If you’ve encountered a cat outdoors, or an unfamiliar cat has started hanging out in your backyard, you’ve likely wondered if the cat needs your help. The answer is maybe.

The cat may be:

  • an owned pet who lives nearby and is allowed to roam outside.
  • a lost cat whose owners are searching for their pet.
  • an abandoned pet.
  • a community cat who doesn’t have a clear owner but is fed and sheltered by people in the neighborhood.

For decades, the animal welfare field’s standard advice to anyone who found a seemingly homeless cat was to take the cat to their local animal shelter. But recent studies have revealed that this isn’t always the best approach for the cat and can needlessly tax shelters’ limited resources. In fact, studies show that cats have much better chances of being reunited with their owner if they don’t enter the sheltering system.

So when you come across a mystery cat, or a cat finds you, follow our suggested steps to determine which category the cat falls in.

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Look for status clues

Collar. If the cat has a collar, you’re likely dealing with either a lost pet or a pet cat who lives nearby and is on a neighborhood jaunt. If the collar includes identification, try to contact the owner.

Ear-tip. A community cat who has been spayed or neutered will have a tipped or notched ear (where a section of an ear has been surgically removed). An ear-tipped cat in good body condition likely has one or more caretakers in the neighborhood.

Microchip. If you can safely* get the cat into a carrier or borrow a humane trap, take them to a veterinarian or animal shelter to be scanned for a microchip or ask a local rescue organization if you can borrow a scanner.

Body condition. Does the cat appear in good body condition and only appear at your house sporadically? That’s a good indication that the kitty is being fed elsewhere (even if the kitty is happy to receive second helpings at your home).

Evaluate the cat’s level of socialization

  • While there are no hard-and-fast rules, a cat who approaches you and is friendly toward humans is more likely to be a pet who is allowed outside or a lost or abandoned pet. A cat who is unsocialized (or feral) is more likely to be a community cat. (A cat is probably feral if they’re still unapproachable and can’t be touched after several days of feeding.)
  • That said, not all pet cats are trusting of strangers, and some community cats are friendly with people. So socialization alone won’t tell you if a cat has an owner or caretaker, but knowing how the cat behaves around people will help guide your efforts to help them. (Check out the ASPCA’s “Is That Cat Feral?” webinar for tips on assessing a cat’s socialization status.)

Get the word out

  • Talk with neighbors, mail carriers and anyone else who frequents your neighborhood to see if they know anything about the cat, or if they know someone nearby who feeds community cats.
  • File a found cat report with the animal shelters in your region. Someone may have filed a lost cat report that is a match.
  • If the cat is friendly, purchase a breakaway collar (or use this template to print out a paper collar) and include a note asking the owner or caretaker to contact you.
  • Post flyers in your neighborhood and, while you’re at it, look for signs—such as food and water bowls, shelters and other cats—that someone is caring for community cats. Leave a note or knock on the door and introduce yourself as a fellow animal lover who has come across a mystery cat.
  • Post found notices on social media sites, including NextDoor, FrontPorch, and local Facebook groups for lost and found pets.

Next steps

Depending on what you learn about the cat’s status and living situation, the help you provide can take different forms:

Lost pet: If the cat is scared and eludes the owners’ attempts to retrieve them, check out these tips for trapping a lost cat.

Free-roaming pet: If the cat is an owned pet who is allowed to roam freely outside, gently mention to the owners that their pet would be safer indoors and share information about catios and tips for keeping cats happy indoors. If their pet isn’t sterilized, you can provide information on local spay/neuter programs and the benefits of spay/neuter. If transportation is a problem, you might offer to help transport the cat to the clinic.

Sterilized community cat: If the cat is a sterilized community cat who is cared for by one or more neighbors, you can offer support in a variety of ways, such as by donating cat food, helping to build a winter shelter or feeding when the caretakers are out of town.

Unsterilized community cat: You may discover that your mystery cat is being fed by one or more households but hasn’t been fixed or vaccinated. By helping to fill that gap, you can provide a longer, healthier life for the cat.


Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may not identify an owner or caretaker. In this scenario, your actions should be guided by the cat’s level of socialization and available resources in your community.

  • If the cat is socialized, ask your local shelters and rescue groups for help getting the cat vetted and placed in an adoption program.
  • If your local shelters and rescue groups are overwhelmed, consider fostering the cat until you can find an adopter or until rescues and shelters have more capacity. (If that’s not feasible, you can get the cat sterilized and continue providing care while you search for a home.)
  • An unsocialized cat is unlikely to adjust to being an indoor pet, but you can greatly improve the cat’s chances of a long, healthy life by practicing TNR. Enlist the help of other animal lovers in your neighborhood to figure out the safest place, within the cat’s home territory, to feed the cat and a location for a winter shelter, if necessary. By making this a community effort, you’ll ensure that the cat will still have caretakers if you go on vacation or move. And you’ll have done your part to reduce feline overpopulation and provide a safer, healthier life for your mystery cat.

*Caveat about handling unfamiliar cats: Even the friendliest cat can lash out in fear when an unfamiliar person tries to shove them into a cage or carrier. For your own safety and the cat’s, use bite-resistant gloves when handling an unfamiliar cat or kitten, or borrow a humane trap for an unsocialized (feral) cat or kitten. While rabies in cats isn’t common in the U.S., even the suspicion of rabies can be deadly for an animal who has scratched or bitten someone. For example, in 2018, 21,764 cats were killed and tested for rabies. Of these, 241 (1.1%) were confirmed rabid, while 21,523 cats didn’t have rabies and died unnecessarily.