If you see a new cat outdoors, you may think he's lost. But with many feral cats living as wildlife, and many pet cats allowed outside (without collars), proceed cautiously. Rescuing may not be necessary or even the best decision. Unless the cat is in danger, observe him for a few days to ensure he really needs help. First you want to determine if this is a pet that goes out, a feral cat, or a lost cat:
Outdoor Pet Cats. Friendly, well-groomed cats are probably pets that go outdoors. They're comfortable with people and may try to come inside. Females and neutered males are usually neighborhood cats — they seldom roam — but intact male cats do — so they may live far away.
Feral or Lost Pet Cats. It's hard to tell a feral cat from a lost cat because pets revert to feral behaviors when they're lost and scared. Both come out at night and hide during the day. When approached, they both can show signs of aggression (hiss, growl, bared teeth, arched back) and will run if you make eye contact. The differences are subtle. A feral cat may be better groomed, than a recently-lost pet who hasn't yet adjusted to living outdoors. If you start feeding them, eventually both will trust you — but the pet will begin acting like a companion cat, while the feral cat will remain skittish
Try to find his guardian — that's what you'd want if it was your pe that was lost. Don't assume the cat became lost because the guardian was "uncaring" or "abandoned him" — anyone can lose their cat. If the cat's hungry or dirty, that probably happened after he became lost — street life takes a quick toll on house cats. Here how to tryu to find their guardian:
If your attempts to find the cat's home fail, continue caring for the cat as an outdoor pet until a new home is found. Turn the cat over to a shelter only as a last resort.
If the cat is feral, there may already be a caregiver providing food, water and dry shelter — and there are probably other cats living there that you don't see because they are more timid. If there isn't a caregiver, unless you're prepared to become one, leave the cat(s) alone — that's their home and they've adapted to it — it's probably better than any alternatives. Feral cats are not adoptable so removing them almost always ends up in euthanasia. Most major animal groups today recommend feral cat management (TNR) over removing cats — and TNR is also the most effective and most humane way to reduce their numbers. Here's how it works:
Managing A Feral Cat Colony First, secure the property owner's permission — feeding the cats raises their visibility — which, without permission, may not be in their best interest. Begin feeding meals — leaving food and water out for about a half-hour and then taking it away. Pick a convenient time — in the daylight. It's important to be dependable and consistent. If you're unavailable, have someone sub for you. Feeding is your management tool — over time you'll meet the entire colony and can monitor for newcomers.
In the winter months you'll also want to ensure they have adequate shelter — under a porch, a dog house filled with straw, an accessible shed or outbuilding. Cold is not the problem — cats grow heavy winter coats just like other wildlife — but have no house-building skills and can die from hypothermia if they get wet and cannot dry off.
Sterilization Once you have the colony managed, it's time to trap the cats and get them spayed or neutered. This limits the colony size and keeps the cats healthier. Intact tom cats fight and their injuries eventually catch up with them. Females become emaciated from repetitive pregnancies.
If kittens are born before the colony is completely neutered, you can either have them sterilized when they are a few months old or, preferably, pull them at a very early age (under10 weeks) to socialize and find indoor homes for them — see our Kitten Care and Sociization handout.
Managed, feral cats can live a quality life for over 10 years — and caring for them can be very rewarding for both you and the cats.