How to tell if a cat needs to be rescued

By Danielle Bays

By on May 1, 2023 with 19 Comments

In recent years, new research has changed traditional advice around how to help cats found outside. Some of the cats may have homes and know how to reach them. Some may be “community cats” cared for by several local families, and their home is exactly where they are. These cats, especially when they are part of a large group, benefit from health checks and sterilization before ultimately being returned to their outdoor home. Keeping your own cats inside is, of course, better for wild birds and other animals who may fall prey to cats outdoors, and for their sakes, we encourage keeping felines inside. But when it comes to considering what’s best for any given cat already found outside, the issue becomes complicated. Danielle Bays, the senior analyst for cat protection and policy for the Humane Society of the United States, works with animal shelters, cat advocates, policymakers and other stakeholders to broaden support for community cat programs nationwide and to improve the welfare of all cats. In this guest blog, Danielle discusses the nuances that can stem from what seems like a simple question: How can I help this cat?

As a professional cat person, one of the most common questions I get is, “How can I help this cat?” For many of us who feel a connection to animals, our natural inclination may be to scoop the cat up and bring him inside. But we now have a heightened understanding of cats and their behaviors, and it turns out that the impulse to bring the cat inside may not actually be the right thing to do.

A very brief history of our lives with cats

Cats living indoors is a very recent part of our long history coexisting with domestic cats, considering that cat domestication began 12,000 years ago, and Kitty Litter wasn’t invented until 1947. This feline version of indoor plumbing was a game-changer for cat ownership; Bloomberg News rightly placed Kitty Litter on its list of the most disruptive ideas in history.

In just a few (human) generations, keeping cats indoors became the norm. Today, an estimated 67% of cats in the U.S. are kept indoors, with another 24% spending time both indoors and outdoors, according to surveys by the American Pet Products Association.

Soon enough, a cat being outdoors was seen as a cry for help. Taking these cats to a shelter was once what most animal welfare organizations preached for decades. But we are due for another disruptive idea: Not every stray cat needs to be rescued, and for those who can use some help, taking the cat to your local shelter may not be the best approach.

What the research shows

The reality is that reclaim rates for stray cats in most communities across the country teeter at about 5%. This means that for every 100 stray cats brought to a shelter, only five are actually reunited with their families. Those cats tend to have microchips with up-to-date contact information.

Studies have shown that cats are more likely to get back home if they don’t enter the shelter. Some cats will find their way home after a few days of roaming the neighborhood. Others get back home with the help of community members who knock on doors and post fliers to identify where the cat lives and get him back home. Or maybe they learn that the cat is home and lives on the block cared for by several residents. Before you shuttle that stray cat to the shelter, put your detective hat on and talk to the people who live on that block.

Most lost cats are found only a few houses away from where they live. It’s no surprise that bringing lost cats to a shelter miles away decreases their chances of getting home. Some people may not know which shelter in their area to call to find their cat. The shelter a town or two over may be inaccessible if they don’t have transportation or can’t get off work during business hours. Many cat owners don’t start to worry until after their cats are gone several days, and it may be nearly a week before they contact their shelter. By then, it may be too late: The cats’ stray hold, the legal amount of time a shelter must keep a stray, may have passed and the cats have been adopted to new families. It’s heartbreaking for the people and stressful for the cats.

Innovative approaches

To address these and other issues, Rhode Island established new procedures for when found cats are turned over to animal shelters in a town other than where the cat was found. We worked on the final language for the new rules with the state veterinarian. Now a description of the cat is shared with the animal control agency or police department of the town where the cat was found, and finders must attest they were allowed to be on the property they took the cat from.

Other animal welfare agencies are also taking proactive approaches. For example, the Massachusetts SPCA now boasts a whopping 34% reunification rate for adult cats, in large part by changing the narrative about stray cats. In the old way of thinking, all those unclaimed cats must be unwanted, abandoned or have irresponsible owners, and the cats deserve better. There is more emphasis on rehoming stray cats than reuniting them with their caregivers. As we move to a more evidence-based approach to sheltering, we find no data to support the notion these cats are homeless and unwanted. Once we stop creating a negative scenario around each cat, we can focus on getting that cat back to the family who loves him. That’s what the MSPCA is doing by considering a “stray cat” simply a cat whose story is currently unknown to the shelter. By engaging the community and doing a bit of detective work, the MSPCA is uncovering those stories and seeing reunification stats soar well above the national average.

Another part of changing the narrative is recognizing that many cats considered “lost” are not lost at all. They know exactly where they are. West Valley Humane Society in Caldwell, Idaho, found that to be true. Like most shelters, the staff didn’t have the capacity to canvass all the homes in areas where cats were found to see if they could identify their families. So essentially, they let the cats do the work themselves. With a reunification rate of less than 1%, they began diverting many of the healthy stray cats who come into their shelter to their community cat program, where the cats are sterilized, vaccinated and returned to where they were found. As an experiment, West Valley staff took the extra step of placing a collar on each cat they returned outdoors, with instructions for the cat’s caretaker to give them a call. People called. They found 70% of the cats lived within five houses of where they were found and another 17% within a quarter-mile. By letting the cats make their way back home, they boosted their reunification rate to over 85% in one year.

These programs are just a few of the many stellar programs we have highlighted at our annual Animal Care Expo, the largest training and networking event for those working in animal sheltering and rescue.

How you can help cats

I grew up with cats living outdoors. Neither of my parents grew up with pets, yet my brother and I convinced them that we should add one to the family. We started with goldfish and then moved on to a cat when a neighbor’s cat had kittens. This was the mid-1970s, a few years before Bob Barker started ending every episode of The Price is Right with a reminder to spay or neuter your pet. It also was a time when keeping cats exclusively indoors-only was far from the norm. So, while Tac (that’s cat spelled backward), my first kitten, got neutered, he lived primarily outdoors. I think back to Tac, who one day just didn’t come home. Maybe he fell victim to one of the dangers lurking outdoors in my quiet suburban neighborhood, or maybe he was “rescued” by a well-intentioned person who felt he needed their help.

Tac’s disappearance broke my 6-year-old heart, of course. And like many people, I still struggle with the impulse to keep cats safe at home, recognizing that’s not an option for the millions of community cats across the country. Cats are fascinating and complex animals, which means it can be tricky deciding how to best help the one you’ve just met. I hope you can help spread the word about these simple steps to help figure out what a cat found outside may actually need. You can also distribute our Can you help this cat? brochure in your community.

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  1. Kim Bartlett says:

    What about cats who are in poor health or those who are obviously not getting enough to eat?

    • Devora Krischer says:

      Take a cat who is in poor health to a shelter for evaluation. If the cat is just undernourished, but otherwise healthy, you might consider feeding it.

    • A Attura says:

      Alley Cat Allies has a great deal of experience with stray cats.
      They can provide a great deal of information to help you. Your local shelter also knows the local folks who rescue and foster cats. The shelter can also scan the found cat for a microchip which will provide information on the cat’s home and owner.
      It isn’t always easy to pick up a cat found on the street and bring it to the vet — the shelter can provide information and a humane trap where you can trap the cat and safel bring it to th vet (let the vet know this is an outdoor cat which may not be friendly) and could also give you the contact info for the local folks who rescue cats like this.
      IF you are interested in helping outdoor cats (“feral cats”) you can inquire about TNR – Trap Neuter and Return for these cats which also entails feeding, medicating and sheltering these cats outdoors in specially built “cat shelters”. You may find that have alot of mentors around you who can help you. Thank you for caring about these cats.

  2. Dale Kelley says:

    Thank you for this excellent and “though-provoking” article on the rescuing of outdoor cats! I deeply appreciated every word! I live in an area with coyotes, bobcats, and cougars, so my beloved cat ONLY goes outside on leash with me into our yard, Too frequently we see “lost cat signs” around from owners who never see their cats again … likely fallen to these predators… who say “but my cat wanted to go outside!?!

  3. Hazel J Gerber says:

    Does this take into account the hungry coyotes roaming the neighborhood looking for dinner?

  4. Cat mom says:

    This does not take into account the mass homeless situation in many areas where camps have animals and when they leave the camp, they leave the animals behind to fend for themselves. What happens to those animals that are left to roam in surrounding neighborhoods? These poor helpless animals have no home, shelter or sources of food. They often get hurt, hit by cars or succumb to predators. I have had several cats that have found their way to our home neighborhood from nearby homeless camps who were left behind. This is where shelters should help out and take in these homeless animals who are not feral but are strays left to fend for themselves and often do not make it.

  5. Kathy says:

    In the past month two feral cats have come to my house and because everyone has to eat they are being fed. One of them I had on my back porch and cellar for over a month waiting to get an opening to have her spayed. Once that was done I waited five days to release her. She comes back twice a day to get fed and even accepted the bed on the porch because she remembered it from her cellar confinement. Where we go from here is up to her.
    The second cat only comes at night to eat. Both of these two cats are long haired and badly matted.
    I also have a feral I’ve taken care of for ten years. He has a heated house in the winter, gets fed twice a day and leads the life he has chosen. He’ll eat out of my
    hand, follows me around the yard, but that’s as close as he’ll get and seems
    satisfied. Neither of them have I ever been able to pet. I will do everything to
    care for them. The door will always be open to any animal in need. I love them all and consider them family. I also donate to many animal organizations. When you love animals you do this.

  6. Corky says:

    Ms. Bays makes some good points. However, there is no simple answer when it comes to stray cats whether owned, feral, or community cats.

    I have ferals I care for and I have my own pet cats. Growing up, virtually all my outdoor pet cats met with an untimely demise for various reasons. We weren’t allowed indoor pets.

    As an adult, my outdoor loving cat (Starsky) was killed by two Boxers while seemingly enjoying the safety of his own yard. The hurt and anger I felt made me say, never again. I believe all living things should have access to fresh air and sunshine, so I had a custom built fence that keeps all my cats safe while allowing access to a fenced yard via a pet door.
    There isn’t any mention of microchipping cats to facilitate reuniting with owners? Or wearing identification as required by law in most areas? While I’m well aware that cats aren’t dogs, there appears to be a completely different standard of care when it comes to cats roaming about than dogs. Who would say that it is okay to allow your dog to roam a neighborhood? Or a child for that matter? Granted dogs are far more likely to have a potentially dangerous interaction with a person/child, but what about the concern for their safety?
    From my perspective, having pets is like having a perpetual 2-year old. As humans, we have a responsibility and obligation to provide for their safety to the best of our ability. That responsibility can vary depending on situation.
    I’m concerned about what’s going on with animal welfare. More and more I read articles that seem to infer (I think unwittingly) that shelters are bad places and people should be discouraged from taking animals there. I agree that not all animals need to go to shelters. However, situations vary and what’s in the best interest of the animal must be considered. Let’s help teach people how to create a safe/healthy environment for their pets whether it is indoor or outdoors. Telling them not to take to shelters isn’t the answer. Shelters should be a first resource and not a last resort when it comes to helping animals.

    • David E. Shellenberger says:

      I agree. We should keep our cats indoors for their own safety, microchip them, and give them breakaway collars with identification.

  7. Tracy Mohr says:

    I think the point of the article is that for MOST cats found at large, taking them to the shelter is NOT the best option. Since 2013 our shelter accepts sick or injured cats or orphaned kittens, but we recognize that HEALTHY stray cats do not need to be whisked off to the shelter because 1) they are most likely not lost – they are just out cruising their home territory, and 2) removing them from their neighborhood and taking them to the shelter vastly decreases reunification with their family.

    It’s been estimated that there is one cat for every 6 people in a community, therefore our city has about 16,000 “neighborhood” cats, whether they are truly ferals, someone’s indoor/outdoor cat, or something in between. Not only can we not protect every one of those cats from every real or perceived danger in our community, but our shelter could never handle that many cats coming through our doors. Bringing every stray cat to the shelter not only puts them at risk of not going home, but it also puts them at risk of getting sick and even worse, being euthanized.

    Shelter ARE a resource for cats, but not in the traditional ways that we (shelters) have conditioned the public into believing over the years. Shelters should not be using valuable limited resources unnecessarily looking for owners of cats who have been plucked from their neighborhoods for no good reason, and then trying to find a home for cats that already had a home. Not to mention the tragic loss of lives because cats are overcrowded in shelters and get sick and are euthanized because of illness or space.

    We provide trap/neuter/return resources, shelter/neuter/return, low cost spay/neuter options, tips on responsible feeding solutions, and how to deter cats from your yard since it is literally impossible to eliminate all free roaming cats from our communities. Nor would we want to. Cats have been part of our ecosystem since they were first introduced to the Americas and have a vital role in rodent control. As the article pointed out, cats have been living outdoors for centuries, and it hasn’t even been 100 years that they have been kept as indoor pets. Cats are very resourceful, and many community cats have multiple food sources.

    For most communities, there are no requirements for cats to be on a leash, kept indoors, or not allowed to roam. Animal control, dog licensing, and leash laws for dogs only came around in the 1940-50’s because of rabies, spread primarily through dog bites, causing over 100 deaths per year. Now we only see 1-3 rabies deaths per year in the US, mostly from interactions with wild animals, and people bitten by dogs while traveling outside the US.

    I worked in shelters that took in every cat for any and every reason. It was heartbreaking and demoralizing to have to deal with the huge number of cats coming in the front door and mostly leaving out the back door. By not taking in healthy strays, we have the resources to provide medical care for sick and injured cats, foster care for neonates, and space for the occasional hoarding case. We have never had to euthanize for time, space, disease outbreaks (there are none), treatable medical conditions, or being underage without mom. And we get to help people with getting their cats spayed/neutered so there are not unwanted litters. Who would not want to work in a shelter like that! And a funny thing, when we changed our polices, we didn’t see a huge increase in cats being hit by cars, attacked by other animals, or reported as lost.

    Because cats are 13 times more likely to return home if they are not brought to the shelter.

  8. Raquel Goncalves says:

    Thanks for this! Obviously every cats situation is as unique as they are. But this is good info to be taken into consideration.

  9. Deborah Searles says:

    I have had the luck of feeding a stray( said his name was Smitty) who comes every few days. He will even come walk around the inside of the house now and lay down. At first he was hissing at everything ( poss becuz he’s not fixed) But he has a lot of battle scars that need to be looked at and taken care of, open scratches and one of his ears is laying down. ( possibly a hemotoma)
    I am trying to gain as much trust as I can so I can get him to vet to be checked out. I can now pet him but am not sure yet if he would allow being picked up. I don’t want o freak him out with a havaheart trap, just not sure it’s the right time for that. ( my cat MOL had a problem with him at first, now I just can’t keep her away from his food bowl even tho she gets fed at same time ) I have had multiple clowders of cats b4( 35 at one time when I lived in the woods) but they knew they would be taken care of just like Smitty will be.

    • Blog Editor says:

      Hi Deborah, thank you for taking good care of Smitty. You might find this page on how individuals can help community cats helpful

    • A Attura says:

      Havaharts are usually the best solution for taking the cat to the vet– in fact, taking any cat (or dog) to the vet usually entails the animal freaking out– it’s a fact of life, for cats AND dogs — Get the trap, learn how to use it if you don;t already know, ansd alert the vet AND the Vet techs that this is a Feral cat. Some traps can be gently compressed to keep the cat immobile while it is being vaccinated and/or given a sedative to prep it for spay/neutering

  10. Christine Grabar says:

    I am a proud cat mom of two awesome cats. I have always kept my own cats safely indoors anywhere I had lived over the years. There are far too many dangers outside — cars, wild animals, cruel people, and inclement weather.

    I love to hear about people walking their cats on harnesses. This way they can enjoy the great outdoors in a safe way.

    • A Attura says:

      I walked my cat until she got too huge and fractious to handle– I used a safe harness she could not back out of, and two leashes because she was so strong that she pulled out the single leash (while we were training her in the livingroom, whew!!). When I walked her I kept a vigilant eye out for dogs — who could attack, even if you pick up the cat and hold it in your arms. We never met up with any nasty dogs but we DID meet up with a drunk, I took care of the situation while my poor cat was poufing up big time. In the long run — she grew to be such a huge cat that I knew I would not be able to control her any more if she freaked out. So she lived a happy life indoors, going out onto my totally fenced in (very very safe) balcony whenever she wanted – and lived to the ripe old age of 18. I still miss her very much.

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