Do You Take the Cat In Or 
Let It Keep Living Outdoors?

How best to help community cats.

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What do you do when a cat keeps coming around but won’t let you near her even if you’ve been putting out food and water for weeks? On one hand, leaving a cat outdoors makes her vulnerable to the elements and more likely to die an early death. It’s also bad for wildlife. Cats hunt and eat birds and other animals. On the other hand, if the cat is truly feral — that is, unsocialized towards people — and will never become accustomed to living in close proximity with people, trying to force her to live inside your home is consigning her to a lifetime of stultifying house arrest.

“It’s an ethical conundrum,” says Emily McCobb, DVM, director of the Shelter Medicine Program at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and assistant director of the school’s Center for Animals and Public Policy. She comments that while some people are nervous that a free-roaming cat will get hit by a car in addition to having a detrimental effect on wildlife, others “feel passionately that cats who can be outdoors and do cat things, including hunting other animals, have a better quality of life” than those stuck inside.

“People feel pretty strongly one way or another,” Dr. McCobb says, “so when you speak about this issue, it invites a reaction.” She herself took in an unsocialized four-month-old kitten that she brought to her basement so it could become acclimated to her household without feeling overwhelmed. However, after 2 years the cat escaped, which she learned when she discovered a cat-shaped hole in a window screen. And then it escaped a second time by pushing out the new screen entirely.

Steps to take

Any time a cat is found living outside, the first step is to try to find an owner by posting signs, putting messages on social media, and calling the local shelter and animal control officer. If an owner does not step forward, the cat should be brought in to be neutered or spayed, if necessary, and given a rabies vaccination. If the cat is friendly, you might be able to take her to a local shelter or vet yourself. She might very well go with you willingly if she was accustomed to people in her past.

But if she’s truly unsocialized and there’s no way she will let you get near her, a local shelter or your area’s animal control officer should be able to direct you to a group in or near your community that participates in a Trap Neuter Release (TNR) program. The volunteers in such groups are skilled at catching free-roaming cats and taking them in for the wellness care they need.

A shelter or vet will first scan the cat for a microchip to make sure she doesn’t already belong to someone. If she doesn’t and you want to adopt the cat as your own, you can offer to pay for the vaccinations and neutering. That will give you first dibs.

If you already have one or more cats in your home, the one you found on the street may not mind them. It’s you she might very well want nothing to do with, insisting on a strict “keep your distance” policy. You have to accept the possibility of being able to help her without receiving any cuddly affection, or any interaction that involves touching.

But you may very well find that a truly unsocialized cat that didn’t connect with people in the first 6 weeks after her birth will probably long to be back outdoors even if you give her space. If that’s the case, provide her with safety from the elements. You can purchase solid cat shelters online or build a structure that will protect her from inclement weather. You can even make an outdoor litterbox with two-by-fours and sand if you have the room in your backyard. At least one study indicates that outdoor cats prefer that to relieving themselves elsewhere.

Leave food and water on your porch, under a roof overhang, or in some other spot where the cat knows she can take her meals without having to worry about whether you will try to get her indoors. Just try to remove the food within 15 minutes of her finishing so you don’t attract pests or predators.

If you don’t want to keep the cat

If adopting an outdoor cat once she has been vaccinated is not your intention, the shelter may try to find her a home, but that can be difficult if the cat is unused to people and therefore unfriendly. She may end up euthanized. Alternatively, the volunteer group that brought her in may very well be able to help the animal live outdoors as a community cat, providing shelter when possible, bringing her food, and monitoring her condition in case she needs to be brought in for illness or injury.

Whoever ends up taking care of an outdoor cat that you come across — you or a volunteer TNR group — your identifying an animal in need is key. Outdoor cats that do not receive veterinary care and subsequent monitoring are not likely to live as long as those that receive veterinary care. Those brought in and then looked after, even if they end up living completely outdoors, have a good shot at a significantly longer lifespan. The vaccinations alone are highly protective.

Admittedly, it can be complicated. Now knowing for sure that the cat she rescued has no interest in living in her home and will do anything to escape, Dr. McCobb is building the feline an outdoor shelter on her porch. “I would rather not have her outside potentially harming wildlife,” she says, “but such is the situation. She simply will not stay indoors. I have a camera to watch for her. She comes and eats outside the house every night.”

For more information on how to help a cat you find outside, Dr. McCobb recommends checking out Alley Cat Allies (alleycat.org). Though their information is designed primarily for volunteers who take care of colonies of community cats living together outdoors, anyone who comes upon a free-roaming cat and wants to help can find useful information. Tips run the gamut from ways to provide shelter for the cat at low cost to how to make your property more cat-friendly with catnip plants and other enticements.

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