Feeding Stray Cats: Essential Tips and Guidelines to Follow

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 9 min read

Feeding Stray Cats: Essential Tips and Guidelines to Follow

Pet parents everywhere love their fur babies, but more than that, we love all furry critters, large and small, ours or others. We're friends with the neighbor's dogs, we know every house that has a cat lounging in the window, and we're more than happy to carry treats in case we come across a friendly fur baby in our travels.

It's an unfortunate fact that not all cats and dogs have pet parents to care for them. In particular, stray cats can be found in pretty much every location around the world, making a living for themselves hunting rodents, lounging in barns, and approaching the friendliest neighbors – cautiously – when they want something.

Most neighborhoods have a few people who are willing to feed and care for these stray kitties, but it's important that you do it properly. Otherwise, you could be putting them at risk. So, what should you do, what should you avoid, and what's the best way to care for our outside friends when we can't just adopt them and bring them in?

Quick Definition: Stray vs Feral

Throughout this post, I'm going to refer to both stray and feral cats. Many people use both terms interchangeably, but there's actually an important difference.

Stray cats are generally friendly and, while they may be shy or skittish, can warm up to you and come in for affection. They may be lost pets, abandoned and unwanted litters, or just neighborhood outdoor cats that like to hang out with the other strays. These may have homes and may even have microchips and can be reunited, or they might just be prime candidates for adoption.

Stray vs Feral Cats Image by Toe Beans

Ferals, meanwhile, have never been domesticated and are generally very skittish, standoffish, and aggressive. While some canbe adopted and eventually warm up to people, most won't want anything to do with you beyond the food and water you provide.

Otherwise, most of the tips and best practices below are the same, so you can think of them in the same terms.

Know the Risks of Feeding Stray Cats

The biggest thing you need to know about feeding stray cats is what the risks are and how you can avoid them.

First is disease. Disease is one of the greatest dangers that stray and feral cats face living on their own. Diseases can spread quickly in a cat colony, and since there's no one who can take them to the vet when they have the sniffles or the runs, those diseases can last for quite a while. Some run their course, but others can be life-threatening or fatal.

It's in our nature to want to help these fur babies, but it's difficult to do so, especially if they're feral and won't approach you. You'll have a hard time catching them to bring them in, and there's always the expense of veterinary care for animals who don't live with you. 

This is all relevant to feeding because diseases can spread due to food and water sources as much as through contact. One of the biggest things you should do is designate feeding times and never leave food out for extended periods. The same goes for water; the colony or the stray will need a source of water, but stagnant water – especially if it's shared by multiple felines – can be a vector for disease.

A Stray Cat Image by Toe Beans

Next up is the risk of predators. Depending on where you live, there could be anything from mountain lions to coyotes to even bears in the area. Leaving food out attracts more than just the cat colony, and the cat colony can attract predators. Know what's in your area, and if a predator is lurking about, talk to your local animal control or DNR office for options.

Third, you have the risk of human sources of danger. This can mean an irate, unfriendly neighbor who doesn't take kindly to the local cats, but the majority of the time, it just means cars. The location you choose to use for feeding should be away from roads and ideally in the same block or area as the place where the cats tend to take shelter; you want to minimize their road crossings when you can.

Finally, there's also the small risk to you and your fur babies. Stray cats are usually more affectionate, though they might be territorial and get into scuffles with other pets. Ferals, meanwhile, are much more territorial, defensive, and potentially aggressive and can even scratch or bite you if you get too close. Be cautious, and make sure to get any wounds looked at in case they get infected.

What if a neighbor's cat comes to eat?

This one is tricky. You want to help support the local stray and feral cats, but you don't want to get in the way of a controlled diet or other health concerns for neighbor cats. But, it can be impossible to single out one cat from a group and tell it not to join in the buffet, after all.

A Neighbor Cat Eating Image by Toe Beans

Ideally, the best option is to talk to your neighbor about the issue and encourage them to keep their cat inside when you're feeding the strays. But this is always a tricky problem to handle, so just do your best.

Food and Water: Proper Routine and Care for Stray Cats

The core of the issue is providing food and water for the cats you find in your neighborhood. Frequently, you see people leaving food out all hours of the day, but that's actually not a good idea for a few reasons.

First, when you leave food out for an extended period, it can go bad. Dry food can get soggy and rot, although wet food spoils very quickly. It can also attract bugs, including parasites that would harm the local strays. And, of course, leaving food out – particularly at night – can attract other kinds of animals, like possums and raccoons, who will be more than happy to make nuisances of themselves to claim the food.

Instead, establish a feeding routine. Most stray cats need about half an hour to eat, but you can allocate a bit more time, including extra leeway, if there's a larger cat colony rather than just a single stray to feed. So, pick a time when you can reliably provide food every day, and pick a location (which I'll go into more momentarily.)

From there, you need to start feeding the cats according to their preferences. Some cats won't want you around, while others won't mind. Ideally, you'll be able to observe them and can look for signs of illness or injury. Feeding time is a key time to check on the health of the local outdoor cat population.

A Stray Cat Eating Dry Food Image by Toe Beans

Whatshould you feed the cats? That depends on your resources and the local weather. In the summer, when it's hot, wet food will spoil rapidly and can dry out quickly. Dry food is more resistant to summer bugs and weather and ends up being a better option. In more temperate months, wet food is more acceptable, though the expense involved can make it less than ideal for a larger colony of stray and feral cats. 

Truthfully, dry food is entirely nutritious enough for cats to live on, and they're probably supplementing their food with local rodents and birds anyway. You don't needto provide wet food for stray cats unless, for some reason, they won't eat dry food at all. However, in that case, they likely have some kind of problem (like a tooth infection) and should be caught and taken to a vet as well.

Location, location, location.

Picking the right location to feed your local strays is a big part of keeping them safe. You want somewhere away from roads and busy streets. You want somewhere on your property – since you don't want to get into trouble for trespassing to feed cats – and it should be somewhere relatively discreet and secure. Often, old sheds or barns make for good feeding areas. Shelter is ideal, but you can also make feeding stations out of plastic storage containers with a hole cut in the side, so they have somewhere secure and dry to eat.

A Stray Cat Eating Image by Toe Beans

Cats are also frequently creatures of habit, so you want to pick a time each day – during daylight hours – to feed the cats. Once they know where food is and when you bring it, they'll form a habit of coming when you show up or being there waiting for you, depending on how friendly they are.

What about water?

Fresh water is critical for all living things, and stray cats are no exception. There are a lot of different ways to provide clean water, but the easiest is just a series of water dishes that you empty and refill daily and clean regularly.

A Stray Cat Drinking Water Image by Toe Beans

If it gets below freezing where you live, you may also want to find an insulated, warmer place for the water or purchase heated water bowls to keep the water liquid for the cats.

Is it Ethical or Legal to Feed Stray Cats?

We're all compassionate individuals, but many people feel that stray cats and feral cats are a nuisance and a pest. And, to be fair to those people, outdoor-living cats areresponsible for a marked reduction in local bird populations. They can be noisy, they can bully the neighborhood's indoor/outdoor cat population, and in rare cases, an aggressive cat can cause more problems. They can even attract predators to a neighborhood.

There are solutions to all of these problems, but that doesn't mean people don't try to take matters into their own hands in other ways. So, let's go over the realities of the situation.

Is it ethical to feed stray and feral cats? Well, yes, mostly. Stray cats certainly impact the local ecosystem, but they're going to do that either way and by feeding them, you at least help reduce their need to hunt for food. No one likes to see an animal suffer, either, so helping stray cats not starve is good.

Is it legal to feed stray cats? That's where things get a little more complicated. It's not federally illegal, and as far as I'm aware, there are no state-level bans on feeding stray and feral cats. There maybe city or town-level laws against it, but 99% of the time, the authority that bans feeding is a homeowner's association. Even then, you may be able to convince them otherwise. How? By presenting them with the research.

Feeding a Stray Cat Image by Toe Beans

According to Feline Research, feeding stray and feral cats is a key step in solving basically every problem people complain about with regard to feeding.

  • "Feeding strays will attract more, keep them around being a nuisance, and bother people!" Well, not really. Feeding stray cats actually helps keep them out of trouble since they don't get as desperate and don't need to dig through other homes or bug other people. It isn't as though those cats are going to go away; they'll just turn to other options.
  • "Feeding attracts more strays, and more strays means more risk of injury as the cats fight!" Again, not really. One of the main reasons cats fight is over resources, and stray cats have no greater resource than a source of food. When there's enough food for everyone, the conflict goes down.
  • "Encouraging a stray cat population hurts the local wildlife and can spread disease!" While this is technicallytrue, it ignores the fact that there's more to it than just feeding these cats. You should also be working with local animal authorities for TNVR programs (more on that in a moment).
  • "Feeding cats encourages them to gather, breed, and make more cats, causing a population explosion and hurting them all!" This is true if all you're doing is feeding them, but again, TNVR.

What is TNVR? TNVR stands for Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, and Release. Most areas have local vets and animal shelters that participate in these programs. The concept is simple: you feed the strays and get them to be comfortable enough around you to be trapped, or for the more skittish ferals, you get them used to a particular area, then set up a trap and bring them in. Then, you bring them to your local vet or shelter, who will check them for chips, give them vaccines, perform a spay or neutering, and when they've recovered, release them back where they were.

The vaccination helps prevent the spread of feline diseases, and the spay/neuter surgery helps prevent them from making more stray cats. Plus, the more sociable of these cats can be kept around and adopted, and it's always possible you'll find a lost pet with a chip and can reunite them with their pet parents.

So, should you feed the local stray fur babies? The answer is yes, as long as you aren't going to get in trouble with your HOA (or you're willing to deal with that trouble), and you will help with local TNVR efforts.

Have you ever fed a stray cat before? If so, what was your experience like, and how did you go about it? I'd love to hear all your stories, so be sure to leave those in the comments section down below!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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