Should You Feed Stray Cats?

If you’re a cat lover, what would be your reaction to seeing a stray kitty? You would want to entice it with food and treats, which is understandable, given the cuteness of these furry critters.

Nonetheless, don’t jump straight to feeding. Did you know that in some areas it is illegal to feed strays? Yes! You could get fined or even arrested!

Stray cats have a hard life and always seem to appreciate the meal. However, they can quickly breed when fed; causing more cats to have to suffer as strays.

Stray cats can also become a nuisance. Outdoor cats have caused the extinction of 63 species. Even a well-fed cat will hunt for fun(1).

Life’s Tough as a Stray

As soon as ancient people began to store food, rodents began to eat it. Once cats found this excellent source of mice and rats, they moved closer to people and became domesticated.

Many cats also began to depend on human garbage to supplement their diet. Cats who live this way today – without the ownership of a human – we call strays.

As you can imagine living as a stray is not easy. Stray cats have no access to medical attention, are at high risk for diseases, are frequently hit by cars, and are commonly abused.

Some strays are former pets while others have lived this way for several generations. Cats who have had little direct contact with people are called feral cats. Even if they are adopted by humans, it is unlikely they will ever adapt to human affection.

pat on the back of a stray cat and giving food

So Should You Feed Stray Cats?

If there’s an ordinance in your area that says you can’t, then the answer is a resounding NO. In other cases, our answer to the above question is NOT a resounding yes! This is a controversial issue and there are numerous people both for and against feeding strays.

Many animal welfare organizations would instruct you not to feed stray cats and they’re not completely wrong.

Your reasons for feeding are very simple – you just don’t want the kitty to be hungry. If you feed the cat, it’ll be happy and thankful and you would feel great too! However, you have to look at the bigger picture here.

Feeding stray cats can certainly appear to make their lives a little easier. However, it also helps cats reproduce.

A single female cat and her offsprings can produce thousands of cats in just a few years. That’s a lot of cats to condemn to a difficult life.

When these cats remain densely populated around a food source, Feline Leukemia and Feline Immunodeficiency Viruses run rampant.

Another reason to discourage the feed of strays is that any uneaten leftovers may attract other wildlife like raccoons, rodents, and possums, etc. You can remedy this by knowing the correct food to put out for the cats and by not throwing the food onto the ground.

Everything depends on whether you want to contribute to the problem or want to be a part of the solution – with the solution being adoption or letting a local animal shelter take care of the cat.

The Case of Rome

If you still don’t believe feeding stray cats can cause damage, just ask a Roman archaeologist!

Rome, Italy has a tradition of feeding stray cats. Most ruins have friendly stray cats running around that you can even pet.

These cats appear to be a quirky and harmless part of modern Roman culture. However once archaeologists explore just out of public sight, they find lots and lots of deceased cats.

On the bright side, various measures have been taken to help these cats. People are beginning to actively help these cat colonies.

One group, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, is a cat shelter set right in the Roman ruins. Its mission is to spay/neuter and reduce communicable diseases amongst the cats.

Before Feeding a Stray Cat

It is worth considering if the cat is truly a stray cat. If the cat is owned by someone nearby, then, they may not wish for you to feed it.

Before putting out any food for the cat, ask your neighbors if it is their cat and if they mind. They might be trying to get the cat to lose weight, it may be diabetic or it may have a disease like a kidney disease which requires a very specific diet.

Therefore feeding a cat that is owned by someone could actually be very detrimental to its health and in the end, the welfare of the cat should be above your need for having a lovely cat around.

girl feeds a stray cat on street

What To Feed Stray Cats?

To responsibly feed strays and avoid other wildlife, you can put out dry food or canned cat food(1).

While you can give canned tuna, your best bet is still to go for dry food or canned cat food. But why? These kinds of food don’t normally bring out other wildlife.

Since free-roaming cats are naturally nocturnal, you can safely put out canned cat food at night. Don’t forget to leave lots of water out for our fluffy friends!

While these cats are definitely starving and will eat anything you put out, our feline friends would ordinarily hunt in our natural environment.

What Do They Usually Eat In The Wild?

Our feline friends mostly prefer to hunt small rodents and birds while outdoors. These include mice, rats, sparrows, and robins.

To be truly full, cats will munch on anything they can catch – even insects and reptiles. Lizards, spiders, and grasshoppers contain vital nutrients. For drinking water, strays favor natural rainwater that can be found in potholes and puddles.

Felines have a higher sense of smell than humans(1), so preservatives found in most water are irritating to them.

Cats also like to feed on fresh prey. Felines eat everything – including their prey’s skin, feathers, organs, and even bones. Note though that out in the wild, cats refrain from eating plants such as grains and vegetables; although they may enjoy munching on some kinds of grass.

So How Can I Help Stray Cats?

Most people don’t have the ability to provide a home for every stray cat, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t help. Spaying/neutering and vaccinations greatly help a stray cat’s quality of life. Building shelter from a storage tub can also help them in the winter.

Of course, if you spayed, neutered, and vaccinated through your local vet clinic, costs would add up quickly. There are a large number of charities that offer programs to help stray cats. Here are a few types you will commonly find:

  • Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR)

Trap-Neuter-Release is the most common and recommended method of helping stray cat colonies(1). These charities use humane traps to catch stray cats.

These cats are spayed and neutered at the right age so that they are no longer able to reproduce and released back where they were found. In addition to being fixed, these cats are usually given vaccines too.

You can easily tell if a stray cat has been fixed already by looking at its ears. One ear will have a notch cut off or the tip cut off. This doesn’t hurt the cat as it is done while it is under anesthesia for its spay or neuter.

Look for one of these charities if you know of a population of cats that need to be spayed or neutered. Some programs will trap the cats for you, but many do not have the manpower. In this case, they will loan you humane traps to use yourself.

TNR also considers the level of socialization of each cat. Socialized felines and kittens are allowed to be adopted, while adult feral cats are brought back outdoors.

If there isn’t a trap-neuter-release program in your area, ask your local animal shelter if they have humane trap rentals.

  • Surrendering to a humane society

Although you may try to contact your local shelter, most shelters are unfortunately already housing too many animals. At times, shelters are forced to euthanize strays because there aren’t enough available homes.

However, they will hopefully be able to place your stray up for adoption.

  • Finding Homes for Stray Kittens

Stray kittens are an inevitability of stray cats. Make sure these kittens don’t grow up to have the same life as their parents. Once kittens are 8-weeks old or two pounds, they should be removed from their mother and fixed.

If you’re not ready to adopt, then consider rehoming your stray. This, of course, would be after taking them to the vet to check for a microchip and their general health.

Aside from these, you may also opt to advertise locally or through the internet. Bear in mind to carefully screen people when rehoming and never offer your cat for free.

It is not ethical for you to be making a profit from a stray cat, but a small price will cover the costs for your veterinarian trip. In doing this, you’ll be able to screen out people who sell pets for animal fighting, bait or who wish to sell on to make a profit.

Unless you can afford to fix the kittens and give vaccinations, do not try to find homes for them yourself. It is best to let an animal shelter take the kittens.

Kittens are highly adoptable from shelters and will find a home. The shelter will provide a spay/neuter, vaccinations, and deworming. This gives the kittens the best start to life.

  • Free or Low-Cost Spay and Neuter

Many low-cost spay and neuter clinics offer an additional discount for stray and feral cats. Just like a trap-neuter-release program, they will cut off the tip of the ear.

You will be responsible for finding a way to bring the cats to the clinic and releasing them afterward.

Denver Dumb Friends League offers free spay and neuter for all cats, owned or stray.

A more typical example would be the Athens Area Humane Society in Athens, GA. It offers spay and neuter for feral cats at $35, including vaccinations.

If the online spay/neuter prices of your local animal shelters seem out of budget, still give them a call. From time to time, animal shelters will receive grant money for free feral cat spays and neuters. They may also know of additional resources in your area to help stray cats.

Adopting a Feral Cat

Adopting a fixed feral or semi-feral cat is a great way to help stray cats. Many shelters offer these cats as “Barn Cats” to help with rodent control. They can live not only in barns but warehouses, garages, greenhouses, and even airports!

For example, the Animal Care Sanctuary in Pennsylvania has no adoption fee for a barn cat. Most animal shelters will offer deep discounts for adopting a feral cat.

Prior to adopting strays, consider scheduling a trip to your vet first before letting the cats into your home. This is an excellent opportunity for the vet to check whether the cat has a microchip that would be registered to an owner.

Since these felines were outdoors for a while, it is highly possible that they have picked up fleas, ticks, and other creepy crawlies. The vet can prescribe some anti-parasite treatment and give the cats deworming medications and vaccinations at the same time.

You should have the cat neutered or spayed as well. More than just the trip to the vet, you should also be ready to help the strays adjust to living inside or outside your home – including using the litter box and socializing the adopted strays with other cats and people.

How Do You Differentiate Stray And Feral Cats?

If you want to know how to recognize the kind of cat that you came across, here are some pointers:

Both cats typically may appear disheveled, unhealthy, and have rough fur. The difference lies in how the feline interacts with people. A stray cat will probably come near people, houses, porches, or cars while feral cats will avoid doing this.

As stray cats were once house pets, they will similarly move and walk like one. You might observe these felines walking with their tail up which is its gesture of friendliness. Additionally, you might notice that these cats make eye contact and in time, may allow you to touch them.

Fearful feral cats can be seen crawling, crouching, and generally staying low to the ground. It is likely to protect its body with its tail and avoid eye contact and touching.

When it comes to other cats, a stray cat is prone to solely live on its own and not likely to join a group, whereas you’ll see that feral cats will usually belong to a colony.

Stray cats generally roam around during the day, while feral cats are commonly nocturnal, and rarely go out during the day.

It may be difficult to recognize these two once trapped or scared. Frightened strays will need time to relax to show its degree of socialization.

You may be asking yourself why is it important to differentiate? It’s important because stray cats can re-adapt to living with people and afterward be adopted as house pets or companions, in case you want to do more than just feeding stray cats.

Unfortunately, adult feral cats cannot be adopted. It is better for these felines to live outdoors than be brought to shelters where it will most likely be euthanized.

Fortunately, feral kitties can still be socialized at an early stage and may possibly be adopted as pets.

Being Stray Isn’t Just Bad for Cats

Stray cats have an impact on the environment around them. It is likely that your neighbors will have a strong opinion about you feeding the cats. Are you willing to risk infuriating the people who live around you?

  • Wildlife

Cats were domesticated because they make such great hunters. When they are full, they still don’t stop hunting.

Unfortunately, this means danger for local wildlife. Songbird populations are extremely threatened by stray cat colonies.

If you enjoy the presence of these birds, think twice before feeding stray cats. Your compassion for one animal may harm another.

  • Diseases

Cats are known to go to the bathroom in sandboxes and gardens – putting people at risk for toxoplasmosis, roundworm, hookworm, and giardia. If this is your neighbor’s garden or sandbox, they are not going to be happy.

Rabies is another common concern with stray cats, especially in the eastern half of the United States. Once infected, rabies is nearly 100% fatal in humans.

Stray cats can also spread various diseases to cats and dogs who have owners. Be extremely careful not to transfer any diseases from the stray cats to your pets.

  • Laws

Some municipalities have ordinances against feeding stray cats. This is due to concerns of cat overpopulation and the food attracting wildlife. Make sure you aren’t breaking the law if you decide to feed stray cats.

Additionally, you may be legally liable for any damage or injury the cat cause. This is currently a legal grey area, but it is something to be cautious of.

  • Nuisances of Unfixed Strays 

Unneutered male cats will spray to mark their territory. Mating cats will also yowl and make significant noise. These behaviors may not bother you, but again your neighbor may have a different opinion.

The Absolute Worst Outcome

Nobody who wants to help stray cats likes to think about them being killed, but it often happens. Municipalities and angry neighbors alike have been known to poison stray cat colonies. Especially if you are feeding unfixed stray cats, know that this is a possibility.

Most animal welfare groups recommend trap-neuter-release to keep stray cat populations down. However, when stray cat populations get out of control, many municipalities do not have the resources for a large-scale TNR program.

Euthanasia after trapping or direct poisoning of cat colonies is used in this case. Letting a stray population grow by feeding will draw the attention of animal control and can force drastic measures.

If a neighbor takes population control into their own hands, it may even be legal to do so. Some states consider killing a stray cat as animal cruelty. Others specifically exclude stray, feral, or unowned cats from animal protection laws.

Sources –

Jaimee Alsing, an animal nutritionist, holds a BS in Animal Science from Cornell University, where she focused her coursework heavily on animal nutrition. She founded a small award-winning company, Colorado Care Co., which formulated and produced all-natural hermit crab and reptile food. Having worked in the industry, she understands that a lot can be hidden behind a label and strives to do extensive research beyond the ingredient list. For every article Alsing writes, she devotes a significant amount of time to researching each pet food company.

1 thought on “Should You Feed Stray Cats?”

  1. Hi. There is a cat that visits our home daily. She has beautiful, clean fur and is in a healthy condition. I suspect she belongs to the neighbors but I am not sure. Me and my roommate feed her daily and give her attention so she kind of bonded with us. However I don’t know what to do now-should I encourage her by letting her at our house, feeding her and spending time with her, even though we can’t afford to take her in? (even if we wanted to do that we don’t know if she has another home or not). Should I re home her if she’s a stray? Thanks


Leave a Comment