How to tell if a cat needs to be rescued (2023)

By Danielle Bays

ByBlog EditoronMay 1, 2023 with15Comments

How to tell if a cat needs to be rescued (1)

Now that there’s a heightened understanding of cats and their behaviors, it turns out that the impulse to bring cats found outside indoors may not actually be the right thing to do. Kaan Sezer/

In recent years, new research has changed traditional advice around how to help cats found outside. Some of the cats may have homes and know how to reach them. Some may be “community cats” cared for by several local families, and their home is exactly where they are. These cats, especially when they are part of a large group, benefit from health checks and sterilization before ultimately being returned to their outdoor home. Keeping your own cats inside is, of course, better for wild birds and other animals who may fall prey to cats outdoors, and for their sakes, we encourage keeping felines inside. But when it comes to considering what’s best for any given cat already found outside, the issue becomes complicated. Danielle Bays, the senior analyst for cat protection and policy for the Humane Society of the United States, works with animal shelters, cat advocates, policymakers and other stakeholders to broaden support for community cat programs nationwide and to improve the welfare of all cats. In this guest blog, Danielle discusses the nuances that can stem from what seems like a simple question: How can I help this cat?

(Video) Cat Adoption & Rescue: Tips for Adopting a Cat from a Shelter

As a professional cat person, one of the most common questions I get is, “How can I help this cat?” For many of us who feel a connection to animals, our natural inclination may be to scoop the cat up and bring him inside. But we now have a heightened understanding of cats and their behaviors, and it turns out that the impulse to bring the cat inside may not actually be the right thing to do.

A very brief history of our lives with cats

Cats living indoors is a very recent part of our long history coexisting with domestic cats, considering that cat domestication began 12,000 years ago, and Kitty Litter wasn’t invented until 1947. This feline version of indoor plumbing was a game-changer for cat ownership; Bloomberg News rightly placed Kitty Litter on its list of the most disruptive ideas in history.

In just a few (human) generations, keeping cats indoors became the norm. Today, an estimated 67% of cats in the U.S. are kept indoors, with another 24% spending time both indoors and outdoors, according to surveys by the American Pet Products Association.

Soon enough, a cat being outdoors was seen as a cry for help. Taking these cats to a shelter was once what most animal welfare organizations preached for decades. But we are due for another disruptive idea: Not every stray cat needs to be rescued, and for those who can use some help, taking the cat to your local shelter may not be the best approach.

What the research shows

(Video) 10 Things to Know AFTER Adopting a Cat

The reality is that reclaim rates for stray cats in most communities across the country teeter at about 5%. This means that for every 100 stray cats brought to a shelter, only five are actually reunited with their families. Those cats tend to have microchips with up-to-date contact information.

Studies have shown that cats are more likely to get back home if they don’t enter the shelter. Some cats will find their way home after a few days of roaming the neighborhood. Others get back home with the help of community members who knock on doors and post fliers to identify where the cat lives and get him back home. Or maybe they learn that the cat is home and lives on the block cared for by several residents. Before you shuttle that stray cat to the shelter, put your detective hat on and talk to the people who live on that block.

Most lost cats are found only a few houses away from where they live. It’s no surprise that bringing lost cats to a shelter miles away decreases their chances of getting home. Some people may not know which shelter in their area to call to find their cat. The shelter a town or two over may be inaccessible if they don’t have transportation or can’t get off work during business hours. Many cat owners don’t start to worry until after their cats are gone several days, and it may be nearly a week before they contact their shelter. By then, it may be too late: The cats’ stray hold, the legal amount of time a shelter must keep a stray, may have passed and the cats have been adopted to new families. It’s heartbreaking for the people and stressful for the cats.

Innovative approaches

To address these and other issues, Rhode Island established new procedures for when found cats are turned over to animal shelters in a town other than where the cat was found. We worked on the final language for the new rules with the state veterinarian. Now a description of the cat is shared with the animal control agency or police department of the town where the cat was found, and finders must attest they were allowed to be on the property they took the cat from.

Other animal welfare agencies are also taking proactive approaches. For example, the Massachusetts SPCA now boasts a whopping 34% reunification rate for adult cats, in large part by changing the narrative about stray cats. In the old way of thinking, all those unclaimed cats must be unwanted, abandoned or have irresponsible owners, and the cats deserve better. There is more emphasis on rehoming stray cats than reuniting them with their caregivers. As we move to a more evidence-based approach to sheltering, we find no data to support the notion these cats are homeless and unwanted. Once we stop creating a negative scenario around each cat, we can focus on getting that cat back to the family who loves him. That’s what the MSPCA is doing by considering a “stray cat” simply a cat whose story is currently unknown to the shelter. By engaging the community and doing a bit of detective work, the MSPCA is uncovering those stories and seeing reunification stats soar well above the national average.

(Video) Man pleads for help as rescue cat becomes obsessed with him

Another part of changing the narrative is recognizing that many cats considered “lost” are not lost at all. They know exactly where they are. West Valley Humane Society in Caldwell, Idaho, found that to be true. Like most shelters, the staff didn’t have the capacity to canvass all the homes in areas where cats were found to see if they could identify their families. So essentially, they let the cats do the work themselves. With a reunification rate of less than 1%, they began diverting many of the healthy stray cats who come into their shelter to their community cat program, where the cats are sterilized, vaccinated and returned to where they were found. As an experiment, West Valley staff took the extra step of placing a collar on each cat they returned outdoors, with instructions for the cat’s caretaker to give them a call. People called. They found 70% of the cats lived within five houses of where they were found and another 17% within a quarter-mile. By letting the cats make their way back home, they boosted their reunification rate to over 85% in one year.

These programs are just a few of the many stellar programs we have highlighted at our annual Animal Care Expo, the largest training and networking event for those working in animal sheltering and rescue.

How you can help cats

I grew up with cats living outdoors. Neither of my parents grew up with pets, yet my brother and I convinced them that we should add one to the family. We started with goldfish and then moved on to a cat when a neighbor’s cat had kittens. This was the mid-1970s, a few years before Bob Barker started ending every episode of The Price is Right with a reminder to spay or neuter your pet. It also was a time when keeping cats exclusively indoors-only was far from the norm. So, while Tac (that’s cat spelled backward), my first kitten, got neutered, he lived primarily outdoors. I think back to Tac, who one day just didn’t come home. Maybe he fell victim to one of the dangers lurking outdoors in my quiet suburban neighborhood, or maybe he was “rescued” by a well-intentioned person who felt he needed their help.

Tac’s disappearance broke my 6-year-old heart, of course. And like many people, I still struggle with the impulse to keep cats safe at home, recognizing that’s not an option for the millions of community cats across the country. Cats are fascinating and complex animals, which means it can be tricky deciding how to best help the one you’ve just met. I hope you can help spread the word about these simple steps to help figure out what a cat found outside may actually need. You can also distribute our Can you help this cat? brochure in your community.


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How do you tell if a cat is stray or owned? ›

Overall Appearance

Their coat should be neat, clean and well kept. They also normally have a collar. A stray is a cat that is lost or ran away from home so they normally have unkept or grungy coats compared to feral cats They should also be thinner since they don't know or aren't used to hunting for themselves.

Do rescue cats know you rescued them? ›

Once a cat is in a new, hopefully more loving situation, they will clearly know the difference between the past and the present. Just like with negative memories, cats will remember the good times as well! Provide your rescued cat with lots of love (and patience) and she is sure to know she's been rescued.

How do you tell if a cat has been abandoned? ›

See if the cat approaches you.

Since stray cats have once been socialized, meaning they've been around people and most likely lived in a home, they are often not as skittish as feral cats. Stand or sit near the cat and see if it approaches you on its own. If it does, it is probably a stray that is lost.

Can a stray cat make my indoor cat sick? ›

Stray kittens can also carry various infectious diseases that can be transmitted to other cats in the household, such as feline leukemia virus, panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis and calicivirus. Overall, the risks from adopting stray kittens are low, but they are real.

How do you know if a feral cat trusts you? ›

You will know when kitty's trust is growing. She will play, she will watch you with interest and not fear, she will come close and even touch and smell you. To get her ready for that first real petting, let her get used to your hand being close to her and moving toward her.

What to do if you think a cat is stray? ›

Here's what to do if you find a stray, feral or lost cat:
  1. Check to see if the cat is wearing a collar or tag with the contact details of the owner - only approach if the cat is calm.
  2. Ask around locally. ...
  3. Contact the local vet to scan for a microchip.
  4. Advertise on social media and ask around locally.

What is the 3 3 3 rule of adopting a rescue cat? ›

The 'Rule of Three' means that you can gauge the time it might take for your cat to fully acclimate to his home in threes: three days, three weeks, and three months.

Do cats feel abandoned when you give them away? ›

Surely, the cats have to be rehomed to get proper nourishment. But sadly, as an owner, if you wonder do cats miss their owners when rehomed, the reply is yes. It is difficult for them to get over their long-cherished foster parents.

Do cats get sad when they are abandoned? ›

How abandonment impacts individual pets Humans often do not realize that animals, especially domesticated dogs, cats and other small animals, can feel a host of emotions similar to those experienced by people. Fear, pain, abandonment and longing are all things which pets are capable of experiencing.

What does it mean when a stray cat comes to your house and won t leave? ›

If you find a stray cat hanging around your house, or trying to gain access inside, it is more than likely looking for a safe haven with food, water, and a little bit of TLC.

How long is too long for a cat to be missing? ›

If your cat is gone for more than 12 hours or overnight, it's time to take action. Don't panic. Follow the tips in this article to bring your cat home safely.

Should I take in a stray cat? ›

So, if the cat is apparently healthy and in good condition, it's probably best to leave her alone; don't attempt to catch her and take her to a shelter or pound. However, if the cat appears to be in poor health or you are unsure what to do, it's best to contact your local animal welfare organisation for advice.

What diseases can a stray cat carry? ›

Free-roaming cats are an important source of zoonotic diseases including rabies, Toxoplasma gondii, cutaneous larval migrans, tularemia and plague.

How do you know if a stray cat is clean? ›

Their coat should be neat, clean and well kept. They also normally have a collar. A stray is a cat that is lost or ran away from home so they normally have unkept or grungy coats compared to feral cats They should also be thinner since they don't know or aren't used to hunting for themselves.

What diseases can a stray cat give me? ›

The three most common protozoal diseases in cats and humans are cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, and toxoplasmosis. Cryptosporidiosis can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, abdominal cramps, and dehydration in both cats and people.

What does it mean when a feral cat meows at you? ›

There are actually a number of reasons. Cats meow as a way of greeting you, to demand attention, to ask for food, to be let inside or outside, to find a mate (for cats who are not fixed), or if they are elderly and suffering from mental confusion, such as a result of the cat version of Alzheimer's Disease.

What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat? ›

Stray cats are socialized to people and can be adopted into homes, but feral cats are not socialized to people and are happy living outdoors. A stray cat: Is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in her life, but has left or lost her indoor home, as well as most human contact and dependence.

What's the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat? ›

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A STRAY CAT AND A FERAL CAT? A stray cat is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in her life, but has left or lost her indoor home, as well as most human contact and dependence. She can become feral as her contact with humans dwindles.

Should I ignore a stray cat? ›

Yes because stray animals pick up diseases of all types. They get parasites like ticks, worms, and fleas. They can contract rabies. They may have other diseases that can be transmitted to humans or to your own pets.

What are stray cats afraid of? ›

1. Scatter orange and lemon peels (cats dislike citrus smells), cayenne pepper, chili pepper flakes, coffee grounds, pipe tobacco, lavender oil, lemon grass oil, citronella oil, peppermint oil, eucalyptus oil, or mustard oil.

Who do you call to pick up stray cats? ›

If you're not able to safely restrain the animal, call the local animal control agency (in rural areas, call the police). Do so whether or not the animal is injured, and whether or not they are wearing an identification tag.

What is the 3 second rule cats? ›

You can test this by following a simple 3 second rule: If you pause after 3 seconds of stroking your cat, do they try to reinitiate contact (i.e. rub against you)? If not, your cat has probably had enough for now!

What to look for when choosing a rescue cat? ›

A healthy kitten or cat has clear, bright eyes and a clean, shiny haircoat. It should not appear thin, overly fat, or show signs of illness, such as nasal discharge or diarrhea. When choosing a cat, pick one that is active, inquisitive, and seeks affection and attention from people.

How long does it take for a rescue cat to trust you? ›

Depending on their upbringing, it may take days, weeks, or months for a newly-befriended cat to trust you. Bonding with cats can occur naturally through feeding and daily interactions, but some cats need a little extra attention and time to feel safe. And keep an open mind about how cats might show trust.

How do you know when it's time to rehome your cat? ›

Sometimes things just don't work out, and that might include the life you planned with your cat. If you've reached that point, it's time to consider rehoming your cat. Maybe your cat's run into some behavioral issues that you haven't been able to fix, or you've accepted a new job that requires more travel.

Will my cat forget me after 3 weeks? ›

Anyone simply "present" in their life is someone they may remember, but not associate with any emotion. But as long as you and your cat have shared a pet or two, and as long as you fed them a few of their favorite meals, your cat will remember you as well no matter how long you are gone.

Where your cat sleeps on your bed and what it means? ›

If your cat sleeps on your bed, he may choose a position that lets him see out your bedroom door more easily. If he's curled up in a ball under your bed or in a quiet corner, then he may be hiding. Cats who sleep under the covers might love being close to you, or they might be hiding to feel safer.

What happens when cats are left alone? ›

A: Cats can get lonely, depressed and anxious on their own. Each cat is different and will respond according to their personality and habits. If you have to leave your cat alone regularly for longer periods of time, watch out for signs of depression and cat separation anxiety.

What does it mean when a stray cat hangs around your house? ›

If a stray cat wandered onto your property, it might be a sign that you have protection. Either the universe or your spirit guide is protecting you from something. It could mean that you are surrounded by bad spirits or spiritual energy.

Why does my cat want to leave the house so badly? ›

It's instinct for your house cat to want to explore and seek out the best view of its territory, even that seen through the window and blocked by an inconvenient door. You cannot change this instinct, but you can modify some of these irksome behaviors.

Why do stray cats disappear for days? ›

It's important to understand that these vanishing acts are perfectly normal. Felines, by their nature, are adventurous animals. Their innate curiosity can see them wander away from home as they explore their surroundings, satisfying that predatory instinct.

Where do cats usually go when they go missing? ›

Indoor cats who get outdoors are typically found less than three houses away. Ask friends and neighbors to help with the search, and check under decks and porches, in garages and sheds, and other places where a cat could hide or get trapped.

Is it normal for a cat to go missing for 2 weeks? ›

Well, when they're lost from their territory – your home – fear is likely to be their greatest feeling, rather than hunger. In fact, the Missing Animal Response Network has found that cats will often hide for one or two weeks after becoming displaced from their territory.

Why is my outdoor cat not coming home? ›

Outdoor cats may have left their regular comfort zone and have lost their bearings. This can be because they are scared of noises, traffic, people or other animals. They may have also wandered too far in search of food or following an interesting smell or noise.

Can I get fleas from petting a stray cat? ›

Fleas do not live on humans. They generally bite down at the feet, ankles, and legs by jumping from an infested pet or other animal, but it is most likely to be from an infested pet bed.

Will stray cats be okay? ›

In general, stray cats are shy and not dangerous if they are left alone. But if you attempt to catch or handle them, or if you come into contact with contaminated areas, there are risks. A stray cat is a cat that has at one point or another had a home but it has found itself either abandoned or lost.

How likely is it to get a disease from a stray cat? ›

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that cats are rarely a source of disease, and that it is unlikely for anyone to get sick from touching or owning a cat.

What are signs of illness in stray cats? ›

Cats that are ill will usually show changes in overall appearance, energy level, sociability, coat appearance and/or amount of shedding, appetite, litterbox usage, breathing, or discharges from the eyes or nose. In general, any sudden change should alert you that your cat needs veterinary attention.

Why is it bad to feed stray cats? ›

For cats it can result in direct conflicts with wild animals, predation, disease transmission and complaints from neighbors. For wildlife, regular human handouts can result in habituation where wild animals associate people with food.

Should I shower a stray cat? ›

Any stray kitten should be washed immediately if brought into the home to prevent an indoor flea farm. 2. Spaying and neutering is an important part of responsible cat ownership, as is purchasing a pet insurance policy for your beloved feline.

How do you know if a stray cat is happy? ›

Here are signs of a happy cat:
  1. Vocal clues. Cats can be very vocal, especially when they're happy. ...
  2. A healthy appearance. If cats feel good, they will keep themselves well groomed. ...
  3. A relaxed posture. ...
  4. Eyes and Ears. ...
  5. Social sleeping. ...
  6. Playful behaviour. ...
  7. A good appetite.

Do stray cats pick their owners? ›

Today, many stray cats that roam freely throughout their imaginary territories of about 200 acres each choose their families the same way. Many of them are fed by different families for years until they select the one who provides the safest place and the most comfortable conditions.

What are the dangers of stray cats to humans? ›

Cats can carry rabies

Stray cats may come in contact with bats, raccoons and skunks. These animals sometimes carry rabies. The rabies virus is in the saliva of a sick animal. Since cats groom themselves by putting saliva on their paws, then grooming their fur, cat scratches and cat bites may carry the rabies virus.

Do all stray cats have worms? ›

Worms and cats go hand-in-hand, especially when they have access to the outdoors or live in feral cat colonies. Regular deworming should be routine for those of us who care for community cat colonies as almost all outdoor cats have worms or other parasites.

Can you get parasites from stray cats? ›

Cats and other felines, can act as reservoirs, carriers, transmitters and definitive hosts for many intestinal parasites. These animals play an important role in parasite transmission to human and other animals by shedding parasitic eggs, larvae, cyst or oocyst in their feces (2, 3).

How do you get a stray cat to be yours? ›

The best way to get a stray cat to trust you is with food and water. Set down some strong-smelling cat food or treats to help draw them out of hiding. While you may be tempted to feed them something more enticing, like a piece of ham, it's best to stick to cat food to prevent stomach upset.

Can I trust a stray cat? ›

With time and patience, your stray cat will come to trust you and want pets consistently. You might even start giving him access to your home from time to time if your bond has grown. At some point, you may want to take him to the vet for a checkup and vaccinations.

How do you tell if a kitten has been abandoned? ›

Active Moms will move their kittens from place to place if they feel they are in danger. If hours pass and the babies are dirty, fussy and loud, it is safe to consider them abandoned. It's important to remember to wait an appropriate amount of time and to stay calm.

What is the lifespan of a feral cat? ›

How long does it take for a stray cat to trust you? ›

It may take up to 4 weeks for the cats to ultimately feel comfortable. The more feral the cat, the longer this process can take, as a less-socialized cat will take longer to bond to a new person and place.

Should I let a stray cat stay at my house? ›

Let the cat in your house, especially if it is cold or raining. Give them a warm blanket or dry towel to lie on, and put it in a safe spot away from your other pets, and children. If the cat is wet and is tame enough for you to get close, use a towel to dry it.

What are the negatives of stray cats? ›

Free-ranging and feral cats can contract and spread a wide variety of diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV or feline AIDS), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline panleukopenia virus (FPV), rabies, and distemper, to other domesticated animals.

What is the fading kitten syndrome? ›

What is “Fading Kitten Syndrome”? Fading kitten syndrome, sometimes referred as “failure to thrive”, describes a kitten that “crashes”, suddenly becoming ill or unresponsive, even if it was previously healthy.

How do you know if a stray cat has a disease? ›

Cats that are ill will usually show changes in overall appearance, energy level, sociability, coat appearance and/or amount of shedding, appetite, litterbox usage, breathing, or discharges from the eyes or nose. In general, any sudden change should alert you that your cat needs veterinary attention.

How long until a kitten is considered abandoned? ›

If kittens are very young (less than three weeks), and after four hours the mother has not returned, you may conclude she has abandoned her kittens. As tiny kittens easily become chilled and dehydrated, this would be the time for human intervention, which means bottle feeding them until they are 4 weeks or older.


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