When you see a cat wondering the streets it is hard to determine whether they are owned, a stray, or a feral and this is what you should try to assess. If the cat is owned or a stray, then it will more than likely be friendly and approachable. A stray cat will probably be socialised as it will have lived in a home once and will be exploring the neighbourhood alone. Feral cats are able to look after themselves if they are healthy and will live happily outside – a lot of the time travelling as a group or a pack. They won’t be friendly and will be cautious if you attempt to approach them.
Analysing the way that they act around you will help you assess whether they are a stray or feral.
See If the Cat Approaches You
The way a cat acts around you and their behaviour is the biggest indicator as to whether they are a stray. Since stray cats have once lived in a home and are used to people they will not be as frightened or nervous around people as a feral cat would be. Try standing close or sitting near to the cat and see if it approaches you on its own and if it does, it is probably a stray – crouching down may be less intimidating. Pay close attention to see if the cat approaches any houses or cars on its own as stray cats are more likely to do this.
Approaching the CatIf the cat doesn’t approach you then attempt to approach it, as it could be that it is socialised but too frightened to approach you. Move towards the cat slowly whilst talking to it in a calm and relaxing voice to put the cat at ease. If you can get close enough to pet the cat, and it lets you, then this indicates that it is a stray.
Body Language and Sounds
Another indicator which will help you determine a stray or feral cat is their body language. Stray cats will show body language similar to a domesticated house cat, as they will have once lived in a home. Pay attention to how the cat walks – if it walks with its tail in the air then this will suggest it is a stray and once a house cat. If the cat crawls close to the floor and its tail is low – this is a form of protection – it will suggest it is a feral cat that has never had a home and not used to people. A stray cat will make eye contact with you, however, a feral cat will not. The type of vocalisations a cat produces can tell you whether they are stray or a feral. Stray cats will meow when you speak to them and may even purr when you approach them whereas feral cats will not make any sounds.
Looking for Signs of Owner
If the cat has a home then it may have a collar with a name, number and address. However, if they are not wearing a collar this does not necessarily mean they are a stray – they could have lost it or never had one on.
Check If the Cat Seems Healthy
Is the cat injured? Does it seem skinny or malnourished? Is its hair matted or scruffy? Does it seem stressed? All these are indicators that the cat is a stray and unable to find the help and food it needs. It could be that the cat looks well nourished – can’t see their ribs and looks to be a healthy weight – but appears to be hungry. This could mean it is possible that it is a stray cat that hasn’t been missing long and is just hungry because it isn’t used to hunting for its food. A feral cat may be skinny but not seem hungry as they are used to hunting for food so will never go hungry, but they are not as well-nourished as a pet cat would be.
Always look at the condition of their coat. Stray cats will look dirty as they are from a home where they are used to being well groomed on a regular basis and they won’t know how to maintain their own coat. Feral cats are usually clean as they know how to look after themselves despite being in the wild.
Finding the Owner
When trying to locate the cat’s owner you should start by asking around the neighbourhood, as a stray cat may not have wandered far from home. Attempt to locate the owner by asking neighbours if they have lost a cat or know anyone that recently has. Other things you can do include:
• Posting a picture and the location the cat was found on social media as this will allow you to reach a bigger audience in less time rather than going door to door.
• Create a “found” poster with the cat’s picture and your contact number for anyone who recognises the cat. Ask local vets, shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants if they will put the poster on display.
• Check for a microchip. If the cat comes close enough you should take them to the local vet so that they can scan them for a microchip. If they are, then you will have the information about the owner and how to contact them.
• Contact the local animal shelters and see if anyone has contacted them about their missing cat recently. If they haven’t, then leave a description of the cat, where they were found and your contact information - so they can contact you should anyone report their cat missing.
If you are worried about the health of a stray cat, then you should contact your local vet. Vets have a duty of care to treat sick and injured animals and will help an injured stray cat at no cost to the finder.