Fluffy white cat with bright green eyes meowing at the camera.

When a stray cat shows up at your door

He’s dirty, hungry, and meowing for help — so what do you do?

Countless homeless cats roam the streets, and circumstances may not allow you to bring in and save everyone. But what can you do when one shows up at your door — dirty, hungry, and meowing for help?

Determine what kind of cat it is

There are several types of cats you may encounter outdoors:

Feral cats are afraid of people. They try to hide and avoid being touched. They are not socialized, which makes them poor candidates for adoption. If you notice that one of its ears is clipped, that indicates the cat was spayed or neutered and returned to its turf.

Free-roaming and abandoned cats aren’t confined to one house or other shelter. They may be tame but are unowned, born in the wild or discarded by its mother or a negligent human.

Stray cats may be lost house pets with an owner frantic for their return.

Care for its immediate needs

Don’t feel guilty about feeding a stray cat. But be aware if you decide to feed a cat, you are training it to return to your door.

If you feel safe, approach the cat slowly and speak in a soft voice. Hold out your hand and call it softly. Offer a can of tuna or cat food, a bowl of water, and shelter, if possible. But don’t force it. If the cat is feral and puts up a fight, you risk being scratched or bitten.

To develop a relationship with a cat, consistently place the food outdoors in a small space that she can access but a larger animal cannot.

If a stray cat willingly enters your home, check for tags but keep her away from your own pets until you are certain she is healthy. Many cats that live on the streets have mites, mange, fleas, worms, and other contagious diseases, and you surely don’t want to expose your own cat to any transmittable conditions.

If the cat has tags, contact the owners. You can also bring her to your vet or a shelter to scan for a microchip. It’s the fastest way to identify her owner and help her get back home. If the cat’s family can’t be located, consider fostering her yourself and looking for a forever home.

Step up to make a difference

In the past, it was common practice for animal lovers to trap outdoor cats and surrender them to a shelter. Euthanasia was the most likely outcome for feral cats brought to an overcrowded shelter.

Today, under humane trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs, these cats can be returned outside but will no longer contribute to the feral cat population — and they have a better chance at life once they’ve been neutered and vaccinated.

Many city, state and local organizations as well as animal rescue groups and individuals support TNR with hands-on assistance.

So, as a responsible friend to animals, take the next step. Once the cat is fed and has water, get a humane trap. You can purchase a Havahart or box trap or borrow one from your vet or local animal shelter. Wear protective gloves before approaching the cat and have a towel ready to throw over the cat if she tries to attack. Then bring the cat in to be spayed or neutered. Many organizations offer free or low-cost services. Afterward, release it as directed by your local authorities to an outdoor cat colony.

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