How to Get Rid of Stray Cats (and What NOT To Do)

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NOTE: Before we go any further, we should make it clear that this topic requires a different approach than we normally do here at RMC. Why? Because cats are highly intelligent critters that have led to a lot of debate regarding their status as pets, pests, and what regulations (if any) should be applied. Additionally, the matter of stray cats is entirely man-made, unlike most critter problems.

As a result, expect the information to be structured a little differently than normal, and there will be an additional section at the end that provides some more personal wisdom on this topic. If you find this special format more helpful, please let us know and we’ll use it for similar topics (such as stray dogs) in future.

Cats are a controversial topic among all sorts of groups, from pet lovers to legislators. This is because cats don’t fit into the normal definition of a pet.

They’re called domestic (i.e. Felis domesticus), yet aren’t actually domesticated. They also draw ire from dog lovers because the old saying “dogs have wonders, cats have staff” is often quite true.

Cats will never accept an inferior role to humans and their loyalty has to be earned. However, when a cat chooses you as their companion, it is a rich and rewarding experience that can last a lifetime.

The big problem comes when humans realize that adopting a cat isn’t the same as a dog or hamster. Even worse, when finances get rough, cats are often the first to be sacrificed without any regard to the consequences.

Stray cats are a very real problem that parallels human homelessness (and gets the same bad press), but it’s a problem that’s much easier to remedy. So let’s look at stray carts in more detail, how to tell if you really are dealing with a stray, and a number of ways to solve the problem without further harming what is already a victim of human negligence.

The Skinny on Strays

feral cat
Feral cat

There are four kinds of cats you’ll encounter outdoors: indoor cats, outdoor cats, ferals, and strays. It’s important to know the difference between these four before attempting to intervene, even though many of the methods are the same.

Stray Cat vs Feral Cat

There’s no better place to begin than by distinguishing between a stray and feral cat. The most obvious difference is that feral cats are afraid of humans, while strays are more friendly.

However, this isn’t always true, as ferals are known to approach humans they know have food and some strays are known to flee humans due to abuse. Still, this is often a good starting point.

Ferals can start off as abused or neglected strays, but they can also be the offspring of strays or ferals. Meanwhile, strays are cats who have previously cohabitated with humans and became displaced or homeless due to circumstances often beyond their control.

One of the most important considerations, however, is the risk of disease. Strays often have vaccinations and less exposure to potential disease, but a feral can have all sorts of parasites and diseases, as well as possible infections from fighting.

Cats are naturally crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at dusk and dawn. However, this natural behavior changes greatly when dealing with humans.

A stray will have a more diurnal (daytime) activity pattern while ferals will have a nocturnal (nighttime) schedule to avoid human contact. While still not a perfect way to tell strays and ferals apart on its own, their active periods can be a great indicator.

So, in brief, look for signs of previous human companionship, such as collars or groomed fur. Pay attention to their behavior when approached by humans. And always use caution if you aren’t sure whether the cat is a stray or feral to have minimal risk of disease exposure.

See Also: Do Foxes Eat Cats?

How to Tell If a Cat Is a Stray

Building on what we mentioned in the previous section, stray cats have previously had (and possibly enjoyed) human companionship. Here’s a small checklist of ways to identify if the cat is a stray.

  • Does the cat have a collar?
  • Does the cat tend to stick to a particular small range or block (more common in rural areas)?
  • Is the cat friendly or seem to approach a certain person more often than others?
  • Were you able to confirm that this is a neighbor’s cat – and if so, is it an indoor or outdoor cat?
  • If the cat appears to be an uncommon breed or pedigree or has longer fur, does it look like they’ve been to a groomer recently?
  • Is the cat microchipped? (You’ll need to have a vet examine it to find out)

Again, there are times when these signs won’t be visible, such as when an indoor cat accidentally gets stuck outside (often no collar), the cat was abused, or if they were abandoned.

What Does It Mean If a Stray Cat Follows You?

cat follows you home

There are three major reasons a stray cat might follow you around. The first is pretty obvious – the cat believes you will provide food. This particular pitfall is an easy one to fall into and can either make you a quick friend or an annoying tag-along (sometimes both).

Another reason is that the cat has adopted you and wants you to be its companion. This is no different from you going to a pet store and choosing a dog you like (well, except for the fact that the dog won’t pay for your food and toiletries). Depending on your outlook, this can be a good or bad thing.

The third reason is a double-edged sword. A cat may approach you looking for help because it (or another cat) is injured and needs medical attention. It’s not uncommon for a mother to seek out a human she feels is friendly to help her sick kitten, for example.

However, this can also backfire, as many with cat allergies can tell you – Cats can sense an allergic reaction and want to comfort you not realizing they’re the source of said reaction.

Are There Any Benefits to Having a Stray Cat Around?

There can be quite a few benefits, even if you have an allergy. For instance, cats tend to be avid hunters and will get rid of those rats, lizards, and other unwanted critters from your yard and garden.

A cat’s purr is known to ease stress and have a calming effect on humans. You may even end up mutually adopting each other.

What About the Disadvantages of Having Stray Cats Around?

multiple stray cats
How much of a problem a stray becomes will have a lot to do with their individual personality and how long they’ve been a stray. On the lighter side, you may find them sitting on top of your car when you need to get to work.

They may also bring dead critters to your doorstep, which is their way of sharing food and also showing they’re a valuable asset (although you might not agree).

Sadly, this is where the pleasantries tend to end. Strays who were outdoor cats may use your garden or lawn as a personal toilet, digging it up in the process. Formerly indoor cats may poop in the sandbox as it resembles the cheap clay litter they might be used to (seriously, invest in non-clay litter – it’s healthier for you, your cat, and the environment and less risk of logs in the kids’ sandbox).

Because cats are carnivores and will return to this lifestyle when not inflicted with processed cat food, their poop can be full of pathogens and parasites, resulting in a serious health risk.

Scavenging only adds to this destruction, with gardens being torn up in search of edible critters, attacks against any visiting birds, or raids on your trash cans. As they do so, they may attract other pests, such as fleas or mites and spread the love around.

Perhaps worst of all is the caterwauling, which is that unpleasant late-night yowling that cats make when in heat. These serenades are like Vogon poetry – pleasant only to the performer and those of its kind.

While this behavior is far more common with ferals, an intact stray can get in on the fun or, if a female, may be the reason feral toms are having a concert in your backyard.

And on a final, related note, if you have an intact feline in your home, you may find the inside or outside getting marked by whichever party is the male.

See Also: What is Flea Dirt?

How to Tell If a Stray Cat Is Pregnant

pregnant cat

This can be a big problem, not simply because it means she’ll give birth to ferals, but also because there’s a big risk that your efforts to remove the cat may endanger her unborn kittens or her own life. Some common signs of a pregnant stray include:

  • Darkened nipples
  • Hard knot-like mass in the belly
  • Visible pear-shape when examined from above
  • Increased appetite paired with decreased activity

Will a Stray Cat Go Away On Its Own?

This depends, but it’s not all that common for the cat to go away on its own.

  • Pregnant females may find a more suitable spot to give birth.
  • The stray may be reunited with their human or find a new home.
  • Sometimes, a stray will vanish for unpleasant reasons, such as illness or death.
  • Finally, they may leave if they decide your property (and the ones nearby) are no longer hospitable.

Ferals are far less likely to leave of their own accord and will generally need to be trapped and released (TNR) or driven off.

Getting Rid of Stray Cats

finding stray cats
That was a lot to digest, but the good news is you can take care of your stray cat problem without resorting to violence. Here are some of the best and most effective methods available.

#1 – Find Their Human

This is the first step you should take. Take a photo and ask around. If you can find their human, it’s usually only a matter of reuniting them.

#2 – Employ Deterrents

There are a lot of great deterrents out there that will work against both cats and other critters, such as racoons. Motion-activated sprinklers (like this one) are a great example. It’s a myth that cats hate getting wet (they’re actually excellent swimmers), but that doesn’t mean they enjoy a sudden spritz.

Ultrasonic devices also work really well, but can also irritate any cats or dogs living with you. You can also buy urine crystals or place dishes of ammonia outside, although this can be quite unpleasant for your family and can have limited effect, especially if it rains.

Some plants are known to have scents that cats avoid, although their success can be hit or miss. If you have a garden, you can try planting one or more of the following:

  • Citrus plants (as well as citrus-like scented plants, including lemongrass and citronella)
  • Coleus canina (AKA the scaredy cat plant)
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Lavender
  • Pennyroyal
  • Rue
  • Thyme

You can also sprinkle used coffee grounds around nitrogen-loving plants.

#3 – Perform a TNR

trap release cat

TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) is a popular solution for stray cats and ferals. Be sure to use a safe live trap so you won’t hurt the cat. While it won’t find them a home, it can help prevent the stray/feral population from increasing and you can release them far from your home.

#4 – Close the Motel

Add exclusionary fencing such as chicken wire under decks and porches, as well as around the perimeter of your home to help keep cats out.

Keep in mind, they can burrow if they’re motivated enough, so extend the barrier at least six inches underground to further deter them.

Keep all trash secure so they can’t knock it over or otherwise get into it. Remove sources of standing water.

#5 – Rough it Up

Cats like soft or smooth surfaces, so having a wide protective ring of large-grit sandpaper, pea gravel, or other rough textures around an area you don’t want the cat to go can make it want to avoid these areas.

#6 – Adopt Them!

indoor cat

Seriously, if you’re dealing with a stray that has no home, there’s no better solution than to befriend them and adopt them into your family.

Cats are incredibly intelligent (as we keep saying), and while there may be a bit of an adjustment period, they really are wonderful companions who will give back what you give.

Just be warned, ferals may never accept the offer of human companionship, especially older ones or ones that are abuse survivors. Even if you win their heart, they may never be comfortable with indoor life.

Getting a feral cat’s trust and love is an extremely difficult task that could become dangerous if you make the wrong move at the wrong time, so this is something that should only be attempted by experienced cat experts (meaning someone who works with feline rehabilitation for a living).

Read Also: What Happens If Your Cat Eats a Poisoned Cockroach?

#7 – Phone Animal Control 

This is generally a last resort best left for ferals or a stray that has been badly injured. Animal control specialists will usually take the stray to a shelter.

However, since shelters are often overcrowded with cats, there’s a good chance the stray will not live long unless you ensure it goes to a no-kill shelter.

What NOT to Do

A lot of advice out there is absolutely terrible. Here are some common suggestions you should NEVER do:

  • Get an aggressive dog
  • Shoot or otherwise hunt the cat
  • Use poisons of any sort
  • Use snares, glue traps, or other inhumane trap types

Remember, cats have the intelligence of a young child, so using inhumane methods on them is beyond cruel and can result in arrest or other legal consequences.

Author’s Personal Note

morgan photo1I’ve worked in a no-kill shelter and am a certified cat groomer (only six percent of pet groomers will willingly work with cats). I also have extensive experience working with stray cats and have raised two feral kittens who are now the sweetest of companions despite a rocky start.

In my experience, stray cats are often cats that are indoor/outdoor, outdoor only, or abandoned. Strictly indoor cats can become skittish when they find themselves trapped outside and will sometimes behave like ferals but initially look far healthier.

I have also had experience with young strays who were purposely abandoned by their humans. These tend to lose weight rather fast and often have poor survival instincts.

Stray cats are a completely man-made problem. The kings of Ancient Egypt kept cheetahs as hunting companions, and they’ve been associated with royalty and as a symbol of power throughout history. But cats raised in domestic settings are often poorly adapted for life outdoors.

Time and time again, I’ve seen what happens when humans realize cats aren’t just tiny dogs and cast them aside.
When dealing with stray cats, please remember that you’re dealing with an intelligent critter that has complex emotions and didn’t choose this situation. Always be cautious when approaching a stray to avoid injury, but remember - it deserves a good home, not the aggression normally shown towards pests.


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