How to Adopt a Stray Cat: The Do's and Don'ts

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 8 min read

How to Adopt a Stray Cat: The Do's and Don'ts

Stray cats are at once defensive, standoffish, and haggard creatures, often used to living on their own, though they may not have been born that way. At the same time, they can become some of the most loving and joyful creatures you'll ever have the experience of having around.

Adopting and taking care of a stray cat is incredibly fulfilling, and it's definitely not uncommon. There's an entire subreddit dedicated to the so-called Cat Distribution System, even. Sometimes, the cats find you.

If you want to adopt a stray, there are a lot of things you should do, and a bunch you shouldn't, if you want all to go well. So, let's talk about it!

Stray vs Feral

Before getting into the tips I have for adopting a stray cat, it's worth briefly touching on the difference between stray cats and feral cats. While many people use the terms interchangeably, there's a pretty distinct difference between these two types of "community cats."

Stray cats are cats that are at least somewhat socialized, but are now living on their own outdoors for some reason. Maybe they were abandoned, maybe they got lost. The point is, they have had some contact with humans and know how to interact, even if they aren't entirely comfortable in doing so.

Feral cats, on the other hand, have had either no human contact or have spent so many years without human contact that they're essentially wild animals. They tend to be more fearful and defensive, and even if you get into their good graces and adopt them, they're still likely to have firm boundaries, like an aversion to belly rubs, a keen defensiveness about their personal space, and a preference of staying at arm's length.

There are a few important differences in how to handle ferals versus strays; ferals are harder to get to trust you and take longer to warm up to you, and may be a lot harder – and potentially more dangerous – to try to wrangle in the first place. If you aren't well-versed in dealing with feral animals, you need to be cautious of feral cats, while strays tend to be easier to socialize.

Stray vs Feral Cats Image by Toe Beans

How will you know the difference? Well, if you're considering adopting a stray cat, chances are it's not feral because a feral cat isn't going to let you get anywhere close to it.

Note that for the purposes of this post, I'm mostly talking about adopting a stray off the street. Several of the steps in this post focus on seeking the original family of the animal and taking initial care steps, but if you're adopting a stray that was surrendered to a shelter, the shelter will have done a lot of that for you already. Adopting from a shelter is generally the better way to go, but as the Cat Delivery System above shows, that's not always how it works out.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let's talk about the do's and don'ts of adopting stray cats.

DO Try to Find the Cat's Home

Before considering adopting a stray, the absolute first thing you should do – after basic necessities, of course – is trying to find out if the cat is a lost pet or beloved runaway and has a home they should be returned to. Cats love to explore; they sneak out through cracked doors or open windows all the time, and sometimes, they go on even bigger adventures.

All the while, there are pet parents and potentially children suffering in the absence of their beloved feline family member. As much as you might like to care for the cat yourself, you'd much rather make their day bringing them home, right?

Reuniting a Cat With Their Owner Image by Toe Beans

Obviously, if the cat has a collar, you know better. But what you might not see is if the cat has a microchip. So, your first order of business should be taking the cat to the vet to get them scanned for a chip. If they have a chip, that chip should have contact information for the cat's family and can make it easy to reach out and return their feline friend.

If the cat has no chip, that doesn't mean they're free and clear, though. You should still do at least a few of these:

  • Post on your city's local Facebook page and in Lost Pet groups.
  • Post on your local Nextdoor for lost and found pets.
  • Post on your local subreddit if there is one for your area.
  • Contact local vets and see if they have a notice for the lost animal.
  • Make and print out some "found cat" posters to put up around your neighborhood and in frequently visited local businesses.
  • Check if there are lost pet notifications with the local police department and animal control.

How long you keep up your efforts and how hard you look is up to you. It's certainly possible that the cat has no active family or home or that the family moved away and will never see the posts. It's always good to make a good-faith effort to find their home, though.

What if the cat has a family? You might be bonding with the fuzzy feline, but it's still almost always better to give them back. In rare cases, you may be able to negotiate a hand-over, particularly if there's some reason, such as one spouse passing away and the other not particularly wanting the cat. Otherwise, though, just feel good about reuniting them.

If you find that your heart grew three sizes after experiencing even just a couple of days of having a cat in your home, why not take a trip to your local shelter? I can pretty much guarantee you they have plenty of local strays and abandoned cats in need of homes, and this is the perfect time for you to pick one up.

DO Double-Check Local Laws

Depending on where you live, there may be laws as to how long you need to keep up efforts to find the family of a stray and how long you have to have been caring for them before they legally can become yours. Your local animal shelters will likely know.

Checking Local Laws Image by Toe Beans

These laws and regulations can vary from city to city, county to county, and state to state, so I can't really give you details here.

DO Bring the Cat to a Vet

I already mentioned bringing the cat to the vet to check for a microchip, but it's a good idea to bring them in for a full checkup regardless. You want to check for and address issues like fleas, worms, and other parasites, as well as any injuries or diseases, malnutrition, and more.

You can also have them checked to see if they're intact or if they were previously spayed/neutered (and if there are signs that they were a catch-and-release, like a clipped ear). There are also various tests you can run to check for things like FIV or other illnesses that can dramatically impact the needs of the cat when you're caring for them.

A Cat at the Vet Image by Toe Beans

Fortunately, most vets are more than happy to do all of this, though with the current widespread vet shortage, many might not be able to take you on as a permanent patient afterward.

DO Get the Necessities

While bringing a cat into your home can be done with a bare minimum of makeshift items, it's a good idea to make sure you have the real necessities as soon as possible.

Shopping for Cat Necessities Image by Toe Beans

Necessities include:

  • A litter box, if not more than one. Generally, you want one litter box for general use and one per cat if you have more than one cat. Some cats end up territorial around "their" box, and you don't want accidents because of it.
  • Bowls for food and water, preferably wide-based and difficult to knock over.
  • Food. If the cat has been eating food at a shelter or from a home that puts food out for strays, try to match the food if you can; otherwise, get something healthy and inoffensive to minimize digestive upset.
  • Scratching posts to help give the cat something to scratch while you train them not to scratch the furniture.
  • Grooming supplies. Many strays will need some solid grooming, including the potential for sanitary trims, nail clipping, and plenty of brushing.
  • A carrier. You need something to keep the cat in for trips to the vet, after all.

Other items, like toys, treats, and catnip, can come soon but don't need to be in your immediate first purchase of supplies if you don't want to foot the entire bill right off the bat.

DON'T Rush the Cat

Most stray cats, unless they're very young kittens, are going to have habits, behaviors, boundaries, and a keen sense of independence that comes from having lived and survived on their own for however long they were living on the streets. They may also be shy, standoffish, or just not want to be touched.

The faster you try to treat them like a housecat, by petting them, picking them up, and otherwise bothering them, the more likely they are to develop negative associations with you. Often, the stray cat will hide and be averse to touch for days or weeks. The process of winning their trust and bonding with them can be a slow and time-consuming adventure.

A Stray Cat Being Pet Image by Toe Beans

To that end, it can be important to learn a cat's body language and figure out exactly how it applies to the stray you're working on adopting. It's also a very good idea to have some safe space set aside for them, where they can go to retreat and feel comfortable and where you won't bother them.

DON'T Dive Into New Food Right Away

Stray cats are often used to eating whatever scraps, garbage, birds, rodents, and insects they can find. Many are eating unhealthy diets or are malnourished, and it's not uncommon for some to have low-grade poisoning from contaminated foods.

A Cat Eating Food Image by Toe Beans

Food – good, real food, along with treats – is a key way you can start to win their trust. But, you also have to be careful not to make any of the common food-based mistakes, such as:

  • Feeding inconsistently. Your goal is to be viewed right away as the unfailing, regular provider of food.
  • Feeding too much. Cats that have experienced food insecurity are more likely to gorge themselves and make themselves sick.
  • Overdoing it with the treats. While you certainly want to have treats on hand for rewards, making them too common can be a problem later on.

Food will play an important role in building trust, so try to make sure it doesn't turn against them.

DO Be Patient with Behavioral Problems

Stray cats are rarely well-trained, and even if they were trained before they ended up on the streets, some of those behaviors might no longer be well-reinforced. You need to be patient and understanding about their behaviors, from exploring to scratching to litter accidents.

In many ways, you'll effectively be training a new kitten, except an older cat has behaviors already ingrained in them that can be harder to counteract, and they may not take to training as quickly. It can still be done – you can always teach an animal new tricks as long as they aren't going senile – but you have to be patient and consistent with them.

A Cat Playing Image by Toe Beans

In the meantime, don't be afraid to clean up the occasional accident. Remember, as well, that cat-proofing your home is an ongoing process unless you have other cats already.

DON'T Adopt a Stray if You're Not Financially Stable

Adopting an animal is a long-term commitment, and it's one you need to be well aware of before you take the leap. If you can't guarantee that you can care for the stray, you need to instead work with a local rescue or humane society to find them a loving home that can.

A Stray Cat on the Street Image by Toe Beans

It sucks to hear, and I know that many people adopt animals when they really shouldn't. Still, nothing is more heartbreaking than a cat that is just learning to trust again, having to be given up for adoption or, worse, put back on the streets because the vet bills, food, and other costs are too much for you. Do what's best for the cat!

Have you ever adopted a stray cat? If so, what was your experience like? I'd love to hear all your stories about your fur babies, so be sure to leave those in the comments section 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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