When You Want to Adopt a Stray

Proceed cautiously, knowing that the priority is your safety because he may be frightened and try to scratch or bite.

Your next cat may show up when you least expect it. You glance out the window and see a skinny cat with a dirt-smudged coat looking back at you. He doesn’t rush to greet you like a lovable, lost Labrador Retriever. He sizes you up, determining if you’re friend or foe.


You place bowls of food and water on the back porch to prevent him from starving or becoming dehydrated, but as the days pass and the cat moves closer to you and lets you pet him, you’re smitten. You’ve made the transition from performing an act of kindness to wanting to provide a safe, loving home. Your mind races with questions. Among them:

  • What happened to cause him to be on his own?
  • Is he feral or an abandoned stray?
    Does he belong to someone?
  • Will he scratch or bite me?
  • Does he have any diseases or injuries?
  • How can I safely bring him inside?
  • Should I keep him?

These are valid concerns, but don’t expect to have complete answers, cautions Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, Ph.D., former president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and emeritus James Law Professor of Animal Behavior at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“As much as you might want to rush and pick up this cat, you need to proceed cautiously,” she says. “A frightened cat can scratch or bite you. With cats you do not know, it is important for them to make the first move and come to you.”

Your first mission is to determine if the cat is feral versus abandoned or belongs to a neighbor. Pay heed to his responsiveness to you. “Strays or cats abandoned by people who move may approach you and allow you to pet them,” says Dr. Houpt. “Feral cats, on the other hand, will not approach you.”

By definition, a feral cat has had little or no human contact and has survived on his own or in a cat colony. He may accept food but doesn’t want physical contact and certainly will not tolerate living indoors. Your safety should be the top priority because if a feral cat feels trapped, he can scratch or bite trying to escape.

Once you determine that the cat is friendly, you need to find out if he’s lost or abandoned. Many cats wear breakaway collars that come off when snagged by a tree branch. If the cat easily allows you to pet him, Dr. Houpt recommends wearing oven mitts to avoid being scratched when you place him in a carrier for a trip to the veterinary clinic. Spray the carrier with Feliway, a product that emits synthetic calming feline pheromones.


Check for a Microchip. At the clinic, a veterinarian can use a scanner to determine if the cat has an identification microchip and can help in reuniting him with his owner. If not, contact your local shelter to see if anyone has inquired about a cat fitting the description of the one you found. In addition, you can put up “Found Cat” posters in your neighborhood, with your phone number and a brief description of the cat. To draw attention to the posters, use a large size in a bright color.

You can also alert neighbors and post online information on sites such as www.missingpetpartnership.org. Be sure to let area shelters know you have the cat in case his owners are looking for him.

During the transition when you don’t know if you’re a temporary caregiver or new owner, Dr. Houpt advises that you:

  • Cat-proof your home by closing doors to rooms you don’t want your new cat to access.
  • Provide sturdy scratching posts, litter boxes and toys.
  • Separate the new cat in a closed room away from your resident cat until you can take him to the veterinary clinic for a thorough physical examination. The veterinarian can determine if the cat has a contagious disease such as feline leukemia, or has fleas or other parasites. Also, have the cat’s nails trimmed during this visit.
  • Have the cat receive core vaccinations to protect him against panleukopenia, feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus (an upper respiratory infection) and rabies. After a reasonable time has passed and no owner has claimed the cat, you should have him neutered. Expect to spend $100 to $200 for the exam and vaccinations, and $40 to $120 for neutering.
  • Be patient and allow the cat to adapt to his new surroundings — and to you. He may prefer surveying the scene from under your bed for several weeks or immediately jump on your lap and start purring. “Most cats do much better with a passive approach, so try sitting on the floor and read the newspaper and let the cat come to you,” Dr. Houpt says.
  • Provide a large litter box. Use a non-scented litter, and pour it so that there is a shallow and deep end for the cat to choose. Scoop it daily.
    Serve canned and dry food to get the cat used to different types of foods and textures. Provide three mini-meals per day.

“Having a contented cat purr on your lap is wonderful,” says Dr. Houpt. “By taking the right precautions, you can enjoy many years with this cat you’ve rescued from the streets.”