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What to do if you meet a 'mystery' cat

Tips for figuring out if an outdoor cat needs to be rescued

All Animals magazine, July/August 2016

by Julie Falconer

A clipped ear indicates that a cat is sterilized. Photo by Michelle Riley/The HSUS

In a perfect world, every cat would come with a collar and ID number that would tell you his life history and current status. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Before you jump into rescue mode, make sure the cat you’ve met is not someone’s pet, a loosely owned community cat or a member of a colony that’s being fed nearby.

The tip-off

If the cat has an ear that’s been squared off and is seemingly in good condition, you’re looking at a community cat who has been sterilized. He likely belongs to a nearby colony where he’s fed and monitored. If there’s no eartip, try to evaluate the cat’s level of tameness by feeding him for a few days (in a discreet location that doesn’t draw him toward a busy road or other dangers). A stray tame cat may approach you for food, while a feral cat will only eat after you walk away. A cat is probably feral if he’s still unapproachable after several days of feeding.

Are there cats living outside in your neighborhood? Learn how to help them »

Searching for clues

If the cat is tame, you can purchase a breakaway collar and attach a note requesting that his caretaker contact you. Contact nearby veterinary clinics, animal shelters and rescues in case someone has reported a lost cat. If you can safely put the cat into a carrier, take him to a nearby vet clinic or shelter and have him scanned for a microchip. If those steps don’t pan out, talk with neighbors, mail carriers and others who frequent your neighborhood. Look around for signs—such as food and water bowls and shelters—that someone is caring for cats. Leave a note or knock on the door and introduce yourself as a fellow animal lover who has come across a stray cat.

From cold case to solutions

If you’re unable to identify an owner or caretaker for a tame cat, try to get him vetted and find him an indoor home. If your local shelters and rescue groups are unable to accept him, consider fostering him until you can find an adopter, or until kitten season is over and rescues have more capacity. If that’s not feasible, you can get him sterilized and eartipped and continue caring for him in his outside territory while you search for a home. A feral cat is unlikely to adjust to being an indoor pet. Contact local animal organizations to find out about trap-neuter-return programs and arrange to borrow a humane trap. Enlist your animal-loving neighbors’ help with figuring out the safest place to feed him and a location for a winter shelter. By making this a community effort, you’ll ensure that he will still have caretakers if you go on vacation or move.


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