How to Help a Lost Cat

Published by
min read

Find food that fits your pet’s needs

Find a dog food that fits your pet’s needs

Find a cat food that fits your pet’s needs

Finding a lost cat on your doorstep can be a jarring experience. You no doubt want to help, but it's not always clear what kind of help a strange cat needs. They most likely belong to one of three categories: they have a home that they wandered away from; they have been abandoned and are now a stray; or they are a feral cat that has never been socialised to humans. It's important to determine which category you're dealing with before taking any action to help. If you're in the position of helping a lost cat, keep reading to learn which actions you should take.

Is the Cat Feral?

If a cat shows up on your property, it's a good idea to observe their behaviour from a safe distance before approaching to offer help. Feral cats and kittens have never been socialised to humans and might bite or scratch if you try to touch them — if you're even allowed to get that close.

While a friendly, approachable cat is likely not feral, some non-feral strays are shy and wary of strangers despite being socialised, so it's not always that easy to tell the difference. Cats Protection offers a few signs to help you spot a feral cat:

A group of feral cats huddled together to keep warm near the wall of an old abandoned home. Taken during -28C weather.** Note: Shallow depth of field

  • Stray cats may be a little shy but will often make eye contact, vocalise, and let you approach them if given time. A feral cat, however, may be quiet and fearful, may not approach you or let you approach them, or may run away and hide.
  • A stray cat will usually be alone, but a feral cat may be alone or with other cats.
  • Stray cats can often be found around gardens and houses, and may even try to get in! Feral cats, on the other hand, tend to steer clear of populated places.
  • Stray cats usually won’t have their left ear “tipped”, even if they’ve been neutered, but a feral cat sometimes will, depending on what is common practice in the country where you live.
  • If the cat has recently appeared and seems disoriented or lost, it’s likely to be a stray. If it seems to appear regularly, it might be a feral cat that has set up a home nearby.

You might expect a feral cat to appear dirty or bedraggled, but this is actually more likely to indicate a stray cat. Some strays are used to being taken care of and may not maintain themselves well, but feral cats are often accustomed to keeping themselves clean and healthy.

If you think you might be dealing with a feral cat, it's best to keep your distance. You can call your local animal control if you suspect feral cats are living near you, as they are equipped to handle these wild cats.

Is it a Lost or Stray Cat?

After finding a lost cat and determining that they are not feral and are safe to approach, the next step is to figure out whether they are indeed simply lost or if they are a stray in need of a new home. If the cat is wearing a collar with ID, it's very likely that they are lost. In this case, simply call the number listed on the ID to let the owner know their cat has been found safe and sound. You can also call the veterinarian listed on the vaccination tag, who should be able to put you in contact with the cat's guardian.

Unfortunately, it's not always so simple. Many people don't put a collar or tags on their cats, so the fact that they don’t have them doesn't necessarily mean that they are homeless. You can take them to a vet or animal shelter to have them scanned for a microchip, which would have the guardian's contact information, but the lack of a chip also doesn't necessarily mean you're dealing with an abandoned cat.

With no easy way of identifying to whom the cat belongs, the next step is to check lost and found ads. It's also a good idea to ask around the neighbourhood to see if anyone is missing a cat, or if anyone has seen "lost cat" posters that describe the cat in question. Be sure to also check the lost and found on websites such as Gumtree, Facebook lost pet groups, local animal shelters, and lost pet databases such as Animal Search UK. People will often call their local shelters when a pet is lost, so there is a chance that the shelter will be able to help you reunite the cat with the owner.

If your search doesn’t turn up an owner, the final step is to place your own "found cat" ads. You can utilise your social networks in the hope that someone in your extended network knows where the cat belongs. If you call your animal shelter to let them know that you have found what you think to be a lost cat, they can contact you if the owner calls in. If you do not have the capacity to care for the cat while you search for the owner, make sure to call your local shelter and ask if you can bring the cat in. Never leave a cat at the door of a local shelter.

If You Have Pets

Dealing with finding a lost cat takes a considerable amount of time, and you may find yourself fostering your feline guest for several days or even weeks. If you already have pets in the home, keep your new guest quarantined either until you locate the owner or you can take the cat to the vet for a health check and vaccinations.

Male veterinarian inspects a cat on a table, while the female owner holds her.

Once they get a clean bill of health, you can slowly introduce the new cat to your pets. On the other hand, if you have no plans to keep them, you may decide to keep the cat segregated for the remainder of their stay with you.

Helping a Stray Cat

If you've exhausted all your resources and failed to track down an owner, it's likely that the cat has been abandoned and is in need of a new home. In this case, you have a few options. You could, of course, adopt the cat yourself. If you do, your first step, if you haven't already done so, is to take them to the vet for a health check and to schedule vaccinations and spaying or neutering.

If you don't plan to keep the cat, you'll need to find them a new home. Call a reputable animal shelter or animal welfare organisation in your area (e.g. the RSPCA, Blue Cross, or Cats Protection in the UK) to see if they can help. You can also try the following steps to find your stray a new home:

  • Advertise. Start by letting friends, family and co-workers know that you're looking for someone to adopt the cat. You can also try your social networks. If those avenues fail, place flyers in veterinary clinics and pet supply stores. You can also place classified ads in newspapers and online classified sites.
  • Interview prospective guardians. A few questions to ask are whether they already have any pets and what kind, if those pets are vaccinated and spayed or neutered, whether there are children in the home, and if they live someplace that allows pets. If you haven't already taken care of vaccinations and spaying or neutering, ask if the prospective guardian is willing to commit to having these procedures done.
  • Arrange a meeting. Allow the cat to meet the prospective guardian under your supervision to make sure they hit it off before agreeing to hand the cat over.

How to Help a Feral Cat

Feral cats are generally able to fend for themselves, so there is usually very little you need to do. However, it may be wise to contact a local animal welfare organisation about trap-neuter-return (TNR), a practice that helps to control the local feral cat population and reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission to domestic pets. Cats Protection explains that TNR involves trapping feral cats and kittens, having them spayed or neutered and vaccinated, and either returning adult cats to their environment or finding homes or shelters to take in kittens.

Finding a lost cat can be quite a commitment if you decide to be a good Samaritan, but it's often worth it for the peace of mind and overall good feeling that comes with helping an animal in need. Who knows? That stray cat on your doorstep just might end up becoming a cherished companion.

Contributor Bio

Jean Marie Bauhaus

Jean Marie Bauhaus

Jean Marie Bauhaus is a pet parent, pet blogger and novelist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she usually writes under the supervision of a lapful of fur babies.


Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA