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What to Do With a Stray Cat: How to Earn Their Trust

Found a stray cat? Follow these steps to ensure their well-being while you search for their people.

by Alicia Kort, | February 29, 2024

What to Do With a Stray Cat: How to Earn Their Trust

Studio Serra / Stocksy

With 70 million stray and feral cats in the United States, it’d be no surprise to find at least one (if not a little feral cat colony) living in your neighborhood. That’s a lot of unhoused kitties. But if you’ve ever tried to interact with a stray cat, more likely than not, they’ve scrambled away. 

Unlike many stray dogs, stray cats are much more wary of humans and likely to keep a safe distance away. If you’ve ever been a pet parent to a cat, you know how hard it is to get your own kitty into a cat carrier when it’s time for that vet check-up, so you can imagine how hard it would be to catch an unwilling stray kitty. In this guide, you will learn how to bond with a stray cat, how to care for them, how to reunite them with their pet parents, how to rehome them, and more. 

Identifying stray vs. feral cats

Although you might equate the two words, stray and feral mean very different things. A stray cat is a cat that likely had a home at some point and either got lost or were abandoned. Meanwhile, a feral cat is a cat that grew up without any human interaction and is completely wild. Here’s how you can identify a stray versus a feral cat.


These cats might approach humans with some caution, but overall they are friendly. After earning their trust, they will let you approach them, feed them, pet them, and eventually catch them. We’ll teach you what to do with a friendly stray cat and also how to handle a hurt stray cat later in this article.

Feral cats

Feral cats assume defensive positions around humans and are likely to bite, scratch, and attack if a human manages to grab them (though, good luck, because feral cats are incredibly fast). So trying to catch a feral cat yourself is not advisable.

It’s better to involve animal control, because they’re professionals and are equipped to handle the situation. Give them a call, describe what the cat looks like, a specific description of the area the cat has been spotted in (or the cross streets, if applicable). If you want to rehome the cat yourself, offer to serve as temporary housing and then start contacting local rescues, if you’re trying to avoid the feral cat ending up in a kill shelter.

Now that we know the difference between strays and feral cats, here's what to do when you find a stray cat.

1. Getting veterinary care

The first order of business after getting a stray cat into your car or into a cat carrier is finding out if this stray might have a pet parent who is searching for them. The easiest way to do this is to see if the cat has a microchip. Microchipping a pet is one of the most common ways animal shelters, rescues, and loving pet owners help pets go from “lost” to “found” before they ever go missing.

A microchip is a small piece of technology that is safely placed under the skin of a pet. Each microchip has a scannable barcode that links back to a larger database that contains identifiable information on a pet and their person. To read a microchip, you must have a special scanning device. Most veterinarian offices, grooming salons, and animal shelters will have a microchip reader, so your first move should be to take the cat to one of these three places to have them scanned for a microchip. If the cat has a microchip, there may be information on file with the chip company that would help you get connected to the cat’s family.

But regardless if the kitty has a microchip or not, you should take them for a vet visit. They might be secretly battling an illness or they could be pregnant. If you’ve rescued a hurt stray cat, a vet visit should be your first stop rather than popping into a grooming salon or animal shelter to prioritize getting the cat the medical care they need. 

2. Providing temporary care

If you do not want the stray you’ve found sent to a shelter immediately, you can work with animal control to provide a three to four-day holding period on the cat. During this period, the cat can reside in your home, and you’d be responsible for caring for it. This holding period also is designed to help give pet parents more time to locate their lost cat before their cat formally enters a shelter or rescue. 

It’s important to keep this new stray away from any pets in your home, so your pets don’t become sick. The nervous cat will feel more at ease in its own room with food and water anyway. If you want to make your temporary resident even more comfortable, provide them a cardboard box with a blanket in it, so they have somewhere a bit more contained to curl up in. Many cats prefer to have a roof of sorts over their heads, because they feel safer. 

3. Reuniting a stray cat with their pet parent 

Just because the kitty doesn’t have a microchip doesn’t mean someone isn’t desperately searching for their lost little one. A good way to start looking for the cat’s family is to canvas the area and ask if anyone knows who might be their pet parents.

You could also try posting “Found Cat” flyers on telephone poles in the neighborhood, community cork boards at your local grocery store, local veterinarian offices, and the local animal shelters where a cat parent might pop in to see if their cat was turned in. We made a downloadable template that you can easily use to make a quick, but effective “found pet” flyer.

Pet parents with lost loved ones will also call animal control to see if anyone has found or seen their cat, so that is why it’s so important to contact them even if you have successfully wrangled the cat yourself. You can even try using online community apps, such as Nextdoor, to alert your neighbors or sites that focus on helping lost pets make their way home, such as Pawboost.

4. Rehoming healthy strays 

What do you do with a stray cat that you can’t keep? Find the cat a loving forever home. If you’ve done your due diligence by scanning the cat for a microchip and searching for their people, it’s possible that the kitty is truly a stray in need of a home. If you cannot keep the cat yourself, you can find a great new adopter using Rehome.

Rehome is the peer-to-peer pet adoption platform that will guide you through the process every step of the way, from creating a profile that makes your cat stand out to the millions of adopters on Adopt a Pet to choosing the right adopter. You can learn more about how Rehome works here. You could also call around to your local rescues to see if they could accommodate your stray. 

Commonly asked questions

What to do with a stray cat you can’t keep? 

You could either use Adopt a Pet’s Rehome tool to find your stray a new home on your own or you could contact your local rescue or shelter to see if they could take in the kitty. 

Is adopting a stray cat a bad idea?

Adopting a stray cat is not a bad idea at all. A stray cat will be so happy to have a forever home and become a loving member of your family. It might take a bit for them to open up to you, but once they do, you won’t find a more devoted pet — especially if you were the one who brought them in from the cold. 

What to do with a stray cat in winter? 

First, provide shelter (an insulated box, bin, or cat carrier) and water and food every single day. Water and wet food can freeze overnight, so it’s important to change it out. If temperatures are going well below freezing, call animal control and they can wrangle the feral or stray cat and get them out of the cold. 

What to do with a pregnant stray cat?

Call your local rescue or animal control if you’re unsure of what to do. If the cat is a friendly stray and is generally approachable, you could bring her into the vet to confirm that she is pregnant. See if you or your local rescue would be willing to house her for the rest of her pregnancy, as the babies have a better chance at being born indoors rather than outdoors. If the cat is feral, animal control or your local rescue can help bring the mom cat inside. 


I Found A Stray Cat….Now What?

How to Help a Stray Pet

Feral Cats in Your Neighborhood?

If You Find a Lost Pet

Animal shelters and animal welfare: Raising the bar

Alicia Kort

Alicia Kort

Alicia Kort is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She’s currently the senior commerce editor at Apartment Therapy. She’s been published in StyleCaster, Electric Literature, Newsweek, InterviewBrooklyn magazine and more. In her free time, she runs, reads, and spends time with her dog-nieces, Maya and Lady, and her cat-niece, Pepper.