Skip to main content

I see a stray cat: Is it safe to approach? What you need to know

It's important to know the difference between stray and feral cats

According to the ASPCA, approximately 3.2 million cats enter U.S. animal shelters every year. Of these, a significant number are strays.




30 minutes

What You Need

  • Veterinarian

  • Canned tuna

  • Patience

A stray cat is generally defined as a cat that has lived indoors and is socialized with people but has left or lost its home. This is not to be confused with a feral cat, which hasn't lived alongside humans recently (or ever) and is essentially a wild animal.

From time to time, stray cats may appear in your neighborhood or at work. It's always tempting to try to pet the animal, call it over, feed it, or even bring it inside or adopt it. But is it safe for you or for the cat? Here's a closer look.

Stray cat outside

Stray vs. feral: How to tell the difference

Strays, at some fairly recent point, were pets. Feral and semi-feral cats are closer to a squirrel or raccoon than a household companion. Feral cats also are very difficult, if not impossible, to train.

As a result, it's probably best to leave feral cats alone unless you have a sound game plan and professional guidance. Neutering and monitoring programs, for example, exist around the nation and can be a healthy way to get involved with feral cats. Your local vet or animal shelter can give you more guidance.

Here's how to tell the difference between stray and feral cats:

Step 1: Social: Strays will be friendly to humans, whereas feral cats will stay away and can even become hostile in close interactions.

Step 2: Touching: Strays will seek out and welcome human contact, but feral cats won't, with some not able to tolerate even the slightest physical contact with humans.

Step 3: Communication: Strays will meow and be vocal; feral cats are quieter.

Feral cat outside

Step 4: Appearance: Strays might be dirty, whereas feral cats are clean.

Stray cat at the vet

How to safely approach and help a stray cat

If the feline in question is not feral and you wish to approach it, there are a few rules of thumb for how to do it safely for both parties.

Step 1: Feed, but beware.

It's OK to offer food to a stray cat, but there's a catch. If it gets food at your house once, it will come back. You've been warned. Canned tuna is a great food option if available.

Step 2: Speak softly.

Approach with caution and keep your voice soft. Let the cat make the first move; it will come to you if it feels safe.

Step 3: Don't just feed it.

It can be fun and rewarding to feed a stray cat. But if you really want to keep it around, the safest thing for the stray, for you, and for any other people and pets in your household is a visit to the vet.

Step 4: Scan for the chip.

Speaking of the vet, they can scan for a microchip, which is now widely implanted below a pet's skin and used for identification. If the cat is lost, this is the best way to help the little guy get found.

According to ASPCA data, 27% of cat owners found their feline as a stray. Just keep in mind that before you take in a stray cat that another family somewhere may be heartsick over the loss of its beloved pet. No matter your plans, you can proceed safely knowing how to distinguish stray cats from their feral cousins and how best to approach the stray so you both have a positive interaction.

Editors' Recommendations

Scott Harris
Scott Harris is a freelance writer based near Washington, DC, with more than a decade of experience covering health…
Can cats eat blueberries? What you need to know
Are blueberries safe for cats? Find out here
Cat with blueberries

As a cat parent, you may be interested in incorporating fruit into your fur baby's diet. Many fruits can provide nutritional benefits for your feline companion, but can cats eat blueberries? We have some good news. One of your favorite superfoods is perfectly safe for your cat to eat in moderation, but before you share blueberries with your kitty, you should be aware of the potential side effects. We'll walk you through everything you need to know about giving your cat blueberries.
Benefits of giving blueberries to cats
Blueberries are a low-calorie fruit packed with vitamins and minerals, making them a healthy treat for your kitty. An excellent source of vitamin C and antioxidants, blueberries can help boost your cat's immune system and prevent infections. Additionally, blueberries are high in fiber, which can aid in digestion and help even regulate your kitty's bowel movements.

In terms of minerals, blueberries contain essential nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and manganese. Potassium is essential for healthy muscle function, as it can help regulate blood pressure, while magnesium is necessary for bone and muscle health. Lastly, manganese helps support your cat's metabolism.
Potential risks
While blueberries can provide some nutritional benefits for cats, it's also important to keep in mind that they should only be given in moderation. Too many blueberries can cause an upset stomach, diarrhea, or vomiting in some cats. Also, the seeds and skin of blueberries can be potentially harmful to cats if ingested in large quantities. The seeds can cause digestive problems, and the skin can be difficult to digest for some cats, leading to digestive discomfort.

Read more
Watch this clever cat try to teach their pet parent how cat toys work
She wants to teach her human how to play with the dangly toy
Kitten plays with a yarn ball on a string

We love playing with our pets, and they seem to love it back. While dogs might enjoy endlessly chasing a ball or tugging at a rope, cats typically gravitate toward more obvious hunting games. That's why plenty of cat toys involve a small mouse, sometimes stuffed with catnip or another intriguing smell. You can also find cat toys that dangle on a string, something like a fishing pole, for the feline to bat and bite. Well, this particularly clever cat has decided it's her human who needs to practice and is determined to play a little game with him.

We can't exactly tell if this kitty was absentmindedly playing with her toy or if she's a diabolical genius who has set out to teach human owners a lesson; commenters seemed to lean toward the first (and we do too). In the video, the little mouser sits atop a sofa and playfully waves her toy in front of her owner, clearly trying to get him to swing at it. This clip is entitled "Derp has turned the tables playing with derp daddy" and was posted to the Animals Being Derps subreddit, a place for some particularly funny pics and videos of pets.

Read more
Everything you need to know about the adorable snowshoe cat
Never heard of the snowshoe cat breed? You're not alone, but they're worth learning more about
Cat with white paws standing up

We don’t typically think of cats as breeds. With canine companions, there is a ton of information on different breeds, including common physical and social traits.

However, felines also have separate breeds beyond just commonly known ones, like Maine Coons and Siamese cats. One you may not have heard of is the snowshoe cat. There’s likely a reason you’ve never heard of this cat, because the breed is rare.

Read more