What to do if you find a lost or stray cat
Many people have outdoor-access cats so it can be difficult to determine if a roaming cat is homeless, lost or abandoned. In some places, there are also outdoor-only cats such as barn cats or managed feral cat colonies. If a cat starts showing up at your house, it could just be a new cat living in the neighborhood. Even if a cat is in poor condition, don’t be too quick to assume that they are abandoned or homeless. Before adopting, re-homing or bringing the stray cat to the shelter, see if you can find the cat’s owner.
Unfortunately, very few cats are ever found by their owners once at the shelter. Shelters generally see a return-to-owner (RTO) rate of less than 5% for cats compared to 10-30% for lost dogs. Most cats also get extremely stressed in the shelter environment and are likely to develop upper respiratory infections. For these reasons, it is not recommended to bring a found stray cat to the shelter unless it appears in need of medical attention.
- If the cat is in a safe situation (such as hanging out in a neighborhood) and does not appear ill or injured, you may choose to leave the cat outside while you search for the owner. If you want to keep the cat coming around, give them some food.
- Try the Paper Collar Method. If the cat is friendly, create a thin paper collar for the cat and write the following message: “Is this your cat? (Your phone number.) We’re going to take him to the shelter. Please call!” The owner may not know that their cat is wandering and/or trying to get in other people’s homes. Hopefully, they will call you. If the cat comes back without a collar, try again because you don’t know if the cat lost the collar or someone else removed it. You can also try this method with an actual cat collar, preferably the “break-away” safety kind.
- If you are concerned for the cat’s safety, but the cat otherwise appears in good health, you might choose to keep the cat inside while you search for the owner.
- If that cat appears ill or injured, either call Animal Control or safely catch the cat yourself and bring them to a shelter or rescue group. Be aware that in many small towns, Animal Control may not deal with stray cats, but they should be able to refer you to someone that will help.
- If the cat is wearing a collar, check for any ID tags or a phone number embroidered on the collar. See below for information on tracking down an owner through a license or rabies tag.
- Bring the cat to a vet or shelter to scan for a microchip. See below for more information.
- Call your local Animal Control Officer and/or Police Station to report the found cat. Also contact any local shelters or rescue groups to let them know and see if anyone is looking for the cat. Try PetFinder.com for a list of groups.
- Many lost cats don’t travel far. Create Found Cat flyers and distribute them in the neighborhood at least 1/4 mile out. Also send them to local vets and put them up at local businesses, especially pet-related ones.
- Create florescent Found Cat posters and put them up in the area that you found the stray cat. Put these up over at least 1/4 mile and up to 2 miles from the location found.
- Post the found cat online. See this page for Online Posting sites.
How to safely catch a stray cat
Many times when you find a stray cat it is because the cat starts hanging out around your home. In this case, try putting out some food to see if the cat will approach you and eat. Often the safest and easiest way to catch the stray cat is to lure them inside your house with some food. Make sure to secure other pets and don’t let your pets interact with a strange cat.
Be very careful if you attempt to pick up a stray cat. Some cats will panic and you could get severely scratched or bitten. If you are bitten, be sure to seek medical attention since cat bites can result in serious infections. You may also need to get a rabies vaccination if the stray cat cannot be quarantined for observation to ensure that they do not have rabies. If the cat will let you touch them, consider picking them up by wrapping them in a towel or blanket. If you want to be extra safe, then lure the cat into a cat carrier, dog kennel or humane cat trap using some food or treats.
If the cat will not let you approach them, then you may need to use a humane cat trap. For more information, see Best Humane Cat Traps and Trapping Resources. You may also be interested in the Trapping Checklist for Lost Cats available in the Lost Pet Research Store. If you do trap a cat and it panics when trapped, this does not mean that the cat is feral or un-owned. Many cats, especially skittish or escaped indoor-only cats, will panic when trapped. Because stray cats don’t get the same attention as a loose dog, a lost cat can easily be missing for months before they are found and taken in. Fortunately, most lost cats do not travel far. Even microchipped cats found years after they went missing are often found within one mile of their home.
How to Return a Found Cat to their Rightful Owner or Guardian
If you choose to find the owner yourself, make sure to keep yourself and the found cat safe. Don’t just hand the cat over to the first person that claims to be the owner.
- When someone calls claiming to be the owner, ask them to describe the cat in detail. Are there any identifying markings or unique behaviors?
- Prior to meeting, request some proof of ownership such as photos of them with the found cat. If possible, also request to see vet records (e.g. receipts are often provided after vet care that include a description of the pet), adoption papers or town license registration.
- Meet the individual during the day, in a public location and don’t go alone.
- Transport the cat in a cat carrier or humane cat trap and do NOT take the cat out unless you are in a secure location where the cat cannot escape. The last thing you want is for the newly found cat to go missing again in a strange location.
How to find a cat’s owner using only a license or rabies tag
Unfortunately, very few cats wear collars and fewer still have ID tags. If the cat has a license or rabies tag, you can use this to track down the owner. For a rabies tag, call the vet listed and give them the number and year of the tag. For a license, call the Animal Control Officer or Town Clerk of the town listed on the tag and give them the number and year of the tag. In either case, they will either give you the pet owner’s phone number or more likely ask for your contact information and attempt to contact the owner themselves. Some microchipped cats will have an ID tag with the microchip number; there is usually also a phone number to call and report the pet lost. If not, see the instructions below on finding an owner using a microchip number.
How to find a cat’s owner using a microchip
First you need to find out if the stray cat has a microchip by bringing them somewhere they can be scanned such as a shelter, veterinary office or vaccination clinic. If a microchip is found, the vet or shelter may be able to look up the microchip information, and help you locate the owner. If they just give you the microchip number, then you can enter this into the AAHA Universal Pet Microchip Lookup to determine where it is registered. Once you know where the microchip is registered, you then need to contact that company and give them the microchip number. They will either give you the pet owner’s number (if they have permission to do so) and/or contact the pet owner themselves and give them your contact information.
Unfortunately, many people do not properly register their microchips or keep the contact information up-to-date. Be aware that you may end finding a previous owner and not the most recent owner via microchip information. If the found cat has an unregistered microchip or one with incomplete or inaccurate information, you may be able to track down the owner with a little detective work of your own. Check out this article to learn more. Or try contacting Microchip Hunters, a volunteer group which provides assistance in tracking down unregistered microchips or ones with out-of-date contact information.
Microchip Registries and Look-Up Directories
There are many different companies selling microchips and many microchip registries on the internet. Not all registries include all registered microchips. You may need to try several before you can find where a microchip is registered.
AAHA Universal Pet Microchip Lookup – not a microchip registry itself, but allows you to search by microchip number to determine where the microchip is registered. Contains many but not all microchip companies. Most notably, does not include Avid.
PETMAXX – contains links to international lost pet microchip databases
If you cannot find a registered microchip using one of the search tools listed above, this InfoPet page provides information on how to determine where a microchip is manufactured. However, just because a microchip was manufactured by Home Again doesn’t mean that it is registered with that company. It probably is, but it may also be registered on one of many free or paid microchip registry sites.
Most other registries will only bring up pets registered with that particular company!
24PetWatch Pet Protection Services (866-597-2424)
AKC Reunite (800-252-7894)
Avid EuroChip (800-336-2843)
Avid (Canada) (800-338-1397)
Digital Angel (800-328-0118)
Found Animals (855-PET-CHIP)
Microchip ID Systems Inc. (985-898-0772)
M4S ID/PetIDGreen (877-738-4384)
National Dog Registry (800-NDR-DOGS) – also does tattoo registry
Petstablished (855-684-3184 Ext.103)