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So You Found A Stray Cat. Now What?

You found a stray cat (or dog), your local shelter is full, now what? Most animal lovers know this panicky, helpless feeling all too well – you want to help, but you have no idea what the heck to do. Sometimes (ALL the times) there are no easy answers. The reality is that most communities have WAY more homeless animals than shelter space available – and you often need to get creative and take action on your own.

Here’s the story of Joe, a Feline Leukemia positive stray cat with the odds stacked against him. But amazingly, this handsome orange boy found his happily-ever-after, fairytale ending thanks to a compassionate person who refused to give up. Read his story and then check out other suggestions on ways to help stray cats at the end of this post.

So you found a stray cat? Now What?

Cat’s Story: From Street Cat To Suburban House Cat

On a steamy summer afternoon last July, Beckie noticed some neighbor kids playing with a skinny orange cat. A few hours later the kids and the cat were still there. The young orange tabby followed his new friends around playfully, rubbing affectionately against their legs. He appeared out of nowhere, the kids told Beckie. No one recognized him, knew where he came from, or who, if anyone he belonged to.

But it was getting dark and the kids were headed in for the night. Beckie watched as the cat tried to follow them home and then looked heartbroken when they turned him away.

Beckie has two special needs Beagles, but they were staying with her parents that night. Without thinking, she scooped up the cat and brought him inside, setting him up in a dog crate with some blankets and food. Cat (named after Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) seemed delighted to be tucked in, well fed, and safe.

“There was just something special about Cat,” she remembers. “Yes, he was skinny with some old scratches and hair loss, but otherwise he looked OK and was just SO friendly.”

What to do if you find a stray cat and all the shelters are full

The following morning Beckie took Cat to the vet where they discovered he was unneutered and sadly, positive for Feline Leukemia. The vet agreed to neuter and board Cat for a few days while Beckie figured out what to do next.

She started by checking for lost cat signs, but it was quickly clear that no one was looking for the 7-month-old cat. Next she started calling shelters – ALL the shelters in the entire Chicago metro area. Many didn’t return to her call and the ones who did were either full or had policies against taking FeLV positive cats.

Beckie, who has volunteered in dog rescue for ten years, knows the odds against placing stray cats in shelters, not to mention FeLV positive cats. But she still describes the response or lack of response from shelters as “soul crushing” and can’t imagine how painful and frustrating it would be for the average person, not involved in rescue work.

But Cat was so sweet and deserving of a home of his own that she vowed NOT to give up.

Help I found a stray cat! How do I help stray animals

Beckie spent 10 days and nights (hardly sleeping at all) searching for options for Cat. When she ran out of shelters, she created a Facebook page and Instagram account for Cat and even did a few Facebook Live videos. She boosted the videos and just kept sharing his story in hopes it would reach the right person – and it finally did. A friend of a friend forwarded the video to a friend (not on Facebook) who had just lost her husband, had no other pets, and was looking for a cat!

Beckie contacted the potential adopter and was completely transparent about Cat’s FeLV status. False positives happen, but there are no guarantees. They agreed on a trial sleepover, which turned into a permanent home. Cat, now Joe, is living the dream in a big house with lots of windows in the suburbs of Chicago. Beckie continues to visit him and reports that “he is exactly where he is supposed to be.”

Connie is head over heals in love with her new housemate. “Joe completed my life,” she says.

Beckie and Connie are realistic about the health challenges that may lie ahead. For now, Joe is healthy and symptom free. Connie and Joe are enjoying life together, staying positive, and supporting his immune system with supplements and lots of love.

Beckie has absolutely no regrets about helping Cat/Joe and would do so again in a heartbeat. “Always follow your heart. If one door closes, open your own door and don’t give up.”

Help, I found a stray cat? What should I do to help stray cats and stray animals

What To Do If You Find A Stray Cat

1. Determine if the cat is a stray (lost or abandoned cat) or a feral cat.

  • Lost, abandoned, or stray cats are socialized to people. Feral cats have been born outside and have had no socialization with people – and are not looking for homes.
  • If a cat is out during the day and approaches you, your house, or car, he is probably a stray. Likewise if the cat is only out at night and tends to be hanging out with other feral cats, he is probably feral.
  • Stray cats will look at you, blink their eyes, and maybe even meow; feral cats are not chatty with humans and will usually not make eye contact.
  • Stray cats are often dirty and disheveled because they are not used to being outside. Feral cats often have thick, neat coats.

Keep in mind that sometimes newly lost or abandoned cats will act feral-like out of fear. However, they will re-socialize with people once they are safely inside. You can find more information on the differences between strays and feral cats here. 

2. Once secured in a pet safe carrier, bring the cat to a veterinarian ASAP. Have the cat scanned for a microchip and tested for Feline Leukemia. Your vet should also do a general wellness check for fleas, intestinal parasites, injuries, and determine whether the cat is spayed or neutered. (Be prepared – keep a carrier, leash, collar, blankets, safety gloves in your car trunk in case you find a stray cat or dog in need)

3. Determine where to keep the cat while you search for its original owner or find the cat a new home. Possibilities include:

  • Boarding with your veterinarian
  • A small space in your home away from other animals: a secure dog crate in a garage or basement, and/or a small bathroom.
  • A similar set-up at a friend’s house. Maybe you can pay for food and supplies and your friend can just provide the space.
  • If you absolutely have no other options and the cat is in danger, you can bring him to your local animal care and control. However, keep posting signs and advocating on his behalf.

4. Contact local shelters, but don’t rely on them completely. In most communities there are lots more homeless animals than shelter space available. Shelters are overwhelmed and may not be able to help you. Be flexible – offer to make a donation, cover the medical costs, or foster the cat until they have space.

5. Check your area for lost pet signs on the street, in stores, veterinary practices and grooming salons. Also, check online lost pet listings and boards.

6. Post signs on lost pet websites, community boards at local vet practices, pet stores, and grooming salons, and with local shelters.

If you are contacted about the cat, ALWAYS request proof of ownership:

  • photos of the cat
  • address and phone number
  • vet records
  • description of personality traits and quirks
  • unusual markings
  • type of collar
  • always pay close attention to how the cat reacts to them

Likewise if someone contacts you about adopting the cat screen them carefully:

  • charge a fee
  • interview them
  • do a home visit (don’t go alone)
  • proof of residence and income
  • veterinary records
  • info on other pets in the home
  • observe how they interact with the cat and follow your gut

Sadly, there are lots of scammers looking for pets for cruel pranks, dog fighting, laboratories, etc. – BE VIGILANT and don’t be afraid to say no. You can read more about how to safely screen people here.

7. Spread the word and get creative! Create a Facebook page or Instagram account with adorable photos, live videos, and stories about your found cat. Ask your friends and family to help share and find the cat a new home. You could also make finding the cat a new home a neighborhood, church or school project (there’s strength in numbers).

If not you, then who? Don’t assume someone else will help. If you find a stray cat, get involved, get creative and please don’t give up!

What to do if you find a stray cat?




  1. December 19, 2018 / 12:15 pm

    Excellent advice. I’ve found many wonderful kitties dumped in bathroom and other places. I’ve always taken them home with me. They are ever so precious.

    Have a fabulous day. ♥

  2. December 19, 2018 / 1:08 pm

    We saw a small kitty in our yard a few times when we lived in our apt but then he disappeared and we never saw him again. Maybe he was just out cruising the neighborhood.

  3. December 19, 2018 / 2:02 pm

    I am always scanning my locations for stray cats! Have a box in the trunk, should I need a carrier. This is an excellent post, and I’ll just add that if you are interviewing for adopters, make sure they won’t declaw!!!!!

  4. December 19, 2018 / 4:24 pm

    What great advice! We took in a stray cat many years ago. He had definitely had a home at some point, but we could not find it. My Mom had just died, and I always felt like she sent him to me as a distraction from my grief. It may turn out he needed us as much as I needed him. He ended up having a lot of health issues, and only lived for about a year after we took him in. But I always felt good that we had given him a warm, safe place to live out the rest of his life.

  5. December 19, 2018 / 4:48 pm

    That was such a nice story about Cat and Beckie. So happy it had a happy ending. Thanks for all the tips. Mom says she would probably have to enlist help from some of our cat-loving neighbors as she doesn’t think she could try to bring a cat into our house or yard. But she would try to do something to help.

    Woos – Lightning, Misty, and Timber

  6. December 19, 2018 / 6:57 pm

    We are blessed to work with a shelter that agrees if you foster, they will usually be able to take the found cat eventually.

  7. December 19, 2018 / 7:09 pm

    I’m so happy that Cat/Joe found his happily-ever-after! What beautiful photos, too. Our first three cats were strays. I did try and find a home for Sophie and was even able to place her with a rescue…but as you can see that didn’t work out. Or, it did!

  8. December 20, 2018 / 12:48 am

    we fortunately saw no homeless cats during the last time… and we hope that is a good sign…

  9. December 20, 2018 / 8:24 am

    Such a wonderful post and I’m so glad that Joe got the happy he was looking for!

  10. December 20, 2018 / 8:57 am

    What terrific advice and the fact there was a happy ending for Joe is the cherry on top!

  11. December 20, 2018 / 9:03 am

    Kristin what a wonderful heartwarming post. I love happy endings…Joe is a lucky fella.
    I had a chuckle at your M’s encounter with the Easter Bunny. My M had the very same reaction at age 4. As we strolled up to the Easter Bunny’s set up M became stiff as a board feet planted on the floor announced to the entire mall that big bunny with a head the size of a car better not come to her house.
    Hugs all around and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all

  12. M. K. Clinton
    December 20, 2018 / 12:19 pm

    Great information because so many people have no idea where to turn when they find a cat or kitten.

  13. December 20, 2018 / 4:35 pm

    All awesome tips!! So glad Cat/Joe found his furever home 🙂

    Bell Fur Zoo Mama

  14. December 20, 2018 / 5:06 pm

    What a beautiful story! Cat/Joe sure is one lucky kitty. Thank you for the important tips.

  15. December 20, 2018 / 5:14 pm

    Merry Christmas to you, Ruby and your family. This is an important post, I have been there too, and I will come back and read it thoroughly. Meanwhile, thank you so much for caring and helping animals.

  16. 15andmeowing
    December 20, 2018 / 9:02 pm

    Excellent post. I have found many a stray cat and kept them all. After checking for a microchip, asking around the neighborhood and then getting them fixed.

  17. Hindy Pearson
    December 21, 2018 / 10:22 am

    Great and helpful advice! I do wish shelters were able to take all cats people found, but unfortunately that’s just not realistic. I’ve been on both sides of that coin, and I know how terrible I used to feel when a member of the public would bring in a cat they found and would be turned away. It’s heartbreaking thinking what happened to them. FB is a great tool everyone should be aware of as a way to post about lost and found animals.

  18. December 21, 2018 / 10:28 am

    Taking in “stray” cats in one of our human’s pet peeves. The vast majority of the cats you find outside are either someone’s indoor/outdoor cat (that would be me!) or are lost and only want to go home to the families who love them. When you find a cat outside, please think lost, not stray and leave no stone unturned to find the cat’s family. Our human’s rescue has arranged many happy reunions because they were determined to find out where the cat came from. One accidentally hitched a ride from another state!

    • SweetDogChicago
      December 24, 2018 / 7:47 am

      Absolutely agree. It’s always important to look for owners and make sure the cat isn’t lost.

  19. December 21, 2018 / 10:13 pm

    That is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it and for giving us the good advice.

  20. December 21, 2018 / 11:20 pm

    I found Bear on the street and he was the sweetest, most loving kitten I’ve ever known. Getting cuddles was more important to him than food. I don’t regret one second of our time together – and adopting him was the best thing I ever did – for both of us.

  21. December 22, 2018 / 1:06 pm

    This is great advice. I’m so happy that Cat/Joe is at home now. Beckie must be thrilled! The one and only cat we have had was a stray who found us. We had several feral cats in our neighborhood, but he was super friendly and loved to nap on our laps. We called a bunch of shelters, but no one was looking for him. After feeding him for a few days, I made an appointment with the vet. Unfortunately, the cat became very ill and hid under the porch. My husband crawled under the porch and retrieved him and I took the cat to a vet. After a giant vet bill, we were told to keep him inside for 10 days, then he accidentally bit my sister as she tried to give him his medication. 10 days had to turn into 6 months quarantine and after that, there was no way we were letting him go. He lived with us for 15 years.

  22. December 22, 2018 / 7:30 pm

    Fantastic post and I am so happy Joe found his forever home, he is so lucky.

  23. December 23, 2018 / 9:50 am

    So very very glad that Joe found his right furrever home! We have far too many “lost” and unwanted babies in our shelters here right now too 🙁

  24. December 23, 2018 / 7:59 pm

    Excellent post. It is so very hard to think of what to do when in that situation, I love that Cat (Joe) did get a wonderful home. One of my Grandfather’s best friends started the SPCA in the city i grew up in and I grew up with Cats (and Dogs) all were rescues. At times, my Mom had up to 6 cats as the shelters were full. It is heart breaking when they have to make such tough decisions.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family. This is the season we wish one another joy and love and peace. These are my wishes for you, Merry Christmas our dear friends, may you feel the love!
    Marv and Barb

  25. December 23, 2018 / 9:23 pm

    Great tips and so agree. Especially about trying all resources to find the owner first before claiming the pet is now yours. So many times I’ve seen pet owners frantic because they lost their pet or they ran away and never got the microchip for the pet. Or sometimes people find a stray and think “finders keepers”. It’s not that simple. Nice post.

  26. Marjorie Dawson
    December 23, 2018 / 10:14 pm

    Knowing what I do of America the last thing I would do is advocate taking to a shelter, I get the impression that cats are dead within a day mostly. Horrific behaviour.

    Excellent advice on the beast way to care for a cat you find. I have stories too sad to relate about a ct we found, who had two weeks with us before his thin little body gave up but he was LOVED by us.

    • December 24, 2018 / 2:38 am

      Honestly Marjorie, that depends on where you live – the shelters in my area place over 90% of the animals turned in and don’t euth for space. Even in a municipal shelter, there are stories of cats that have been waiting to be discovered for years. FIV, diabetics, IBD – they all get the chance. Down south it is very different. There is a commitment to low cost easy access spay neuter here – at the state and local level as well as the shelter system. There needs to be a lot more education that cats aren’t “just fine” outside on their own and that access to easy and affordable spay neuter to solve the problem, but shelters/governments aren’t out there trying to eradicate cats.

      • SweetDogChicago
        December 24, 2018 / 7:37 am

        Agree. It’s very different depending on where you live. We live in the Chicago area and while things are improving here, there’s still a long way to go.

  27. December 24, 2018 / 2:40 am

    >If a cat is out during the day and approaches you, your house, or car, he is probably a stray

    I’m not sure I agree with this. My cats growing up were all outside cats that roamed the neighborhood, but still spent a significant amount of time in-doors via the dog door.

    We tried tags with break away collars for safety but they always fell off.

    • SweetDogChicago
      December 24, 2018 / 7:39 am

      Good clarification. This is a distinction between a domesticated stray and a feral cat (a cat who has not been socialized with humans). And of course you are right, there are always exceptions. Your cats were indoor/outdoor cats not strays or ferals.

  28. December 24, 2018 / 2:46 am

    So happy for Joe! I’m glad it worked out so well for him. Social media is great for networking and helping cats and dogs get back home. Dogs have the advantage of being licensed so easier to get them back home. A lot of cats are abandoned and need help to find a new place like Joe or my Jeremy, but others are owned and just need that network to help them and their humans get back together. A lot of people just keep cats they find outside without networking them or trying to find their pet parents first, I feel bad for the people who are missing their babies.

  29. December 24, 2018 / 2:03 pm

    I hadn’t realized there was a difference between a stray and a feral. What a wonderful story, I’m so glad Joe has the perfect home now.

  30. December 24, 2018 / 5:46 pm

    Back in the old country we had a cat move in with us once. She just moved in and that was that 🙂

  31. Sweet Purrfections
    December 25, 2018 / 7:19 pm

    Excellent advice. It’s so hard when a friendly stray kitten (or cat) shows up at your doorstep and you can’t keep them. I had this to happen to me once and luckily, I found someone who would take them. the shelters and rescues were no help to me and that’s why I can understand why some people just desert them outside the doors.

  32. FiveSibesMom
    December 26, 2018 / 2:23 am

    Excellent tips! We actually found two strays…one was a feral kitty. My daughter earned the trust of both and we adopted them! I also want to add that Cat/Joe is gorgeous, and the photos are just stunning!

  33. FiveSibesMom
    December 26, 2018 / 2:24 am

    PS – I also Pinned this to my “Mews News” board to share!

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