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Stray cat in a cardboard box

The essentials

  • Pets are vulnerable to abandonment or loss — According to the State of Pet Homelessness Project, 35% of cats and dogs are homeless across 20 countries.
  • Stray pets lack proper identification — Many stray pets result from improper enclosures or lack of identification.
  • Spaying and neutering can help limit stray cats and dogs — Uncontrolled breeding increases the overpopulation of homeless animals.

When you see a stray animal, sadness, adrenaline, and nervousness wash over you. What should you do? Are they alone? Are they sick or in danger? In this situation, you’ll want to stay calm and evaluate the environment, doing what’s best for your safety and the animal’s well-being. Here’s what to do if you find a stray cat or dog.

Assess the situation

Most strays were once pets that became lost or abandoned, and some were born as strays. According to Mars, around 1 in 3 pets are homeless. People find strays near busy roads, highways, rural areas, parks, or urban areas.

Before immediately trying to rescue the animal, it’s important to stop, stay calm, and assess the situation. Consider your location and any potential threats or present dangers. If you stop along a busy highway, both you and the animal risk being hit by a car. Whereas an animal trapped in a drain, under a rock, or found wandering in the woods, the danger may be less apparent. Even if the environment is seemingly harmless, you still risk putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation.

Wherever you are, stay calm and keep your safety in mind. Avoid making sudden movements that may startle the animal. For situations like this, it helps to have a leash, treats, and a carrier on your person or in your car.

Catch them, but safely

Once you’ve determined the situation is safe, the next step is to catch them. Keep in mind stray animals can be frightened, sick, or injured. Animals, especially strays, can react unpredictably. Moving too quickly can startle them, causing them to run away or into danger. If the animal seems aggressive or something seems off (like behavior), stay in your vehicle, or if on foot, stay far away.

Be cautious

If it’s safe to proceed, try to gently restrain the animal. Approaching a stray animal requires caution. You still risk scratches or bites, so proceed with caution. Speak softly and move slowly and calmly towards them. You can use a leash or a rope to keep the animal from wandering. Smaller animals may go into a carrier with a little coaxing. If you’re on a busy road and unable to restrain them, signal traffic to slow down.

Lure them with treats

If you feel confident and safe, you can lure them closer with cat or dog treats to get them on a leash, in a carrier, or in your car. Stray animals can become frantic or aggressive or hide under seats, so if possible, stay put.

If you manage to restrain the animal safely, contact a local shelter or the police (if in a rural area). Stay with the animal and try to keep them calm until help arrives. Always prioritize your safety and the animal’s comfort. If the animal shows signs of distress or aggression, it’s better to wait for professional help rather than handle it on your own.

Get them to safety

If you can safely transport the animal, you should take them to the nearest animal shelter. Some shelters have the resources to care for stray animals and help locate their owners. Consider taking it to a 24-hour veterinary clinic if it’s after hours. These places can scan the animal for a microchip to determine a potential owner.

If neither is available and you cannot keep the animal overnight, contact a local animal control or emergency animal services. Another option is to contact a local rescue organization or social media groups. These resources can provide guidance or temporary housing and ensure the animal is safe and not left in a vulnerable situation. Remaining calm and patient can help soothe the animal, making them more likely to trust you.

Interacting on social media sites has become invaluable in locating owners or getting help quickly when whom to contact is not readily listed.

Dr. Bruce Armstrong

Keeping the animal overnight

If you decide to keep the stray animal overnight or even consider adopting it, you can take several steps to ensure the safety and comfort of the animal and your pets. Preparing a safe space away from other pets in your home is a great way to do that.

A separate room or secure area is ideal for introducing a new pet to your home. This precaution keeps everyone safe, especially if the stray animal is sick, fearful, or aggressive. Make sure the space is a comfortable temperature and provide them with water and a little bit of food, as well as comfortable bedding. Providing extra blankets and access to food and water can help reduce their stress.

Tips for rescuing strays

Rescuing stray animals is a noble act that requires preparedness. Having practical supplies on hand ensures you can provide immediate care. Rescuing stray animals also carries significant moral and financial implications.

Morally, taking action reflects a sense of compassion and responsibility. Costly veterinary care, check-ups, medical treatment, and vaccinations can financially strain resources. Being prepared for these as a rescuer can help you mitigate surprises and help make sure the animal gets the care they need.

Have a rescuer kit

Prepare for the unexpected when it comes to animal rescues. Keep a sturdy leash and collar, a cat carrier or cardboard box, a heavy blanket, a bottle of water, a travel bowl, and strong-smelling treats. Carrying a pet first aid kit can help provide immediate care (if possible) before professional help can.

State laws

Check with your local and state laws regarding stray animals. Many states have laws surrounding strays and ownership. Typically, anyone who finds a stray animal needs to attempt to locate the original owner for a certain amount of time before claiming ownership. Sometimes, reporting a found animal to local authorities is also a legal requirement. Knowing the regulations in your area can help you navigate the legalities responsibly and ethically.

Moral complications

Many shelters and non-profit organizations face budget constraints and space limitations. According to the ASPCA, 6.3 million pets enter shelters annually in the United States. The influx of unwanted, lost, or stray pets impacts the care they can provide.

Shelters sometimes make incredibly tough decisions, especially if an animal is severely injured, remains unadopted, or lacks funds for medical treatments. When you rescue strays, clearly communicate the animal’s immediate needs and prepare for the possibility that the shelter may not have the budget or workforce to provide long-term care.

Financial obligations

Visiting a veterinarian may cost more, especially if they provide more extensive treatment than a shelter. Discuss with the veterinarian what you can cover and how much care you can provide. Low-cost clinics, veterinary colleges, and rescue groups can sometimes help with the costs.

If you’re ever in the heartbreaking situation of losing your pet, you’d hope someone would take the necessary steps to reunite you. When deciding to help a stray animal, put yourself in the shoes of a pet owner. But be mindful of your financial and emotional limitations. Decide whether or not you’re prepared for the responsibility of caring for the animal and then returning them to their owner. Acting with empathy and authenticity can help you navigate these situations honestly.

Frequently asked questions

How do you take care of a stray pet?

Safely catch the stray pet and transport them to a shelter or veterinary clinic. Check with your local and state laws if you plan to adopt them.

Is it a good idea to take in a stray dog?

If you find a stray dog, take them to your local animal shelter or call a veterinarian or animal control. Check with your local and state laws. Many states require a certain time frame for an owner to claim a dog before you can adopt them.

What’s the difference between a stray and feral cat?

Stray cats can usually be re-socialized since they have had contact with people. Feral cats have socialized with other cats but not people. Feral cats typically fear humans and may have difficulty adjusting to indoor life.

Is it okay to bring a stray cat inside?

If you bring a stray cat inside, take them to the vet first for medical care and vaccinations. Once you bring them inside, limit their area, such as a room. Give them food and water, a litter box, scratching posts or toys for stimulation, and perches. Giving them a limited space can help them acclimate to living indoors and in a new place.

How long is a stray held?

The standard duration for keeping stray cats or dogs in an animal shelter is 72 hours if they do not have a microchip and five days if they have a microchip or collar with tags. Check with your local and state laws for an accurate duration for adopting a stray pet.