An estimated 70 million stray or feral cats roam the United States, far more than the 58 million cats who have homes. It’s a tragedy not only because of the desperate conditions many of these cats live in but because of the ecological damage they cause. They can reproduce in large numbers, carry diseases that can spread to wild or domestic animals, and throw off the ecological balance between indigenous small predators and prey.
These are all great reasons to do your part to control the stray and feral cat population. While calling animal control is an option, many shelters will consider untamed cats unadoptable and quickly euthanize them. Sadly, an estimated 72% of all cats that end up in shelters are euthanized. So we have some tips for you on how to catch a stray or feral cat yourself, plus some ideas of what to do after you have yourself a cat!
What’s the Difference Between Stray and Feral Cats?
In casual conversation, people sometimes use the terms “stray” and “feral” interchangeably, but they actually refer to different things. A stray cat is one that was a pet but has been abandoned or has escaped and now lives on the streets. Not knowing how to survive or defend themselves, these cats might tend to linger in populated areas to find food in trash cans, steal it from outdoor dog food dishes, or beg for it from people. They’re also much easier to catch and tame into good family pets if you’re so inclined, although the longer they have been on the streets the longer it may take to tame them.
Feral cats, on the other hand, are those that were born on the streets and have not been socialized with people, or they have been strays so long they are no longer tame. Feral cats are often more aggressive than stray cats and much harder to domesticate, if not impossible to do so if they were born in the wild. They often form groups called colonies with a shared territory and source of food. Colonies can include both feral cats and strays, but most feral colonies start with unneutered stray cats. Feral cats can be found in rural or urban areas. It is not actually recommended to try to tame a completely feral cat, as doing so is really no different than trapping a wild animal such as a raccoon or opossum, removing it from its environment, and trying to force it to adapt to life with people.
Why Catch Stray or Feral Cats?
We tend not to use the term “invasive species” for free-roaming cats, but that’s exactly what they are. In fact, globally they are considered one of the world’s most invasive species. They can spread serious diseases like rabies, intestinal parasites, flea-borne typhus, toxoplasmosis, cutaneous larval migrans, tularemia, and plague. These are usually more of a danger to other animals, including domestic pets, than to people, but are a potential danger to someone who is scratched or bitten or comes into contact with feline waste products.
Unhoused cats are also predatory on wildlife, reducing populations of birds, small mammals, reptiles, and other creatures in their range and competing with other small-to-mid-sized carnivores for the same niches in the environment. At the same time, they themselves can be a food source attracting larger predators, like coyotes or feral dogs, that can be even more of a danger to domestic pets and children.
Why You Should Not Feed Stray or Feral Cats
Despite all the issues with roaming cats, many people are reluctant to cull the cat population the way we would other invasive species because we tend to put them more in the category of cuddly pets, even when they’re anything but. In fact, so strong is this feeling that many people deliberately feed free-roaming cats. In the big picture though, doing this is not a kindness, but a major contribution to the problem, particularly if some of the animals they have been feeding are not spayed or neutered.
Feeding strays teaches them to associate people with food and motivates them to stay in populated areas, where they are more likely to fight with or spread disease to domestic pets, irritate neighbors, or be hit by cars. Moreover, leaving food out can attract other kinds of animals you don’t want, including rats and other vermin. For all these reasons, it’s better not to feed wandering cats, but to do something to rehabilitate them or at least prevent them from multiplying.
Tips for How to Catch a Stray or Feral Cat
To control the cat population, the ASPCA recommends TNR: Trap, Neuter, Return, in which neutered cats are re-released in the location where they were found. These programs are organized by local authorities and animal rescue associations or sometimes just undertaken by concerned individuals. Whether you want to try to domesticate a cat from the streets or trap, neuter, and return, here are some steps you can take to handle it properly:
Observe Before Acting
Remember that, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “not all who wander are lost.” It’s entirely possible a loose cat admiring the koi pond in your yard is someone’s family pet roaming the neighborhood. Especially in rural areas, some people allow their cats to spend all or part of the day outdoors. Notice whether the animal has a collar and whether it appears clean, healthy, and well-fed. If you’re concerned, ask your neighbors whether anyone is missing a cat.
If the animal appears injured, is behaving strangely, breathing heavily, or drooling a lot, do not get near it, but call animal control. It may have an infection or a serious and transmissible disease like rabies. Sick or injured animals can inflict serious injuries. Professionals will have the tools to capture them safely and prevent them from spreading any pathogens.
If you’ve decided to catch the cat, do some preparation work first. Maybe you’ve been feeding it for a while, and it may even allow you to pet it. It may still react violently to attempts to restrain it or put it in a carrier. Or it may be a completely feral cat that won’t let you near it. Either way, it’s less stressful and dangerous for the cat and you if you do some advance preparation and trap it humanely.
A cat trap works like those used to trap raccoons or other small mammals. It’s a wire cage with a trap door that closes behind the animal after they step on a trigger inside. Some vets or animal shelters will loan you a trap, or you can buy one online. They come in different sizes for kittens and full-grown cats, but if you’re trying to catch a large tomcat you might actually need to use a raccoon trap.
Prepare the trap by putting newspaper on the bottom and bait at the front of the trap to lure the cat in, dribble juice to the back of the trap, and put another spoonful of bait at the back. What do you use as bait? Canned cat food or really smelly fish like sardines, anchovies, or tuna work best. But don’t use too much as the cat should have an empty stomach before being spayed or neutered.
Speaking of which, make a spay or neuter appointment in advance for the next day after you set your trap. Whether you’re going to release the cat or try to keep it as a pet, this needs to be taken care of right away.
Catching the Cat
Set the trap on level ground in a quiet place the cat is likely to frequent. Don’t leave traps unattended, especially overnight. Cats cannot regulate their own body temperature, so they could have a serious drop in temperature if left exposed overnight in a trap. Stay some distance away and monitor the trap so you can move into action as soon as you are needed.
Cats don’t really like surprises, especially when that surprise involves imprisoning them in a cage. An upset cat will fight wildly and could injure itself on the trap, and you if you get near it. Wear heavy gloves and cover the trap with a blanket or towel, both for your protection and to calm the animal. To transport it to the vet, leave it in the trap rather than trying to transfer it to a carrier, and make sure the trap is well-secured in your vehicle so it doesn’t move around.
If you are not able to get the cat to a vet within 12 hours, you need to let it out of the trap into a secure space such as a garage, basement, bathroom, or other room of your house. Make sure no other animals can access the area. The temperature should be kept around 75 degrees and the cat should be provided with clean water and a little food, without overfeeding. This space can also be used as a place for the cat to recover after being spayed or neutered.
You Caught Yourself a Cat – Now What?
Your vet will check the cat for a microchip so any owner can be located. They will test it for feline diseases and provide vaccinations. Whether or not you plan to keep the cat, this is the basic medical care that should be provided. If you do plan to keep it, then consider having it microchipped.
Releasing the Cat
After the cat has been checked and treated by the vet and has recovered from surgery, it can be released. While this means the animal will continue preying on smaller species, it will not be able to reproduce. It is not humane to release de-clawed strays into the wild, as they can’t defend themselves and catch prey.
It is also not recommended to release stray or feral cats in a different place than you found them. Cats have territories and are often part of colonies that provide mutual defense. Dropping off a cat in a different place will put it in danger from cat colonies that don’t accept it. It will also be unfamiliar with the area and may have difficulty feeding itself.
Taming the Cat
If you cannot locate owners and have decided to try to keep it as a pet, here are some tips:
- Don’t reach into a trap or carrier and try to pull a cat out. Leave the door of the enclosure open and stand back and let the cat come out when it is ready.
- With a new, shy, or skittish cat, don’t stare at it or look it directly in the face. Additionally, don’t try to pet it or pick it up. Just talk to it in a quiet, calm voice.
- If you are dealing with an aggressive feral cat, do not try to tame it. Simply leave food and water for it in the same place every day.
- Feed the cat regularly so it begins to associate you with the pleasure of having its needs deliciously met. Gradually move the food closer to you so it gets comfortable with your presence.
- After assessing the cat’s behavior, slowly reach out a finger to the cat to allow it to sniff you. If it attacks or backs away and growls or hisses, withdraw. You might want to try this at first with a gloved hand.
- Over time, as the cat gets comfortable with touch, move on to stroking its cheeks if it allows. Eventually, the cat will come to you voluntarily and allow you to pick it up.
Be exceedingly patient. This process can take weeks or months but is worth it. Cats are very independent-minded creatures in the best of circumstances. Rescuing a stray or feral cat, winning its trust, and turning it into an affectionate pet is hard work. If you can manage it, you’ll be a real, honest-to-goodness hero.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/slowmotiongli
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