Know how to identify which cats need saving and rehoming

When people see a cat roaming around their neighborhood, they may want to scoop her up and take her home. But think about this: The outdoors has been home to cats for thousands of years.

Community cats thrive outside with their families (groups of cats called colonies), and live full, healthy lives just as pet cats do. They are resourceful, independent, comfortable, and capable in their natural environment.

For community cats, it’s a frightening experience when they’re taken from their outdoor home, away from the environment and the cats they’re bonded to, and brought indoors.

“Community cats are not broken, damaged, or in need of help—all they need is to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned,” says Verónica Basterrica Wijnands, a member of Alley Cat Allies’ Feral Friends Network and a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) expert. “These cats deserve respect and protection, but they must get it in their habitats and live on their own terms.”

TNR is the humane, effective approach for community cats. Understanding community cats’ level of socialization—or how accustomed to human contact they are—can also influence how you care for them. While feral cats generally avoid humans, some cats living outdoors may be stray cats who once were, or still are, socialized to people. These cats may once again become pets.

Alley Cat Allies staff member Kim Kean offers these tips to help you determine a cat’s level of socialization. You can find a full list at alleycat.org/StrayorFeral.

  • If a cat approaches you and lets you touch her, she is socialized. Feral cats will almost never approach you.
  • A social cat, when trapped, may vocalize. This indicates she is used to communicating with people.
  • Feral cats rarely make a sound in front of humans and avoid eye contact. Social cats may make eye contact and respond to voices.
  • Socialized cats may eventually relax, even when in a trap. Feral cats will remain tense and stay at the back of the trap.

If an adult cat is not socialized, it’s vital to leave her outdoors. Feral kittens, however, can potentially be socialized if they have human interaction from a very young age. Learn how at alleycat.org/Socialization.

If you believe a cat is socialized (and stray) and want to bring her into your home, or you want to find her a forever family, here are a few suggestions to make her more comfortable:

  1. Give her time. Even friendly cats are wary in new situations. Provide a quiet space so she can get comfortable.
  2. Respect her natural needs. Provide places to hide, high areas to perch, and toys to “hunt.”
  3. Create a routine. From feeding to cleaning, do everything on a predictable schedule.
  4. Interact with her every day. Pet and play with her, and use food and treats to entice and reward interaction.
  5. Reduce stress in her environment. Be on the lookout for things that trigger stress for the cat. This may mean giving her an area away from nosy visitors, or moving her cat tree away from view of the neighbor’s dog.
  6. Consider using non-pharmaceutical behavior modifiers like Feliway, Rescue Remedy, or Composure Soft Chews. These products can help calm and comfort cats using essential oils or extracts or by mimicking natural feline pheromones.

Remember: Community cats are individuals, and it’s important to respect their needs. Being their hero may just mean providing a daily meal, or ensuring they are part of a TNR program. Beyond that, let them live freely outdoors, where they belong.