A cat becomes a stray if it gets lost, abandoned or leaves home voluntarily because they’re unhappy. Don’t assume every cat you find is a stray – especially if they look healthy.
A cat that you think is a stray could be feral. Not all UK cats have owners, and some live an undomesticated life outdoors as wild animals. Try to figure out which it is before you intervene.
Below, we discuss what to do if you find a stray cat.
A stray cat that has previously been a pet will probably be friendly and trusting of people. They might be a little shy but will approach you if you crouch down and speak to them quietly.
A feral cat might run away or hide and will probably be untrusting of humans.
Cats on their own are usually strays; feral cats stay together as a colony.
Some feral cats will be missing the tip of their left ear: this is known as ‘ear tipping’ and is a humane way to identify feral cats that have been neutered and returned to the wild. This helps reduce the number of ownerless cats.
You’re most likely to find a stray cat in your garden or maybe even trying to get into your house. This is because they’re probably used to living in homes with humans who look after them.
A feral cat will keep its distance from humans, so it won’t turn up at your back door.
If the cat looks a healthy weight and has a good-looking coat, then it probably has an owner nearby who looks after it well – and is possibly already out searching for their lost pet.
It could make it hard to get them to move on. They might also have an allergy or medical condition and feeding it could make it ill.
If it doesn’t have an ID tag, it could still be microchipped, so you’d need to find a vet or rescue shelter with a microchip scanner to read it.
You could also put up posters on noticeboards, lamp posts and in the windows of local shops. Try to get a photo of the cat to attach if you can.
You could do this through community Facebook or Twitter pages. Someone in the local area might recognise a photo of the cat.
Local animal shelters (Cats Protection or the RSPCA, for example) will be aware of any missing cats in the area. You can also it register online at Animal Search.
If it lets you, attach a collar with your contact details on the cat. Cats Protection have a downloadable paper collar template on their website. If no one contacts you it’s likely a stray and will need a new home.
A pregnant cat will have a swollen belly and nipples.
If the cat looks healthy, leave it alone. If it looks sick or injured, you need to take it to a local vet straightaway. Either carefully wrap them in a blanket or put them in a pet carrier if you have one.
The vet will be able to scan for a microchip to try and locate their owner.
Should you come across a stray that has had kittens, leave them alone unless they’re in a dangerous situation. The mother could reject or even kill her kittens if you interfere.
However, if the mother or kittens seem unwell, telephone the RSPCA advice line on 0300 1234 999. The most important thing is to keep the mother and kittens together.
Finding abandoned or orphaned kittens without a mother is stressful, but don’t disturb them. It’s not unusual for a mother to leave her kittens to look for food, and if she finds you with the kittens, she could be scared away.
Should you find unhealthy kittens, telephone the RSPCA advice line but do not try to move them.
If you find a stray cat that is sick or injured, carefully get them into a pet carrier (using a towel or blanket for protection from scratches) and telephone the RSPCA advice line before taking them to your nearest vet.
If you’re willing to pick up the cat, wrap it in a blanket and take it a local vet. If the cat did have an owner, they will be able to get in contact and let them know what’s happened.
Even if it’s not microchipped, the vet will usually take care of the cat from there.
If it’s on the road and you don’t feel comfortable moving it, contact your local council to have it removed.
If you’ve done everything you can to find the owner of a stray cat, including having them checked for a microchip, you can either take them in yourself or to a local rescue centre where they will be rehomed.
You can rehome the cat yourself, but get them microchipped – it’s a legal requirement.
If you plan on keeping the cat indoors for safety reasons after you’ve rehomed them, read our guide on how to keep them happy and healthy in your home.
I’ve spent 20 years writing about pets and exploring the wonderful relationships they have with their owners. I started as a staff writer on Dogs Today magazine, working my way up to become deputy editor in 2008. In 2010, I left the office to pursue a freelance career, relocated to north Norfolk and started a family.
Over the years I’ve contributed thoughtful human-interest features, celebrity interviews and investigative news stories to publications including The Sunday Times, Dogs Today, Dogs Monthly and Your Cat. I’ve also ghost-written veterinary books and press releases for the pet industry.
When I’m not writing, I enjoy long walks in the Norfolk countryside with my rescue lurcher Popsie. These are always followed by tea and cake.