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Caring for Community, Stray & Feral Cats

striped cat cat with a clipped ear

In the animal rescue world, “community cats” refers to any cat you see outdoors that does not have an indoor home. These cats typically fall into two primary categories:

  1. Those that could be considered “feral”, meaning they were born outdoors and that’s the only life they know. Therefore, they lack socialization and don’t always trust humans.
  2. Those that were previously socialized to people or had a home with humans, but they no longer do. These may seem to approach people more easily or may be friendlier when put back in a home.

How do I identify a community cat?

The first step in helping community cats is identifying them!

If you notice a cat has a tipped ear, it’s a good indicator that they were involved in a trap-neuter-return program — commonly referred to as “TNR”.

TNR is done by local animal rescuers as a population management tool to keep community cat populations from growing. Animal welfarists trap community cats, bring them to local shelters or veterinary clinics, have them spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and return them to their colonies. The ear tipping is done at the time of their spay or neuter surgery and is an easy way for the locals to recognize a community cat. Keep in mind, an ear-tipped cat doesn’t always mean the cat is feral! Some TNR practitioners will ear-tip any community cat, while others will only ear-tip unsocialized cats.

If you see a cat who does not have a tipped ear, but sightings of them outdoors are reoccurring, look for signs that the cat has a home—such as a collar or whether the cat is wearing a bell. These are common signs that the cat is free-roaming, but has a human caring for him. If you’re able to approach the cat and don’t see these signs, consider putting a collar with a note on the cat to see if his or her family responds. If you’re concerned about the cat’s safety or otherwise decide to remove the cat from outdoors, be sure to post Found Cat signs around the neighborhood and file a Found Cat report with your local animal shelter.

What do I do if someone abandons a cat near me?

The first thing to do if you witness a domesticated cat being abandoned is to report it to your local authorities. They can inform you of your local animal abandonment laws, as it may be a punishable offense and local authorities may need to witness the circumstances. Next, help make sure the cat is safe. Provide food, water and a safe place for the cat to sleep, preferably indoors and away from other animals.

Once the cat is safe, it’s important to contact your local animal shelter to file a “found” report. While the cat may have been abandoned by his or her current family, a prior family may be out there and still looking for the cat. Besides filing a report, your local shelter may be able to assist you with any further questions you have about caring for the community cat.

Learn more about how to help abandoned cats and kittens here.

How do I help abandoned kittens or kittens born outside?

If you find a litter of kittens or notice one within your community cat population, consider how you might get them indoors (if this is possible for you). This includes the mother cat, as she will need to feed and tend to her babies for the first couple of months of their lives. Community cats should be kept separate from your household pets and should see the veterinarian as soon as possible.

If this isn’t feasible for you or is only a very temporary solution, you’ll want to reach out to your local shelter or local rescue groups who can potentially offer you resources.

To find out more about how to help abandoned kittens, check out our article Caring for Stray and Abandoned Kittens.

Want to get more involved in helping community cats?

Here are some things you can do:

    1. Knock on the hood of your car in colder months and encourage others to do the same.
      What’s one thing every cat has in common, whether they’re a community cat or a domesticated indoor cat? They love to stay warm! The options for how to do so are limited for community cats, which is why they sometimes nuzzle underneath the hood of cars where the engine provides shelter from the wind. Starting the car before the cat exits can be dangerous and sometimes life-threatening.To help make sure no community cats are nestled in your engine before you start it, give the hood of your car a few knocks before you start the ignition, especially in the winter months. The idea is to startle any kitties who were seeking some warmth, giving them enough time to exit to safety.Encourage your friends to do the same! Bring this issue to their attention by sharing this article about cats who get stuck in the engine of cars!


    1. Get involved in TNR efforts.
      Many experts agree the most effective way to reduce the community cat population is by implementing trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs.Try contacting your local shelter or an animal rescue to inquire about TNR or low-cost spay/neuter programs in your area. Some local shelters provide these services to their communities directly, and if they don’t they can likely point you in the right direction.TNR cannot be done successfully without the help of kind, generous volunteers willing to do what it takes to help the cats in their community. Learn more about TNR and feral cat programs here.


    1. Build and maintain community cat housing
      The winter months can be incredibly rough for a community cat, but there are ways we can help to keep them safe!If you have a dog house, this could be converted to a community cat shelter in the winter months with some modifications. If you don’t have a dog house, you can easily purchase or build a community cat shelter. By using straw to line the inside of your shelter, the cats in your community will have a safe, warm place to retreat to when the temperatures dip.


  1. Provide clean food and drinkable water, especially during winter months
    An issue that arises when providing food and water to cats during the winter months is freezing. There are plenty of tips you can utilize to make sure they’re getting their daily fill, like:•  refilling bowls often (at least twice a day is ideal)
    •  making the water hot to start so it takes longer to freeze
    •  spraying the underside of bowls with insulation foam (both food bowls and water bowls)
    •  adding a bit of sugar to the water (which slows the freezing process. Who knew?!)If you feed at the same times every day, the cats will learn when they should come out of their warm shelters to eat. Wet food is easier for cats to digest, and that saves them some energy which allows for their bodies to focus on keeping warm. Leave them dry food as well, in case the wet food freezes.

Learn more about winter care for community cats.

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