Celia Haddon - Cat Expert

Understanding animals through their behaviour


Cats have a sixth sense about the kind of owners they need and, if they choose us, we should feel privileged — even if they do cause us a great deal of trouble and expense!

1. Check if the cat has an owner. Ask neighbours in your street and adjoining streets. Ring the local vet to see if somebody has reported losing their cat. Ring local RSPCA and Cats Protection to see if they have a lost/found register. Put up a notice in the local shop. Put a photo on the Pets Located website here and on Facebook, neighbourhood websites, Twitter, Next Door. If the cat can be handled, cut a strip of white paper and write a message on it asking the cat’s owner to ring you. Fix this round its neck with sellotape. There’s a pdf available for this on the RSPCA website here.  This is very important. Sometimes people lose their cats because somebody picks them up as a stray, hands in the cat to a cat rescue, which holds it for four or five days and then rehomes it.

2. The next stage in rescuing/helping a stray cat is to start regular feeding, same time and same place somewhere where the cat feels safe. Keep dogs and other cats out of the way. The cat must begin to associate you with the food. If the cat is in bad condition feed it kitten food to get its strength back. Make water available too. You can install an outdoor kennel for shelter if it will not come in the house – see here.

3. After about one to two months, it should start becoming more clear if this is a strayed pet cat or a wild feral cat which will never be tame. If it is a feral, you can make it into an outdoor pet but do not expect it ever to be really tame. But it is essential to neuter or spay it, to protect it from endless fights or kitten bearing. Ring Cats Protection or your local rescue, tell them you will take responsibility for it, and ask to borrow a cat trap. While it is at the vet’s being neutered, ask him to check for FIV or Feline leukaemia. If it tests positive, this cat may spread disease to all neighbouring cats so euthanasia should be considered. Also get it defleaed, earmited, vaccinated etc. while at the vet. Ask the vet to check for a microchip in case it has/had an owner. If the cat is healthy (ie: not FIV positive), and you return it to the original site, you must also find it a dry place to sleep — a cat flap into a shed, an adapted rabbit hutch (left open), or a box under a shed.

4. If it is a stray cat, it will start becoming tame and you can take it into your house. Put it in the spare room to quarantine it and get it to a vet as soon as possible for neutering/spaying, flea, worm and mite treatment, and (if you already have cats) check for FIV or Feline Leukaemia. Otherwise it may spread disease to your existing cats. Ask the vet to  check if it has been microchipped , a sign of an original loving home. If so, you may be able to restore it to its original owners.

5. When introducing a stray cat to a new home keep the cat in the one room, with the door closed with litter and bedding until it seems to feel secure there. Only then leave the door open. Do not attempt to get it to use a cat flap, until it is secure in the whole house. Forcing it to do things will make its fear more. This must be taken very slowly indeed. Look at the FAQ about introducing new cats.

6. If you decide to keep the stray cat, the secret of taming cats, is never to approach them but let them come to you. I would start by feeding at set times and remaining in the room while they eat, at what is a safe distance for them. Over the weeks, move very slightly nearer to the food bowls, until you are putting out the bowls near you and they feel confident enough to approach you in order to eat.

Get some really good cat treats or some chicken or prawns for use while you are sitting still watching TV. Put the treat at a distance safe enough for the cats and over the weeks slowly close the distance. Eventually the cats will come to you looking for the treats. After several months, you may be able to stroke the cats gently down the back while they eat their food or eat a treat.

Patience is essential because if you go too fast and they get really frightened, taming them may be set back for several weeks. Rehabilitating truly terrified cats is hard work, but it is wonderfully rewarding to see them regain trust and happiness. I plan to post an article about taming nervous cats on this website soon.

Various readers have reminded me that a continuous flow of gentle talk, while taming a cat is helpful in accustoming it to human company. Gentle play, with something like a long piece of string, will also help with a young adult or kitten.

7. If you decide to hand over a stray cat to a rescue shelter, do check what will happen to it. Euthanasia policies differ. You cannot assume that all rescue shelters will keep an elderly or sick cat. Some have them put down. You can always hand over the cat, then offer to take it back if it is not, say, claimed after two months. Also offer a donation. All animal rescues are really short of money.

If you are thinking of going in for cat rescue, there is a  booklet on the control of feral cats obtainable from the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare.  A free book about feral cats is available here.

The Cat Rescue Manual is available from www.icatcare.org  This is a key document for anybody starting to rescue cats. It is very important not to let cat rescuing become cat hoarding – a situation which is disastrous for cat welfare. You must be organised, financed properly and sensible enough not to take on more than you can handle. There’s a talk about trapping by Lis of Sunshine Cat Rescue here. And guidelines here.

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