How to Tell If a Cat Is Homeless or Cared for

Ever come across a roaming cat without a collar and wondered whether it needs help There are a plenty of circumstances where a cat will need your help, even if it doesn’t seem to be asking for it - though it’s often hard to tell when so many indoor-outdoor cats are wandering about.

What to Look Out For

The best way to tell if (and how) a cat needs help is to observe its physical state, behavior, and habits. It’s not always clear if a cat is sick or starving, especially when it’s shy, has long fur, or was overweight before it ended up on the street.

  • Temperament:  Does the cat seem nervous, stressed, or ill, OR does it seem happy and content to be outside napping, exploring, or making social rounds?
  • Location:  Is the meandering feline hanging around a particular home, or do you see it in different places around the neighborhood? Does it seem to always be hiding?
  • Appearance:  Does it have dirty or matted fur, OR is it clean and well groomed? Are its eyes and nose clear of gunk? Are there marks or scars on its nose or face? Cats that have a warm, dry home are more likely to be clean and well groomed, while disheveled fur or marks on the face are signs of a hard life.
  • Meowing or following:  Does the cat anxiously follow you or other people around. Does it meow as though it needs something?

When in doubt, ask around!

Talk to your neighbors. People usually don’t have any problem sharing their knowledge - especially if you’re simply trying to figure out whether a cat needs help.

If asking around doesn’t turn up any leads, try posting a picture on your neighborhood’s community page (usually or Facebook).

Yes, I think the cat needs help. What now?

If you’ve determined that the cat is in need of aid (and it let’s you put it in a carrier or box), take it to your vet, local animal services, or humane society to be scanned for a microchip. You can also do a little research to see if any animal rescue organizations exist in your area.

Rescue organizations are often full, so if they can’t accept the cat, they may at least be able to offer advice or provide contact information for someone who can.

Additionally, you might be able to negotiate by committing to “foster” the cat if they take care of the initial testing and treatment. Fostering a pet is a commitment to care for an animal, as if were your own, while you and the care organization work on finding it a forever home.

Having the cat tested is an important first step before bringing it into your home if you have a pet cat already, because it could expose your cat to diseases like feline leukemia virus.

If the cat is injured, severely emaciated, or delirious, take it to an emergency animal hospital immediately. Call ahead to let them know that you’re coming. Most animal hospitals will let you drop off a rescued animal, but if you’re concerned about being held responsible for treatments costs, you can ask them about it ahead of time over the phone.

What if the cat won’t let me help it?

Good question! It’s helpful to discern whether the cat is a stray or feral. Stray cats have either had a home at some point in time or they’ve grown up around humans. If you’re patient, gentle, and provide food and water, they’ll likely warm up to you. But not always. Cats that have been abused or were on the streets for a while may be harder to win over. Despite their skittishness, don’t give up! These cats are domesticated and will have a terrible time fending for themselves.

Feral cats, on the other hand, grew up feral (wild) and have no desire to engage with humans. They can rarely be turned into “pets,” and the best way we can help them is by having them spayed or neutered (through a local spay/neuter program), offering food and water, and if you’re so inclined, providing some sort of shelter.

Some humane societies have a barn cat program where they trap and deliver feral cats to farmers who agree to feed and shelter the cats in exchange for their rodent control ability. This gets them spayed/neutered, vaccinated, off the streets and into a more suitable living situation.

Humane traps are a great option for skittish strays that need help, and they’re the only option for trapping feral cats. Most humane societies or animal services have humane traps that you can borrow.

Keep an eye out for cats with a notched ear! While the notch could be from an injury, it’s more likely from a spay/neuter program. They typically notch the cat’s ear to signal that the cat has already been trapped and fixed.

A note about roaming cats WITH collars

Just because a cat is wearing a collar does not mean it’s being cared for. The cat could be lost, abandoned, stolen, or might have negligent owners.

If you see an outdoor cat with a collar, run through the bullet points listed above, and be sure to check the collar. If the collar tag-free, ratty and old, or too tight, there is cause for concern. Far too often, as a lost or abandoned young cat continues to grow, its collar becomes too tight and can even embed in the skin, eventually leading to death.

Some aloof pet owners will overlook their pet’s growing size — or don’t know that a collar should have two fingers of slack — and not adjust the collar appropriately. In this case it’s important to talk to them about it - or ask around if you don’t know who the owners are. Sam or Sue down the road might have valuable insight into whether the collared cat has a caring home.

Remember, you can always call your local humane society, animal services, or rescue organization if you’re not sure what to do. Additionally, you can call and file a complaint in situations where you know the cat has a home but are suspicious that it isn’t being treated well.

Pets on Broadway is proud to work closely with local animal rescues to showcase rescued cats in need of a home at our location.