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Quite frankly, helping stray and feral cats is not for everyone. And not everyone who tries it knows if what they’re doing is helping the stray or feral cat.
If you’ve often felt compelled to help stray and feral cats, wondered what you could do to help other than feeding them, or if what you’re feeding them is right, then this article is for you.
In this article, I’ll highlight a few easy steps that any concerned animal lover can take to help homeless stray and feral cats.
First off, how do you tell them apart?
Feral or stray cat, what’s the difference?
Stray cats are lost or abandoned pets that were previously owned by people. Being touched by a human feels familiar to them. They may display hesitation, shyness, or disorientation initially, but they usually let their guard down after sometime around the caregiver.
Feral cats, on the other hand, were born in the wild and actively avoid human contact wherever possible. Unlike Stray cats that are usually found alone near people’s homes, crying for attention, feral cats have learned to survive on their own. You’ll only see them rooting through the trash or eating cat food you left outside.
The underlying difference between the two is socialization.
What does socialization have to do with feral or stray cats?
Socialization is a term that is used to refer to an animal, in this case, a cat that is friendly towards humans – or enjoys human company and being in the home.
Cats are predators. They’re naturally inclined to roam outside hunting for their survival.
For a kitten to be socialized, it has to get accustomed to interacting with people – being played with, held or petted, spoken to – from an early age. If a kitten doesn’t get used to human interaction during the crucial window when it is young, it grows up scared or anxious around humans and won’t be suitable for living inside the home.
Stray cats have been socialized to people at some point, and you’ll notice it in their behavior. Feral cats are scared of people and will never become a lap cat or enjoy indoor life.
Before we go on to look at possible ways you can help a stray or feral cat, we need to address why the type of help you offer them matter.
Why does this matter?
There are over 20 million free-roaming cats in the US. According to the ASPCA, this figure includes a mix of lost or abandoned cats, semi-socialized cats, and truly feral cats.
This means that you will likely run into a stray or feral cat a couple of times in your neighborhood. For you to be able to offer useful help to a stray or feral cat, you need to know what they are, and the best way to handle them.
It is the difference between contributing to an increase in the ever-growing population of homeless and helpless feral cats and helping a stray cat find a new home where it is cherished
The best help you can give stray or feral cats.
1. Verify if it’s a stray or feral cat.
When trying to tell strays and feral cats apart, you need to look out for tell-tale signs like collars, tags, scars, and bruises, or clipped ears. The presence or absence of these things will help you know which category to place the cat.
Feral cats that have been spayed or neutered and returned to the wild will have one of its ears clipped. They’ll hide and avoid being touched even when you’re offering them food because they are scared of humans. They will only approach the food once you’ve left.
Strays will be friendlier and may approach you for attention and food, but they’ll be wary of letting you come too close.
This is not always foolproof since a stray cat may have learned to avoid humans due to the treatment meted out to it by unfriendly people. However, they’ll allow you to come close or touch them after some time.
If you’ve been feeding a cat for some time and it is still apprehensive or runs away when you approach it, then it is likely a feral.
2. Try looking for the owner.
Until you are proven wrong, always assume that any cat you spot outside is lost. And that there’s an owner somewhere frantically waiting for them to return home.
In the meantime, however, you should provide food, shelter, and clean water when you can – more on this later. Then you can start looking for the owner.
Contact your local animal organization and report the cat. Ask for it to be placed on the “lost but found” list since it could be someone’s pet.
Remember to post flyers and speak with your neighbors. If the cat is a feral, at least one person will have seen it outside long enough to verify your suspicion. If it is a stray, you might find someone willing to adopt it if the owner isn’t found.
There are videos and articles that teach how to trap a cat, but I don’t recommend doing that. Cats can be really ferocious when trapped or cornered, and you cannot tell with certainty if you’re dealing with a feral or stray. It’s best to invite the local animal organization to capture the animal and figure out if there’s a microchip.
3. Adopting a homeless cat.
If the cat is not feral and you decide that you’re going to adopt it. Then you should visit the vet with the cat to have it vaccinated, dewormed, and examined for medical issues. Get the cat chipped and registered, then make sure that your cupboard is stocked up with lots of tasty treats and well-balanced cat food!
Do not allow any stray into your house just because they show a willingness to come inside. Even if you have the means of taking care of a stray cat, it’s best to keep them outside the home until you’ve dealt with all the creepy crawlies living on its body such as fleas, ticks, and mites. These insects, especially fleas, reproduce very fast and can be difficult to get rid of.
If the stray has a flea infestation, treat that as a serious problem (which it is) to prevent it from escalating. If you need help dealing with a stubborn flea infestation, then look at our detailed flea removal article for advice on how to quicken the process. And how to make the best flea treatment products work for you.
You will also have to get the stray cat to adjust to life inside the house or indoor-outdoors. This involves teaching it how to use the litter box, a scratch pad instead of your furniture, and how to stay calm during grooming, all of which may be harder than you imagine, especially if the cat has been a stray for some time.
While feeding stray or feral cats helps prevent them from having to hunt local wildlife, offering them healthcare goes a long way in increasing their odds of surviving out there.
Even if you cannot afford ongoing healthcare, at least, get the cat neutered. It cost animal shelters about $15-25 to neuter a cat. Neutering/spaying lowers the possibility of a cat developing testicular or breast cancer.
Keep in mind that if you’re going to bring back a spayed or neutered cat, you have to prepare a place for it to stay while recovering from the sutures beforehand. An enclosed space like a garage should do.
If that is not an option, you can board the cat at the vet’s office. This will cost you money though. Let the vet know if you plan to release the cat so he can use dissolvable suture.
A good shelter constructed from sturdy, easy-to-obtain materials can make all the difference in an outdoor cat’s survival.
You can easily piece together a feral shelter yourself if you have the skills and time to do so. It is fairly easy to construct and this video shows you how to get it done. Although smaller shelters are best for keeping stray and feral cats warm, it’s preferable to construct something bigger if possible.
The reason is that most feral cats take care of the colony. If one cat finds a safe and comfortable shelter, the rest of the colony will gladly cuddle together in it. So consider this when constructing or purchasing a shelter.
If you own a shelter, make sure to check it often during the winter to remove accumulated snow from the shelter entrance. This way, the cats can easily access the shelter and it doesn’t collapse in on them.
If you discover a litter of unattended kittens that are too young to be weaned, make sure you do not touch or move them from the nest. The mom cat will be less likely to return to the babies if she picks up the scent of a human on the babies.
What you should do is monitor the litter for the mom cat’s return. If she doesn’t return within a few hours, then it is safe to assume the kittens have been abandoned. At this point, you can go ahead and bottle feed them then seek a vet’s help.
6. Keep stray and feral cats safe.
Cats often bunk in cars because it offers a dangerous, yet attractive shelter from the winter outside. Seeking for warmth and comfort, a cat can climb and curl up inside of the wheel well or under the hood, close to the engine.
This can be fatal, especially if the car they choose to bunk in is not really abandoned. Before moving your parked car, check under the wheel well, tap the hood, and honk a couple of times before starting the engine to send them away.
Be careful of the type of deicer that you use on your car and around the house. Some of them contain chemicals that can hurt a cat’s paw pads. And are dangerous if ingested – which can happen when a cat is grooming itself.
7. Don’t contribute to the problem.
The best way to reduce the problem is to not contribute to it. Spay or neuter your own cats and ensure they are safe indoors. Consider getting your cat microchipped, and if it is an indoor/outdoor cat, get it a collar too. So if your cat gets lost, it’ll likely be returned instead of ending up a member of the stray and feral colony.
If you are in a position to volunteer, there are numerous rescue organizations that help manage and care for feral colonies. A cat colony is a group of cats that share the same territory and form a sort of family bond.
Some volunteer groups help stray and feral cat colonies by providing shelter, food, and medical care. Even though feral cats are usually cautious of people, over time, they learn to trust the volunteers – or at least, being in close proximity with them when getting help from these people.
What to feed stray and feral cats.
There are pros and cons to helping stray and feral cats with food, but I won’t go into that. Just know that feeding a stray or feral cat might upset your own indoor pet – you’d be jealous too if someone intruding on our territory was given a reason to return every day.
If your cat doesn’t seem jealous of the homeless cats, and you can feed them without breaking your bank, then here are some options to consider.
Tuna is a simple plain food that most of us have in our cupboard. If you want to help a stray or feral cat with its next meal, then tuna is a great option. Its pungent smell will encourage a nervous or scared cat to approach and consume the contents of the food bowl.
However, I recommend using this initially to reel the cat in to consume the food you have. That’s because tuna itself is not really nutritious – it is just protein. And some tuna cans can be very salty, which is not healthy for a cat.
Only use canned tuna if you have nothing else at home or once in a while. Regular use can cause mercury poisoning and mineral deficiency in cats.
2. Turkey & chicken.
Turkey and chicken are a good source of lean protein that you can offer just about any cat – indoor, feral, or stray. It contains enough protein and micronutrients to keep a cat going for some time.
Peas are high in fiber, vitamin A and C.
If you have some peas lying around in your kitchen you can offer a stray cat some to eat. They are often included in commercial cat foods so you have nothing to worry about.
Contains energy and B vitamins. Although oatmeal is safe for cats, not all of them will like it. So if you want to offer a stray or feral cat some oatmeal, do so gradually or only offer a small amount to see if it’ll like it. Only then should you incorporate it into the food that you offer the cat.
6. Salmon, plain rice & eggs, sweet potato.
Salmon is another human food that’s a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It is delicious, tasty, smells delicious, and can be used to attract the cat to eat.
If you have scrambled eggs and some plain rice, you can mix them together and offer to the homeless cat. You can throw in some sweet potatoes or pumpkin to help calm the cat’s digestive system.
While it’s true that cats are predators and predators usually eat their prey raw, some food is best cooked to avoid feeding the cat harmful bacteria.
What NOT to feed stray and feral cats – even if they’re starving.
Oftentimes, when people decide to help stray and feral cats with their next meal, they assume that something is better than nothing.
To you it might seem okay to offer a kitty what you have in the kitchen – after all, they look lean and hungry. And, they have to scavenge from bins and scraps to survive.
But, in reality, you could be doing more harm than good if you offer stray and feral cats the foods listed below.
1. Milk and Dairy Products.
It’s a myth that cats love milk.
Even though they may enjoy drinking it, you’re not doing stray and feral cats any favor by offering them milk. That’s because they lack the enzyme needed to digest the lactose in milk. A bowl of milk will cause an upset stomach or diarrhea in most cats.
If you don’t have anything else to offer them, better to give stray and feral cats a bowl of clean water. The only time you’re permitted to give milk to a cat is when it is a kitten. Even at that, you have to feed them specially formulated milk known as Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR). Some good brands are PetAg KMR and Nutri-vet’s KMR.
2. Onions and Garlic.
Garlic, shallots, scallions, and onions are to cats what silver is to vampires – or whatever kills them these days.
They can cause irreversible damage to cats’ red blood cells, leading to anemia or death depending on the doses. Don’t give cats onion soup mix, or anything containing garlic powder – even garlic bread is off the menu for cats
Rush a cat to the vet’s ASAP if it starts showing symptoms of lethargy, pale gums, low appetite, general weakness, and deep yellow to light red urine.
3. Bones and fat trimmings.
It isn’t uncommon to find fat trimmed off of meat and bone in table scrap. Fat can cause intestinal upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. Doesn’t matter if the fat is cooked or uncooked.
Bones can choke a cat. I don’t recommend offering bones to a cat because a splinter of bone can obstruct or cut the linings of a cat’s digestive system.
4. Raw meat and fish.
Yes, cats are predators. However, offering raw meat and fish to stray and feral cats is not really helping them. That’s because raw fish, eggs, and meat, can contain bacteria that cause food poisoning. In addition, raw fish contains an enzyme that destroys thiamine, an essential B vitamin that cats need.
In moderate amounts, animal liver is OK. But too much of it can cause a severe condition known as Vitamin A toxicity. This condition affects bone formation in cats, symptoms include osteoporosis, deformed bones, bone growth on the spine, and elbows. Vitamin A toxicity often results in death.
6. Dog food.
Dog food is not really bad for cats – actually, they’re not as dangerous as garlic or onions.
It’s just that dog food is specially formulated for the stomach of dogs. These formulas often contain the number of amino acids, proteins, and other micronutrients a dog needs to stay healthy. You can feed a stray or feral cat with dog food, however, they are not getting nutrients specific for their species.
Whatever the case may be, if you have plans to help a stray or feral cat for however long you want to, it’s best to invest in some proper cat food. This way, you are assured that the cat is getting the nutrients it needs.
Although strays and feral cats have learned to survive outdoors, offering them a little help with food, shelter, and healthcare goes a long way in improving their life.
If you’re unable to help much, other than feeding them, you can at least reach out to feline-friendly organizations to spay/neuter them before they are released back into the community.
This way they don’t contribute to the problem by adding new members to the stray and feral colony.