Someone recently asked me if it’s OK to pick up a stray cat.
Here’s my answer: It is never OK to pick up any cat unless they’re your own.
There are safe ways to proceed if you are concerned about the welfare of a cat you see outside. But never run over and try to pick them up.
Reasons to Be Cautious
- Cats can hurt people badly. Expert veterinarians, animal health technicians and animal inspectors still suffer a bad cat bite or scratch on occasion, even when all precautions have been taken. My clients get hurt by their own cats when the cat feels trapped or scared, like when they are forced into a cat carrier. A stray, feral or terrified cat can turn on a dime. Caution is the word of the day when approaching an unknown cat!
- Cats carry disease. You could be exposed to zoonotic diseases (diseases spread from animals to humans), or you could expose your cats at home to feline diseases when handling a cat with an unknown background.
- Are they really a stray? Only the cat knows for sure, and they are often incommunicative on that subject! A neighbor could become very upset if you bring their cat into your home and they are outside looking for the cat, posting signs, etc.
First and foremost, your safety is at stake because cat bites can be nasty. The cat’s life may also be in jeopardy if they attack you. There are serious legal and public health issues if you get hurt by a stray cat.
Unknown rabies status of any animal who bites or draws blood on a human can mean serious repercussions. A vet or local animal inspector might be legally compelled to quarantine or actually recommend euthanizing the cat because they bit you.
Proceed With Caution
Cats are mysterious creatures. Even a “friendly” cat might be freaked out because they are lost or scared, and may act out aggressively. Never judge a cat by watching their demeanor for 30 seconds and think you have it figured out.
Feline personalities have no rules. They can be fabulous or freaky, friendly or fickle, frightened or frightful. Based on your experience and expertise, you need to either get a rescue group involved or plan how to safely transport this cat to a veterinarian.
Your Plan With This Cat
What is your motive? Many people see a cat outside and assume they have no home when they may actually live a quarter mile away and has only recently decided to “visit” you. Here are some things to think about:
- Does this cat look sick, and are you concerned about their welfare? Do they need acute medical care? If that’s the case, are you prepared to try and bring them to a vet or get a feline rescue group involved? Can you safely get this cat in a carrier, or will you get hurt? Are you willing to take financial responsibility for this cat?
- Has this cat been hanging around your house or garage for a while, and you wish to adopt them? Most people in this situation begin feeding the cat outside or in an outbuilding, assess the personality and health status from afar and begin a relationship with the cat.
The next step is to call your vet and make a safe plan of how to get this cat to them. I appreciate a client/potential adopter who calls and gives me a heads-up about the fact they may be bringing in a stray.
The Stray Visit
When someone brings me a “stray,” here is my list for them to consider:
- Check for a microchip (we do this free of charge).
- Counsel them on how to check to see if the cat actually has a home through shelters, social media, etc.
- Warn them not to allow this cat to have physical contact with their cats until more is known about the cat’s health status.
- Do a physical exam, checking overall health status, fleas, ear mites, etc.
- Perform an Felv/FIV test (done in-house and results available immediately).
- Get or request a fecal sample for a parasite check.
- Perform other tests if indicated.
- Give a minimum of vaccines, a rabies vaccine and an FVRCP, if the cat is healthy.
Learn more about cat scratch disease (bartonellosis) in this video:
You know already if you’re a cat person or not. I personally believe being a cat person is not only a special gift but it’s possible it can’t be learned. Cats rule their own universe. They rule their world and tolerate us only when we fit into their feline sphere.
So is it OK to pick up a stray cat? No — never on impulse. But after a careful assessment by you, a dose of patience and the phase of the feline moon, you can proceed with caution, try and befriend the feline in your shed that has you intrigued, and then do the right thing: Get the cat to the vet.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed July 25, 2018.