How to Handle a Stray Cat

Five Parts:Identifying a Stray CatCatching a Stray CatCaring For a Stray CatFinding the Owner of a Stray CatAdopting a Stray Cat

Sometimes it is hard to tell if a cat on the street is lost or homeless, or just taking a stroll around its neighborhood. It can be even harder to figure out what to do with a cat once you do figure out that it is lost and needs your help. Although figuring out the status and needs of a cat that you don't know can be hard, it's really important to figure these things out, as your actions could save the life of a cat that is truly in distress.

Part 1
Identifying a Stray Cat

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    Be proactive by reading lost pet ads when they get posted in your neighborhood. Be aware of descriptions of cats that have gone missing near your home. This way, if you see a cat that perfectly fits the description of a lost cat, you can investigate. Ads may be posted in a variety of locations, including coffee shops, grocery stores, and on telephone poles.
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    Look for signs of a stray if you suspect one near your home. While you can't always get a full glimpse of a scared or shy cat, you can read the signs around to get a better idea.
    • Look for shredded garbage bags overnight.
    • Pay attention to cats that are outside at an hour when most pets would have been brought in for the night.
    • Keep a look out for a cat that runs away after catching just a glimpse of you.
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    Pay attention to your own pet's behavior. Your pets may notice a cat outside before you do. Try to see what they see when they're at the window. A stray might have a routine your vigilant window-watchers have picked up on and any new cat showing up in your yard will be quickly noticed. If you notice any unusual growling or hissing coming from your window-watchers, it is likely there is another cat outside they can see.
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    Pay particular attention for strays in cold seasons. Early winter is an excellent time to notice stray cats, since they are becoming more desperate for food, and since most pets will not be venturing out as much. Be especially vigilant at this time of year.
    • Look for fresh tracks in the snow, especially when the weather is too cold for most pets to want to venture far from home and the tracks have appeared after a nighttime snowfall. You may be able to follow these tracks to a den under a porch, for example, if you're up early before they are obscured by other traffic.
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    Be able to identify a regular outdoor cat that is not lost and does not need your help by their appearance. An outdoor cat is one that is trained to go outside without running away. An outdoor cat is easy to tell apart from a stray or feral cat because of these three characteristics:
    • If it is well-groomed and fed and the cat's fur should be decently soft and clean it is probably just a regular outdoor cat. The pet's footpads will also generally be soft, while a cat that has lived outdoors for several weeks, whether stray or feral, will have very calloused feet.
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    Pay attention to a potential stray cat's behavior. An outdoor cat will generally be friendly. The pet cat should interact with people, and it may try to come inside your house. However, many pet cats are skittish and will run away if they see you, so an initial fear reaction doesn't necessarily mean the cat is homeless.
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    Call the information on any tags if you are concerned the cat may be a stray even though it has tags. Remember, however, that many pet outdoor cats will have collars with tags. If it is a veterinary clinic’s information, you will have to leave your information with them (it can be illegal for them to give you the owners info) and have them call the owner with your information. The owner can then contact you to come and pick up the cat, if it is lost, or let you know the cat is normally running the neighborhood.
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    Check whether the cat is fixed. Another clue the cat is a stray or feral, as opposed to an outdoor pet cat, is whether the cat is spayed or neutered, since intact cats are much more likely to wander and get lost or to be feral.
    • A disproportionate number of strays are tomcats, which are easy to distinguish from neutered males if his tail is lifted. The tomcat's full cheeks (jowls) are also sometimes an easy feature to spot, and toms tend to have a stockier build with shorter legs than males neutered before maturity. Feral cats can be neutered, but should be 'ear-tipped' (usually on the left) to indicate this, and likely reached maturity before they were caught and neutered (so he will have a full tomcat face and stocky build). A female stray or feral would be more difficult to differentiate, unless there is an obvious ear tip, a tattoo, or a scar on her belly.
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    Know the difference between a feral and a stray. If you see a cat in your yard, at the park, under a car, or anywhere else, you need to be able to tell if it's feral, a stray, or just an outdoor cat. A feral cat is a wild, non-domesticated cat. A stray is an indoor or outdoor pet that has been let outside and gotten lost. Unlike a regular outdoor cat, feral and stray cats aren't so easy to tell apart, but you can learn specific signs to look for.
    • A feral cat may be groomed better compared to the stray, as stray cats aren't accustomed to the outdoors. Strays may also be very undernourished compared to a feral, as they are not capable hunters.
    • If you start to feed the cat, the stray will most likely eventually bond and become your companion, or at least quickly become less fearful, while a feral cat would stay skittish. However, any stray can behave like a feral, especially if it has been lost for a long time, and behavior alone may not initially be a useful way to distinguish these cats.

Part 2
Catching a Stray Cat

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    Provide shelter, water, and catnip for a potential stray cat. This may help to keep a lost cat near you until you can help it, since the cat will certainly find these things long before you would otherwise have noticed the cat. Do not leave food out until you suspect you have a stray, since this may just attract wildlife or feed other people's pets (who may be on controlled diets).
    • Try feeding it by placing food outdoors very late at night in an area that would be accessible only to a cat (i.e., in a place with a small enough entrance to exclude larger wildlife) and seeing if it has disappeared by early the next morning. In sub-zero temperatures, oil from a tin of sardines poured over kibble works well.
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    Try to approach the stray (if the cat is, in fact, a stray). You will want to check for a license or tags for rabies. Speak softly to the cat as you approach, and maybe even bring a strong-smelling food, like tuna or dried liver. If the cat is skittish, try bending down to its level. Hold out your hand and call it with a sweet voice.
    • You may try different tones or pitches, as some cats respond better to a higher or lower voice, or even ‘meow’ sounds. This will make you seem less scary and the cat may find you more approachable.
    • Be very cautious of bites and scratches, even if the cat seems fairly relaxed. If the cat is nervous, do not push your luck. At best, you will scare it away, but you may also be injured by the cat.
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    Decide whether you want to try to catch the cat. If you cannot approach the cat, or if it doesn't have tags or a license, you will need to either try to trap the cat yourself, or call Animal Control or a local animal shelter.
    • Know the policies of the agencies or shelters. Many hold briefly, and then attempt adoption, but may euthanize if the cat does not seem adoptable. Some will offer a more humane trap-spay-release program so that unadoptable cats are returned to living outside, but won't contribute to future generations of feral cats. Shelters or your local council may or may not be able to assist directly in trapping the cat.
    • At a shelter, the cat will have a better chance at a good life than it would on the streets, will not contribute generations to the feral population, and will not die inhumanely of starvation, injuries, or exposure.
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    Buy and set up a humane animal trap designed for cats. These can be purchased for under $100 from hardware stores, or sometimes borrowed free of charge from animal control. Some feral cat colonies or cat rescues can also be called to bring out their own trap and do all the work for you.
    • Do not attempt to trap the cat using an improvised device, such as a blanket or net, as this greatly increases the chance of escape and injuries to both you and the cat.
    • Cover the trip plate and wire bottom of the trap with newspaper, so that the cat won't instinctively avoid stepping on the trip plate. Do not set the trip plate on a hair trigger, as the cat could trigger it prematurely and escape. Better to try again later than to fail once, since you may only get one shot.
    • Canned herring (not pickled), mackerel or sardines are excellent bait, and the oil will still be stinky even in freezing weather. Do not put much food in the trap, as it will just create a mess after the trap is triggered; the cat will often react with either wild panic or be frozen with fear, and it may vomit.
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    Check the trap frequently but carefully. Do not let yourself be seen if the cat is not used to you. You may scare it away at just the wrong moment. Check the trap as often as possible.
    • In exceptionally cold weather, cover the trap with a sheet or towel, then heap lots of snow over the body of the trap to help keep the cat warm and calmer once it has been trapped.
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    Take a longer approach with trapping the cat if the trap doesn't work in a day or two. Time permitting, disable the trap and establish a feeding routine near the trap. Place food outdoors at predictable times and then remove any leftovers until the next feeding, moving each feeding closer and closer to the trap.
    • Often, the cat will come to feed after dark or at dusk. Allow the cat to eat next to, and then inside, the disabled trap.
    • Covering the trap with a towel sprayed with a pheromone spray, such as Feliway, will make the place seem like a ‘safe’ area to the cat.
    • Once the cat is eating consistently inside the trap, re-enable the trap to trigger once the cat goes inside.
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    Decide what to do with the cat once it is trapped. If you do not plan to shelter the cat at home, before trapping arrange with a veterinarian or animal control agency to bring in the cat or have it picked up after trapping. In this case, keep the cat in the trap in a quiet dark area until it is transported. Make the interval between trapping and transport as short as possible, as this is extremely stressful for the cat.
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    Deal with a stray cat you come across away from your home differently. If you found the cat while driving and you cannot restrain it, signal traffic to slow down. If the cat appears hurt, and can't or won't get off the road, direct traffic around it. Be very careful so you are not injured or cause an accident. If there is no traffic, you might be able to wrap an injured, lying-in-the-road cat in a coat or pillowcase to move it off the road. Be extremely careful not to be bitten or scratched.
    • Be prepared by keeping a cat carrier and pillowcase in your car, in case you come across a lost or stray cat while you are on an errand. See Use a Cat Comfort Bag. A towel sprayed with a calming pheromone is also useful in this situation to cover the carrier after you have gotten the cat in it.
    • Take an injured cat immediately to a veterinarian or the humane society for medical care. Realize that most veterinary clinics do not have funding to help un-owned animals, and it is likely you will have to pay the medical bill. The exception to this may be a 24 emergency facility, as some have funding set aside for stray or lost animals. Call the facility first and check with them before wasting precious time taking the injured animal there. Local, well-funded humane societies will have veterinarians on staff to help the injured animal and they will try to find the owner. This may be your best bet for getting emergency care for a critically injured stray.

Part 3
Caring For a Stray Cat

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    Realize that a cat will try to do everything to get away from you, including twisting, curling, scratching with any leg, and biting. Be extremely careful, and use heavy gloves, as long as you can still hold with them. It is also a good idea to have some help, especially from an experienced cat handler.
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    Take hold of a stray cat cautiously. This is absolutely not advised unless you have previous experience in handling ill-tempered cats. Ideally, you should be able to throw a thick towel, blanket, or pillowcase over the cat and scoop it up. If you have no other choice but to put your hands on the cat to pick it up or put it in a carrier be very cautious, calm, and strategic.
    • The cat’s claws are directed towards the front, so try to get behind it. Scruff the cat at the neck with your dominant hand, making sure you get an immediate and firm handful. This can be much more difficult with tomcats or obese cats, as they have less scruff. With your other hand immediately push down on the cats back until you can get a hold of both back legs in your second hand. You may try immediately to go for the back legs, but you may miss.
    • Stretch your arms apart as far as you can, lift the cat, and put it rear-end first into a carrier. The carrier should be sitting on its end, so you can drop the cat in and quickly close the door on top of it. Hold the door down with one hand and the carrier braced with your legs, until you can securely latch the door.
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    Create a safe place for the cat to rest and live, while determining where the cat will go. Prepare for your guest. If you plan to keep the cat for at least a few days while you try to find the owner, get a 'safe room' ready. Ideally, the room should be escape-proof, quiet, unused, easily cleaned, and almost completely empty. Bathrooms and fully-enclosed porches work well.
    • The only things that should be in the room are a comfortable seat for you (to sit in quietly while the cat becomes used to you), one comfortable, but not too secluded, hiding place for the cat (a cat carrier is ideal, water, and litter. A scratching post, toys, and a window might be nice, but the cat will probably be too stressed to make use of any of these.
    • Do not provide any food in the room unless you are in it. Always bring the food in personally, and, if the cat will allow, sit in the room while the cat eats. Food is your best tool to earn trust.
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    Isolate the cat from other animals in the home. Your safe room should have zero access to the other animals in your household, including being able to smell each other under doors, as disease can pass this way. You should use different clothing in the stray cat's area, as you can transfer disease, such as viruses and parasites, on clothing and shoes to your other animals in the household, especially other cats. Always wash your hands and any other exposed skin after leaving the safe room.
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    Be cautious when releasing the cat from the trap or carrier into their safe room. Wear protective clothing on your face and hands, bring the trap into your safe room, and position it away from you so the cat will be released in the direction of its designated hiding place. Most cats will scurry right into the hiding spot, but some will attempt escape. They can be amazingly quick, even jumping right over you to get out the door, so keep it closed. Aggression is less likely, but can be possible. A cat with its ears flat, eyes showing white or with pupils very wide, a crouched/hunched/muscles bunched/ready-to-strike appearance, hissing/growling, and moving towards you slowly with head down are all signs of which you should take heed and get out of the room.
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    Allow the cat to calm down for a few hours. Once they have calmed down a bit, enter the room quietly, bringing food and a camera. Try to get a good look at the cat, and ideally a good photo, so you can immediately begin to search for an owner.
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    Allow the cat to set the pace for all future interactions. Do not force it out of its hiding spot, or touch it if it is frightened. Allow it to eat alone if it will not eat in your presence, but be sure it sees that you provide the food.
    • Establishing a regular schedule will allow the cat to anticipate your visits, making your entry much less frightening, and it will begin to associate your visit with the appearance of the food. Sit in your chair and read quietly for a few minutes, at least a few times a day. Try to be as non-threatening as possible: move slowly, stay as 'small' as you can by crouching, do not make eye contact, close your eyes and pretend to sleep, stay quiet or speak very quietly.
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    Try to touch the cat once it is used to you and the new room. This is an expression of trust that often brings about a transformation in a formerly tame stray. This can also be a very risky move however, particularly if the cat you have trapped is a genuine feral. Leather gloves are a good safety precaution, but can also be frightening, especially if they are bulky or are not worn consistently.
    • Do not attempt this unless you are very good at reading cat body language, and don't push you luck by ignoring warnings from the cat (notice pupils, ears, tail, head and shoulder position, all from a cat who may still be cowering in the back corner of the hiding spot).
    • Start by slowly extending your hand to place a very tasty treat near the cat. Get the treat as close to the cat as you can before it cringes, growls, or otherwise acts threatened. Do not throw the treat or extend your fingers. Repeat, bringing your hand closer as the cat allows. Eventually, you may be able to bring your hand near enough that the cat will smell it. Allow this, then retract your hand.
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    Look for cues that the cat is done being touched. When you do touch the cat, be very careful, watching and listening for any clue that the cat is about to react badly. At this point, most strays will allow you to touch them without being aggressive, and virtually all will give a warning signal. Ideally, you'll get a few different levels of warning, a hiss may progress to a growl (or vice versa), and you may be able to ignore a brief hiss as long as it doesn't escalate to a growl.
    • Sometimes, physical contact will immediately clarify your intentions to the cat and it will remember how great being a pet is. Otherwise, at least the cat will become used to being handled, and may come to enjoy being petted once it has experienced several successful sessions.
    • Cats that have been abused or who have a painful injury can be unpredictable, especially if you hit a sensitive spot, so go slowly.
    • Some cats love to be scratched around the ears and under the chin, but hate being touched at the base of their tail, and vice versa. A safe first place may be at their shoulder blades or whatever they rub on you first.
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    Assess whether you have actually captured a stray. A cat that will let you touch it within 2-3 weeks of several brief daily sessions of interaction in your safe room is likely a stray and can probably be re-tamed. If, however, you have found a true feral and have not become friends within a couple of weeks, do not attempt to tame it. The cat will never be entirely at ease living with humans, and would be far happier living outdoors with appropriate care.
    • The cat's medical needs should be addressed before you release it (including vaccinations and especially neutering). You may then want to try to re-home the cat to a farm (with permission!) or a managed feral colony. You may otherwise provide it with ongoing food, water, and shelter yourself. Cats are not well-suited to survive severe winters, and feral cats in cold climates require extra care, including a source of liquid water (a heated water bowl).

Part 4
Finding the Owner of a Stray Cat

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    Tell all your neighbors about the cat. They might know the neighborhood pets, and they can contact you if they figure out who the owner is. You may even get lucky and directly contact the owner of the cat you have found.
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    Take the cat into the vet to scan for a microchip ID. If the cat is microchipped, then your search for their owner will be much easier. If it is not microchipped, you will have to use other methods to find its owner.
    • You may also want to get the veterinarian to do a check-up on the stray cat if you notice any unusual habits or symptoms.
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    Contact shelters right away. The first thing an owner will probably do is contact a shelter to see if a cat has come in or if someone else has reported that they have a stray cat. The shelter may also be able to answer any questions you have about the cat and make suggestions of what you should do next.
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    Put posters up in pet stores, vet clinics, and anywhere else you can. The best poster says FOUND in the largest possible font right across the entire width of the page, and include a photo of the cat's face. This will get the attention of anyone who has lost a similar cat.
    • Your contact details can be in very small print, since the owner will certainly stop and read.
    • Do not include a picture of the entire cat, or other identifying details, as anyone can then describe the cat and claim it as the owner. The person might not be the owner and may have cruel intentions.
    • It is also okay to put a general location of where the cat was found on the poster, as this may provide a clue to the owner or one of their friends that this may be the lost cat, if it is not far from their home.
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    Check your local newspaper's classifieds for ‘lost pet’ ads. You can also put a 'found' ad in some local papers (this is often free) stating you found a stray cat, with some of the same information placed on the poster, but hold back more personal details.
    • Give a very basic description, such as “Found: black and white cat, owner call to identify.” Do not give all the details, as the owner should provide those details to you.
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    Ask anyone who tries to claim the cat questions to verify the match. They should be able to tell you the cat's gender, age, foot pad colors, tail tip color, belly color, etc. If you have had the cat for awhile, ask the potential owner how long the cat has been gone.
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    Think about whether you believe the owner is a responsible owner. Would you return a child to a home with unfit parents or call social services? When identifying the cat over the phone, you may want to slip in some telling questions such as: Is your pet neutered? How old is it? How long has it been missing? Do the math, and you'll know if this person allowed their pet to reach maturity and roam without being neutered. Can you provide vaccination/medical records for the cat, or ask your vet to contact me so that I can verify these? These documents often include a basic description or even a photo of the cat, so it's excellent proof of ownership.
    • Responsible owners will appreciate that you are being careful of their pet's safety, and should provide this information. Irresponsible owners may not have had their pet vaccinated recently, if ever. This may be the time to involve the local animal authority. Tell the owner that the animal can be picked up at the shelter, and when you drop off the cat, notify the shelter about your concerns and provide them any information you can on the owner, such as name and phone number. They will hopefully be able to take appropriate action, such as requiring that the pet be neutered and vaccinated before being adopted back out to the owner.

Part 5
Adopting a Stray Cat

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    Try to find the owner of the cat after you have it safely sequestered. If you want to adopt the cat if no owner shows up, this may be one of the things your state requires you to do before they can claim ownership. Even if you would really like to keep the cat, try your best to find their owner. Remember that if it was your cat, you would want it returned to you.
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    Wait for a month before giving up the search for an owner. If no owner is found after a month, go to the same animal shelter you notified about the stray and either decide to care for the cat, making you the owner, or to give the cat to the shelter.
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    Have the cat spayed or neutered, tested for diseases, and fully vaccinated before allowing it to mingle with any other cats in your household. Most stray cats are not already ‘fixed’. Not being fixed is actually likely the reason they became lost in the first place, since intact pets are more inclined to roam and fight.
    • This is also the only way to be certain it will never add to the enormous problem of surplus cats and kittens.
    • Your veterinarian will be able to tell you which tests to run and what vaccines should be given. Take care that your other animals are fully vaccinated, as well.
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    Feel good that you have helped a frightened, starving cat find a safe place. You have prevented it from suffering the hardships of a life on the streets it was never suited to survive.


  • If you want to feed the cat, offer frequent but small amounts of canned cat food or tuna with a small amount of water added. Outside cats are often dehydrated cats, and adding water to canned food will add to their water intake. This is why so many look dirty and un-groomed. They cannot groom themselves if they have not been drinking enough water. Giving cat ‘soup’ will often result in a rapid improvement in a cat's health and appearance. Set out a small bowl of dry cat food in the daytime. The cat might come to be attached to you, especially if it's stray.
  • Remember that cats carry diseases, like FIV and FELV. Theses can transmit these to other cats and can cause very serious health problems. Before taking in a cat, you should make sure you take care of your own first! This includes protecting them from strays and ferals, and having them fully vaccinated.
  • Stray and feral cats are prone to disease if they are not vaccinated and wormed. Symptoms of illness can include: runny nose and eyes, sneezing and coughing, difficulty breathing or loud sounds when breathing, sunken eyes, protruding bones and thin body condition, flaky or dry skin, hair loss, vomiting, diarrhea, refusal to eat or drink, and difficulty moving or moving a few steps then laying down again. Any of these signs indicate the animal needs medical attention soon.
  • If the cat bites or scratches you, leave it alone for a while then when it's been about half an hour, go back into the room and walk slowly, and speak softly. Make sure the cat doesn't have any warning signs. If they do, take a step or two farther, or just leave the room.
  • Always make sure you care for the cat no matter how awful it is.


  • If you do give the cat to the shelter and no one claims the cat, they may euthanize it (in other words put the cat to sleep). If this is not your intention, make sure to drop the cat off at a ‘no-kill shelter’, instead of one that euthanizes unclaimed pets.[1][2] Encourage cat owners you know to think about adopting a second (or third) cat to provide homes for cats that would otherwise be euthanised. Maybe you have a single cat yourself? Most cats will come to appreciate the extra companionship, and sometimes a third cat can add balance to a pair that aren't perfectly suited (e.g., adding a playful third cat to a pair where only one likes to wrestle takes a lot of pressure off of the less-playful 'victim').
  • If the cat doesn't have tags and it bites you, contact your doctor. You might be advised to get rabies shots. Try not to do anything that will make the cat bite you, such as grabbing at or holding the cat if it is showing fear or aggression. If the cat has already been captured and is in your safe room, just keep it in the cage or room as it may need to be tested for rabies. Rabies is 100% fatal in humans, and a cat bite should not be taken lightly if you are unsure of the cat’s vaccination history and exposure to wildlife.[3][4]

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Categories: Animal Rescue