Adopting a stray cat – do’s and don’ts
Some people swear that it’s the best thing they’ve ever done; some say despite their best efforts, it just didn’t work out. Regardless of others’ experiences, adopting a stray cat is always going to big commitment that should not be undertaken on a whim. Taking in a stray cat with an unknown history may very well turn out to be very rewarding in the long run, but is likely to require some pretty major adjustments, a huge amount of patience and financial resources to have the best chance of a successful outcome.
Do… your research
Particularly if you haven’t previously owned a cat, it is important to be aware that although domestic cats are often independent and appear to be quite self-sufficient, they do require lots of care and affection from their owners. To avoid an unforeseen “cat-astrophe”, before you adopt please do lots of research and carefully consider the responsibilities of cat ownership and what may lie in store for you as a future cat-parent.
Do… know the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat
This is an important question when it comes to cat adoption, as the answer could be key to the potential success – or otherwise – of your efforts. Basically, a feral cat is a cat who has had minimal contact with humans, nor lived as a domesticated animal. Feral cats are fearful of people and survive on their own outdoors; they are essentially wild animals who are not socialised to people and are not likely to ever become a lap cat or enjoy living indoors. However, feral kittens – especially those less than 8 weeks old – often can be socialised and have been successfully adopted.
A stray cat is a domestic cat who was socialised to people at some point in her life but has since been abandoned or become lost. Over time, a stray cat can become feral as her contact with and dependence on humans diminishes. Under the right circumstances, stray cats can be reintroduced to domestic living, but they will most likely require some time to re-acclimate to an indoor lifestyle and they may be frightened and wary after spending time away from people. With a lot of patience, commitment and effort, a stray cat may rehabilitate into a contented house cat and companion.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a stray and a feral cat, especially when they are trapped or frightened. Before you consider taking in a homeless cat, you will need to determine whether she has previously been socialised. Strays are usually more comfortable around people and will frequently attempt to live near them — under porches, or in garages, sheds, or backyards. Scared stray cats often need time to relax their guard and show their level of socialisation. After a while, you might get close to them and even tempt them inside.
Don’t… try to adopt a feral cat
If the cat appears to be feral or unable to be socialised, yet in good health, the best option may well be just to let her be. Pet Rescue, an Australian animal welfare charity that facilitates the adoption of stray animals, cautions that not all homeless cats are considered as lost; in fact, in almost every urban community, there are semi-owned or ‘community’ cats living happily amongst us. Pet Rescue says that with access to food and water, these cats have a high chance of survival.
So, if the cat is apparently healthy and in good condition, it’s probably best to leave her alone; don’t attempt to catch her and take her to a shelter or pound. However, if the cat appears to be in poor health or you are unsure what to do, it’s best to contact your local animal welfare organisation for advice. You can use Pet Rescue’s Rescue Directory to find organisations in your area.
Basically, There are two ways to become the owner of a stray cat – either you can adopt from an animal shelter or rescue organisation, or you can feed and gradually befriend a homeless cat until she becomes comfortable enough to move in with you. In the latter case, you may think that you are adopting the cat, but in fact, it is more likely that the cat has decided to adopt you!
If you’ve been tempted to open your backdoor to a seemingly homeless moggy who’s been slinking around your yard in the hope of a handout, but runs off as soon as you approach, keep in mind that adoption isn’t always the best option. Adopting a seemingly stray or collarless cat off the street is not as straight-forward as adopting from a shelter, as there are several issues to consider.
Do… try very hard to find the owner
First and foremostly, even if the cat doesn’t seem friendly or socialised, she may still have an owner, so it’s vital to make sure that you’re not accidentally taking someone’s lost pet. Then again, not all cats that come around begging are necessarily lost – some may be wandering outdoor cats that have a home in your area and are attracted to something about your yard.
If there is any possibility that the cat has an owner, it is your responsibility to try as best as possible to reunite the cat with him or her. The first thing to do is to check for a collar or tag, and if you find one, to contact the owner. However, not having a collar or tag does not mean that a cat is unowned – plenty of cats have successfully removed these items from their necks.
And while many cats have microchip IDs, you can’t see or feel a microchip, so the cat will need to be scanned by a vet to check whether it has one.
If these steps don’t locate the owner, The Cat Protection Society of NSW advises that you should actively search your neighbourhood – ask around, contact local vets and your local council, put up posters and use social media. Post a photo and details of the cat on online forums and check lost and found notices (e.g. Lost Pet Finders and Lost Pets in NSW; also Gumtree and other local Facebook groups). Also try to find out whether anyone has moved into your neighbourhood recently; cats are particularly vulnerable when they’ve moved to a new house. If no owner is located after an extensive search, or if one is found who no longer wants or is able to care for the cat, you may then attempt to provide a new home for the cat – as long as she is amenable to it!
Do… consider adopting from a shelter
A reputable animal shelter is an excellent place to adopt from because the animals available for adoption have usually been screened and found to be medically and behaviourally sound. Also, many shelters have an adoption process which entails matching the right owner to the right cat, so you will need to think about what type of cat you want and/or what type of cat is right for you and your family.
According to RSPCA South Australia, the majority of cats that pass through their shelters are perfectly healthy and sociable and are in most cases successfully and happily rehomed. All considered, if you’ve decided to adopt a stray, you are more likely to have a successful outcome with a shelter cat than a street cat.
Don’t… rush or overwhelm her
Whether you have just brought home a cat from a shelter or are trying to befriend a stray off the street, the process of acclimatising her to you and your home is likely to be a gradual one. A semi-feral stray is probably going to be very wary of humans and will initially avoid being touched, maybe even scratching or biting if you attempt to handle her. As much as you may want to pat and play with her, rather than overwhelming her, give her as much time as she needs and wait for her to approach you on her own terms. Keeping your interactions as relaxed and non-threatening as possible will lead to her gradually coming to trust you. She will come to you when she is feeling safe.
Do… use food strategically
Your relationship with a wary, yet curious, stray cat begins with food. Along with time and patience, food can play a key role in developing her trust in you. Cats tend to domesticate themselves for a stable food source. Initially, it is crucial that you follow a regular feeding schedule so that she learns that you are the unfailing supplier of her food. Once she is comfortable eating the food you provide, begin sitting in the room while she eats. Without interfering with her or the food, gradually initiate interactions, speaking to her softy and gently and moving slowly around the room to desensitise her to your presence and show her that you are not a threat.
Providing food treats outside of mealtimes can also help to build your relationship and develop her trust. Keep special treats on hand to entice her to adapt to her new domestic life as well as to encourage her to do new and scary things. To initiate physical contact, try putting a bit of her favourite food on your finger to entice her to lick it off. It may take some time and numerous attempts until she is comfortable to do so but letting her approach you of her own accord will facilitate her trust in you.
Do… gradually introduce her to your home
The Cat Protection Society recommends that you gradually introduce the cat to your home, starting ideally with just one small, quiet uninhabited room, because providing too much space can be overwhelming. Set up the room with a litter tray, a cat bed and a small amount of food and water (positioned as far away as possible from the litter tray). Optional extras are scratching posts, toys and something that she can climb up. Remove anything breakable of potentially harmful, such as wires that could be chewed. Spend time in the room with her every day so that she gets used to your presence, talking to her, reading aloud or even making phone calls so that she becomes comfortable with your voice. When she seems to be more confident, relaxed and ready to explore, take it slowly and let her gradually explore her new surroundings.
Do… give her places to hide
Cats like to hide in small dark spaces when they’re scared. A stray will be understandably nervous in her new environment and will require a place to hide when overwhelmed. Providing a few quiet hiding spots around the house will help prevent her from feeling cornered and allow her to feel safe – this could be as simple as an empty cardboard box, a blanket draped over a chair or a spot between two pillows. However, be sure to block off any small spaces that she may get trapped in and secure windows and screens so that she can’t escape through them.
Don’t… let her go outdoors
A newly adopted cat is more likely to settle into a contained lifestyle if you keep her indoors right from the start. According to the RSPCA, newly adopted cats should always be kept completely contained during the settling-in period or for at least one month, as they may run off or become lost if allowed outside. Animal welfare societies generally recommend that all cats are always kept indoors from dusk until dawn, and when they are allowed outside, that they are confined to your own property either by cat-proof fencing and enclosures or close supervision. An indoor lifestyle and confined outdoor activity will keep your cat – and wildlife – safe and happy and ensure that you are a good neighbour. It also ensures that the cat remains safe and well, and prevents her from running off, getting lost and becoming feral.
Do… provide stimulating indoor experiences
To make her new indoor lifestyle more attractive, provide lots of distractions and enjoyable experiences in your home, such as a variety of hiding and resting places in different locations, scratching posts with various types of scratching surfaces (for example, vertical, horizontal, carpet, sisal rope), a variety of toys, puzzle feeders, perches near windows that are greater than a metre high so that your cat can look outside and down on the world from a height, lots of love and attention, and extended play sessions every day.
Don’t… introduce her to other pets until she’s been to the vet
Even if you’ve adopted from a shelter or welfare organisation, you probably have very little idea what your cat’s medical history is or whether she has any current health issues. If you’ve succeeded in getting a stray street cat inside, don’t let her have any contact with any other cats until you’ve had her vaccinated, examined and tested for contagious diseases. Wash your own hands if going between her and other cats in a multi-cat household.
Your priority, especially if you have other cats, is to visit the vet as soon as possible to confirm that she is healthy. The vet will check for parasites like ear mites and fleas, which often affect cats who have been living outdoors. The vet may test for feline leukemia, FIV and other diseases. If she is suffering from a more serious illness, the sooner she gets treatment, the better. Additionally, spaying / neutering and vaccination are essential elements of her health care.
Don’t… rush the introduction to other pets
If other pets live in your home, introduce them to the stray cat slowly; first let them get to know each other from either side of, or under a door. Eventually, introduce her to one other pet at a time. Consider putting the new cat in a carrier, and letting the other pets take their time to check her out, or putting your other pets in carriers, and letting the new cat check them out. If the introductions do not appear to go smoothly, take your time with the transition and make sure that all your pets get some extra love and attention throughout the process.
Do… have her microchipped and registered
Depending on your state or council’s regulations, it may be compulsory to have your pet microchipped and registered. By law in New South Wales, cats must be microchipped before 12 weeks of age and registered by age 6-months, and there is a large discount on your registration fee if your kitten or cat has been desexed. For more information on registration refer to the factsheet provided by the Cat Protection Society of NSW, or visit www.petregistry.nsw.gov.au. If you are not sure about the requirements in your area, talk to your local council, your vet, or the organisation where you obtained your cat.
Do… consider Pet Insurance
From food to kitty litter to unexpected medical expenses, a pet cat can be a costly undertaking, so make sure that you budget for any eventuality. Pet Insurance can make it easier on your pocket to provide routine care and protects you from big, unexpected expenses. When purchasing pet insurance for a stray cat, pre-existing conditions might be relevant, so discuss with the provider how this might affect any future claims.
Bow Wow Meow offers pet insurance plans designed specifically for cats. Learn more about cat insurance here.
Do…be prepared for some challenges
The most important thing when adopting a feral cat is patience. Stray cats are likely to have developed certain behaviours that will take some considerable adjusting or retraining to fit with your family and/or home environment. You will probably never know all the baggage that your rescued stray cat may carry, but some issues may manifest once you get to know her better. Be ready for surprises to appear at any time, even after years in some instances. Don’t hesitate to consult your vet, welfare organisation or even a cat behaviourist for advice that’s specific to your circumstances.