and develops a friendship with you, his full personality will emerge. You may discover that this once-quiet cat is now quite chatty or athletic or a happy cuddler.

“Garth may be about 18, but he is now very demanding,” says Dr. Houpt with a laugh. “He eats eight small meals a day and when you sit down, he wants to sit on your lap for about 10 minutes at a time. He meows for us to come to him and to let him out into the catio [enclosed cat patio]. We will never know his true past but are glad we adopted him.”

The Stats On Shelter Cats

About 13,600 community animal shelters operate in the U.S. While no federal agency or national animal group is mandated to compile national statistics on cats in shelters or identified as strays, the American Pet Products Association reports these findings:

– About 1.3 million cats are adopted from shelters each year.

– Of cats entering shelters, about 37 percent are adopted and 41 percent are euthanized.

– Less than five percent of cats brought in as strays to shelters (or about 100,000) are reunited with their owners each year.

– The most common reasons cats are surrendered to shelters are allergies and regulations against cat
ownership in residences. Other surveys have cited litter box problems as a compelling reason.