By Maura McAndrew
Street cats. Strays. Community cats. Whatever you choose to call them, you’ve likely seen them—cats roaming the streets in need of a home. The Humane Society estimates that there are approximately 30 to 40 million community cats (both feral and previously owned) in the United States. Thankfully, there are now many rescue organizations that take in these cats and adopt them out to loving families—and adoption rates are increasing.
“I think it’s important for people to adopt from shelters because they’re the ones doing the work on the streets,” says Felicia Cross, president and executive director of Forgotten Cats, a nonprofit rescue organization operating in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. She explains that many cats have spent time on the streets—even if your cat came directly from a home, it was possibly once homeless. “The likelihood of being a stray is higher than the likelihood of being a pet, to be honest,” she says.
It’s important, then, to be aware of the challenges that arise when adopting such a kitty. What do you do to help your cat adjust, and to give him the best life possible? With the help of our experts, we’ve compiled a guide to what to expect when you’ve taken in a former street cat. And rest assured: the rewards to rescuing a cat are worth it. “I will tell you, some of the friendliest and most lovable and affectionate cats I’ve had have been strays,” Cross says. “They are so thankful.”
Previously Owned Cats vs. Feral Cats
There are two different types of cats living in our communities: feral and previously owned (what we might call “stray”) cats. As Cross explains, the difference is fairly straightforward. “One that is feral won’t let you touch it, and one that has lived in a home will seek out affection. [Feral cats] are terrified of people.”
Even if you’re dealing with a shy or reticent stray, it will typically not react with the same level of fear as a feral. “If you see a stray cat and you put out food and water, they’ll keep coming back to that spot, and you can eventually touch them,” says Kathy Balsiger, president and co-founder of StreetCats Inc., a nonprofit, all-volunteer rescue organization in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Feral cats are a little bit different. Every time you approach them, they’ll run and scatter and hide.”
A cat who is truly feral is usually not adoptable, because they have never been socialized to humans. As Cross points out, previously owned cats do sometimes live in colonies among ferals. So while the two can become quite integrated, their behavior sets them apart.
Potential health issues are a concern when taking in a stray cat. “The first thing you should do if you find a cat on the street and it’s friendly, is take it to a clinic to have it assessed medically, make sure it’s sterilized, get it vaccines, get it de-wormed, get it treated for fleas, check for ear mites, all the obvious things,” says Cross.
Balsiger agrees that a medical assessment is of the utmost importance to check for parasites like coccidia or giardia (which can be spread through drinking contaminated water outside) and more serious diseases like feline leukemia and AIDS (FIV), which can only be detected by a blood test. “These diseases can still be spread even if the cat doesn’t look sick,” she explains, and they pose a danger to other pets in your home.
Cats who have been on the streets aren’t necessarily unhealthy—it all depends on what they’ve been exposed to, and if they’ve been vaccinated at some point. “They’re at risk just like any other cat,” Cross says. If you have other pets, she recommends quarantining your new cat in a small room in your home for the first two weeks. “If you give them two weeks in a quarantined area, usually [in my experience] that is enough time to determine if they are harboring illnesses that may not be detectable by tests, like upper respiratory infection, calici, or panleuk,” she explains. “We recommend this when adopting a cat from a breeder, shelter, or from the streets.”
“It seems like we get 101 different reasons why a person’s having trouble with a cat,” Balsiger says. Behavioral issues are not uncommon for a cat adjusting to a new home. Luckily, most of these issues have easy remedies. For example, Balsinger notes, “make sure they have scratching posts to get out their scratching,” so they don’t take to ruining furniture.
Litter box issues can also crop up during the initial adjustment period. “You may have to try different kinds of litter,” Balsiger explains. “Keep your litter box clean at all times, and it might mean scooping twice a day.” She notes that a cat urinating outside of the litter box may indicate a medical issue, so consult your veterinarian.
In addition, she says, “if there was another cat ever in the house or if there is currently a cat in the house, then male cats may spray” indoors. This is usually only an issue with cats who are not or were recently neutered. If the cat has been neutered and the problem persists, Balsiger recommends seeing a vet.
Behavioral issues in new cats can run the gamut. But no matter how frustrating these can be, remind yourself to be patient. “If you rescue a kitty, you have to deal with what you’ve got,” Balsiger says. “Some people say that it’s like adopting a child. But we say when bringing a cat into your home, you need to treat it like a child.”
Timidity or Fearfulness
Sometimes street cats will be timid or fearful when entering a new living situation, Cross explains. “It really depends on how long they’ve been on the street and how traumatized they are,” she says. Some cats will “come in and just plop down and go to sleep. I mean, there is no adjustment. And there are others that will run and hide under your couch because they’re just terrified.”
Unfortunately, street cats can face trauma and abuse that cats in loving homes do not. “Friendly cats that are on the streets, unlike ferals, will approach people for food,” Cross says. “And sometimes, they approach the wrong people and instead of getting food, they get a kick in the face—people can be really cruel to them.”
With a traumatized, frightened, or shy cat, never rush the introduction process. “Give it a chance to acclimate to you first, and then slowly acclimate it to the rest of your house,” she says. This is another function of the two-week quarantine—it both protects your other pets from illness and helps with adjustment. “It’s best to keep them in a small room where they can’t hide,” Cross says. “You want to eliminate the chase, if you will, because it’s that chase that’s frightening to them.” She notes that keeping an especially fearful cat in a dog crate for a couple of days—allowing you to reach in to pet it—can be a good strategy for minimizing fear.
The overall goal is to build trust and demonstrate to your new family member that this is a loving, safe environment. “If they’re nervous and skittish, they will come around,” Cross says. “The most rewarding thing you can do is to bring a cat off the street and bond with them. Honestly, that connection is wonderful once it’s made.”
Adjustment to Living Indoors
If a cat has been living on the street for a while, adjusting to life in a house or apartment can be challenging. “You just have to be aware that this is going to be new for the kitty—and new for you,” Balsiger says. StreetCats encourages those who adopt strays to keep them indoors due to the health hazards and dangers of the outdoor life. “Try to adapt the cat to the inside,” she advises. “If you bring in a cat that really won’t adapt to living full time in your house, make sure they’re always vaccinated and up-to-date on everything, and please make sure the cat is chipped.”
Even if your cat has the urge to roam, a two-week housebound period is crucial for putting down roots, explains Cross. “You have to make sure that you keep them in your home at least a short period of time so they know that that’s home.”
Cats vary widely in their preferences—despite the street life they’ve gotten used to, some are extremely content to be indoors. “I’ve had stray cats that you can tell have been on the streets for a while, because maybe their fur is matted, their paws are rough from walking outside…and you bring them in, and it’s like they’re so relieved to be inside,” Cross says. “I really think they know that you’ve saved them.”