Many of us have seen that cat, begging for food on our porch, bothering the birds around our feeders, teasing our indoor cats as they sit in the window. We don’t see fliers around the neighborhood, the cat isn’t wearing a collar, and we never see him go into a neighbor’s house. He must be a stray or feral, right? Before you decide to take him in or surrender him to a shelter, please read this.
The difference between feral and stray
Stray cats are those that have been raised around or with humans and are currently homeless for one reason or another. They may be shy but are typically able to be indoor cats. Feral cats, on the other hand, have been born outdoors and have not had human interaction during their critical socialization period of 4-7 weeks of age. They are essentially wild animals and, as such, are best left outdoors. An effective way to tell the difference is to sit quietly (maybe for several sessions) to see if the cat is willing to approach and/or let you touch him. If he repeatedly backs off or runs away, he is likely feral. If he allows interaction, he is not.
Just because a cat is hanging around doesn’t necessarily mean he is a stray or feral. Many happy, well-cared-for cats will wander around the neighborhood and ask for food and/or attention from the neighbors. I’ve had two cats go missing, only to find that they were living with someone who thought they were strays. The first went AWOL one November, only to pop back in through the cat door the following March. He was shiny, well fed, and had obviously not spent the winter fending for himself. Another took a jaunt one summer and was found three weeks later in a neighbor’s yard. He got out again and went right back to the neighbor’s home. We agreed that he must be happier there, and she took him in.
What to do when you find a stray cat?
— Ask around to see if anyone in your neighborhood has indoor/outdoor or barn cats.
— Post ads, fliers, social media announcements. Call your local radio station and veterinary clinics.
— If you cannot find the cat’s family, put a “stray collar” on the cat if you can. This is a safety collar with a write-on tag, where you can write, “If you know this cat, please call xxx-xxx-xxxx” (insert a number at which you can be reached). Dakin Humane Society in Springfield and Leverett will often provide a collar and tag at no charge, although a donation to cover the approximate $2 cost is appreciated. They will also take a “Lost Pet” report.
— If you don’t get a response in a day or two after putting on the collar, take the cat to a veterinarian or a shelter to have him scanned for a microchip. This service is often free, if that is all you are doing. A microchip will hopefully be connected with current owner information, and you can reunite the cat with his people.
— If all that fails, you are free to take the cat in or surrender him to a local shelter/rescue, so they can care for him and hopefully find him a new home.
What if the cat is feral and unapproachable?
In winter, your best course of action is to provide food, water, and possibly rudimentary shelter. Plans for winter shelter and tips for caring for feral cats can be found online at Alley Cat Allies.
Dakin Humane Society provides humane trap rentals, along with advice for trapping feral cats. They have a spay/neuter clinic at their Springfield location. For a nominal fee, they will spay or neuter feral cats and vaccinate them for rabies. They also test for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, as well as provide humane euthanasia if a cat is injured and cannot be cared for.
Please visit the following websites for more information:
Dakin Humane Society
Open admission shelter/adoptions, spay/neuter clinic, trap rentals, “stray cat collars”
Springfield, MA 413-781-4000
Leverett, MA 413-548-9898
Alley Cat Allies
Resource for all things feral — TNR, community cat care, advocacy
Dedicated to adoptions and sanctuary