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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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!