Thinking About Adopting the Neighborhood Stray Cat? We Asked a Vet For Advice!

As someone who has taken in five stray cats over the last decade, I'm aware of how deeply rewarding the process can be. Although adopting a wayward kitty might seem like a tall order at first, people are often surprised at just how quickly they assimilate in their new surroundings. Currently, approximately 3.2 million cats in the United States need forever homes, which means there's no shortage of four-legged friends to love.

Obviously, families who are considering taking in the neighborhood stray should be certain it's not someone else's pet first. Thankfully, there are a few easy ways to tell if the kitty already has an owner. "Not all outdoor cats will wear a collar, but many will," Zay Satchu, DVM, Bond Vet's cofounder and chief veterinary officer, told POPSUGAR. "You can also look at their physical appearance. Do they look well-nourished? Do they look clean? Do they have any visible wounds or large patches of hair loss? You can often visually differentiate between strays and human-owned companions."

"Do they look well-nourished? Do they look clean?"

Additionally, potential adopters should be especially careful with feral cats, aka felines who live outdoors and aren't accustomed to people. Generally terrified of human beings and quick to hide, feral kitties are very difficult to handle. While we'd love to give every unwanted kitty in the world a home, it might be best to leave out bowls of food and water for feral cats rather than take them in.

Is It OK to Adopt a Stray Cat From the Shelter or Off the Street?

Heading to the shelter may be the best bet for families who don't have a ton of experience with cats. While there's often a bit of guesswork that goes into adopting a feline from around the neighborhood, the staff at shelters can provide all the information potential cat parents could need, like what sex the cat is, whether or not the kitty is good with pets and kids, and if your new BFF has any health issues or special requirements.

"You should have the animal assessed by your veterinarian as soon as possible."

Although it doesn't matter where you adopted your cat from in the long run, there are some extra points to consider if you bring a cat into your home straight off the street. For example, when I adopted my two gray cats, Duckie and Little Mister, they both had an ear tip — or a tiny portion of their right ear missing — which meant they had been trapped by a volunteer organization, spayed and neutered, and then released back to the neighborhood. While it certainly saved me a ton of money, they hadn't ever received any other medical attention.

"If taking in a stray, beware that you may be faced with some underlying health problems," Dr. Satchu cautioned. "You should have the animal assessed by your veterinarian as soon as possible to check for fleas, intestinal parasites, and other potential health concerns. You will also want to make sure you get your new furry friend up-to-date on vaccines!"

What Should People Do When They First Bring a Stray Cat Home?

Anyone who brings a kitty home — and has already confirmed he or she isn't someone else's pet! — should immediately set up a private space for the cat and begin researching vets in the area. Don't get me wrong: it's incredible how friendly some stray cats are, but that doesn't mean they're perfectly healthy. While Duckie and Little Mister were only 6 months old when I adopted them, they still had to be treated for worms, which are extremely common in outdoor cats and kittens. The Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) outlined some helpful tips for new cat owners on its website:

  • Keep the cat in a separate room away from your other pets.
  • Put the cat in a bathroom or separate room by themselves. According to the SPCA, kitties feel safer in small spaces. Putting them in a designated room will also limit the possible transmission of diseases if you have other pets.
  • Take the cat to a vet ASAP. Make sure the vet administers tests for feline AIDS and feline leukemia, gives them rabies and distemper shots, treats any worms or fleas, and schedules spaying/neutering appointments when necessary.

Because many strays have had limited interaction with people, they'll understandably need time to adjust. Keep in mind that your new friend is being thrown into a brand-new environment, so they'll likely be scared and need time to explore their surroundings. If your kitty isn't especially outgoing at first, try not to worry, it will take a few days for them to get acclimated!

How Do You Socialize a Stray Cat?

As soon as your cat finishes settling in, the fun begins! Feel free to order tons of toys and treats online and spend as much time with your four-legged friend as possible without annoying them (we all know how temperamental kitties can be!).

"Socialization of cats and kittens is very important," Dr. Satchu explained. "It's most effective when done between the ages of 6 and 16 weeks, but can certainly work on older cats, too. Go slow, and use positive reinforcement. Reward kitty for good behavior with a yummy treat or playtime. If they are nervous around people, slowly introducing them to all members of the family is best. You can designate a small room as a 'safe space' for kitty while she gets to know your scent and voices. Spend short periods of time in the room with her and let her come to you!"