What Does it Mean When a Stray Cat Comes to Your House? (and What to Do About It)
by Jazmin Murphy July 18, 2021
So, the local stray keeps showing up to your house. What does it mean? Cats are challenging enough to understanding, but they can be so much more confusing when they don’t have a home, yet refuse to interact with you directly. In these cases, it’s hard to decide what to do with the cat.
What does it mean when a stray cat comes to your house? Stray cats may wander up to your home for many reasons. If you leave food, water, or shelter, such as a small doghouse, outside overnight, a cat will use your house as its primary resting place, thanks to the resources and security. Attractive plants and even menstruating female cats can attract strays, too.
Sooner or later, you’ll need to decide how you want to take this cat in, or at least ensure it has somewhere else to live comfortably. However, trapping and rescuing cats is a pretty complex topic that requires a lot of forethought. Here are some tips on trapping and rescuing a cat, plus some points to consider before doing so.
What Attracts Feral Cats to Your House?
Many things can attract stray cats to your home, from the type of food you leave outside overnight to the available shelter in your backyard. Even the plants in your garden can lure a stray or feral cat into your yard for snacking or to mark their territory.
Plus, the type of things that are attracting feral cats may differ, depending on whether you’re trying to catch the cats’ attention on purpose or kitties just happen to love your property. For example, someone who is intentionally attempting to get cats to visit their home would probably plant appealing plants like silver vine, honeysuckle, valerian, and catnip around the yard.
On the other hand, a person with unwanted cat guests may be accidentally inviting these four-legged visitors via outdoor activities or housing decisions for their own cats. For example, if you allow your female cat outdoors while she’s in heat, whether it’s for extended or brief periods, she’ll most likely attract many stray males around the neighborhood.
People commonly leave out food and shelter for the stray cats around their neighborhoods, whether they intend to adopt them or not. To some, this is the best way to care for an outdoor cat when they don’t have the time or resources to foster or relocate it.
However, if you’re one of the lucky folks who does have the time and space to care for a soon-to-be former stray kitty, here are some things to keep in mind and more specific tips on welcoming alley cats into your home.
How Do You Get a Stray Cat to Come to Your House?
Firstly, it’s not quite recommended that you start trying to invite stray cats into your house all willy-nilly. You should exercise discretion when adopting any animal, especially if you’re taking it in directly from the street. This is because stray cats, like many other animals, can transmit various zoological diseases that can impact yours and any existing pets’ health.
With that said, there are many rescue and animal control efforts that wouldn’t be possible or nearly as effective without public participation. When individuals take it upon themselves to trap stray cats, get them medical care, and find suitable homes for the rehabilitated animal, everyone wins!
So, it's useful to know how to lure in a cat that you want to care for. Here are some tips for attracting the neighborhood cat you’ve had your eye on:
Stimulating a cat’s sense of smell is one of the best ways to lure it to your home or into a trap. In fact, a significant amount of research has gone into what substances and plants work the best in attracting curious kitties.
One study reported that 80% of domestic cats respond very well to silver vine and 50% to Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian root.
If your cat is a bit peculiar and doesn’t respond well to catnip, you might want to try one of the above alternatives. Seventy-five percent of cats that didn’t like catnip enjoyed the other plants. Plus, you can use several parts of the plant, including the fruit galls and wood.
Putting out a bowl of cat food is one of the most common ways that people attract stray kittens to their homes. Whether you want to leave dry or wet food out, the kitty will sniff it out and come visit to have a bite or two. (Of course, offering a bowl of water won’t hurt either!)
You must be very careful about feeding cats outdoors. Other animals besides cats can smell the yummy meal just waiting to be devoured, and they won’t be able to read the sign that says “stray cats only.” Many people recommend against this alternative because of this risk. However, if this works best for you, only leave the food out for short periods and never overnight.
Often, stray cats are merely looking for somewhere safe to rest and get away from the madness of living on the street. One of the best things you can give a tired kitty is a place to sleep. Many people place small enclosed pet houses outside with a cushion or blanket inside for extra warmth.
These are only a few options that may or may not work to catch the attention of your local cat. There’s no guarantee that these attractants will work. Yet, they are some of the most widely used approaches for community cat lovers and rescuers.
Is It Okay to Let a Stray Cat in Your House?
Letting a stray cat into your home is a risky decision. Until you get the cat veterinary attention, you can’t know what diseases it may or may not have. This is critial to consider. A sick cat can impact both your health and any animals in the household.
Now, this is not to say that you should be afraid of every stray cat that comes your way. Instead, you should exercise reasonable caution and discernment when choosing to trap an unfamiliar cat on your own. For one, you should never touch a stray cat without any sort of protection.
If you need to transport a stray cat, the best thing to do is to lure it into a carrier or a metal trap. If there are gaps in the transport vessel, it’s best to wear gloves or another piece of clothing to cover your exposed skin. After you successfully capture the animal, it’s best to take it straight to a veterinarian.
Many vets are happy to provide spay and neutering services to people who bring in strays. In many cases, they’ll even provide the trap for you to bring it into the clinic. As you’re bringing your new feline friend to and from the hospital, make sure to avoid getting clawed or bitten.
A cat’s teeth and claws can harbor harmful bacteria and viruses that may make you terribly sick, such as cat scratch disease or infections from the bacterium Pasteurella multocida, present in 70-90% of cats. If a stray cat scratches or bites you, wash the wound with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately.
When dealing with stray cats, the dangers aren’t restricted to direct physical contact with the cat itself. You’ll also need to be wary of the surrounding environment, specifically where the cat relieves itself. For instance, if you’re trying to catch a cat that’s been pooping in your garden, be very careful: Cat feces contain many bacteria and parasites that can significantly impact your health.
Only when you’ve gotten your captured stray cat thoroughly checked out and it’s received the green light from the veterinarian, then it’s safe to let the new cat into your house. The cat may take a while to get used to its new Forever Home, but rest assured that the kitty is thankful for its new living space.
Should You Trap Stray Cats?
Now that you know a bit more about how to invite a cat to your home and the potential dangers of doing so, you’re ready to consider whether you should try to rescue a stray cat. Admittedly, there is no singular right or wrong answer to this, as it is highly subjective, and external circumstances contributed heavily to the ethics of such a decision.
As contentious as this topic can be, there seems to be a general public consensus on whether trapping stray cats is right or wrong. When asked what they think about intentionally trapping neighborhood stray cats for adoption, fostering, or veterinary care, the vast majority of respondents (67.1%) answered, “It can be good,” in a recent Twitter survey.
The second most common answer, “It’s complicated,” selected by 26.5% of participants, acknowledges that this isn’t a black-and-white issue. The ethics of capturing a domestic cat vary pretty significantly, from person to person, cat to cat, and place to place.
For example, 3.2% of respondents selected the statement “It’s wrong,” referring to the practice of trapping cats for rescue-related purposes. On the other hand, those who chose the answer (3.2% of survey participants), “Other (explain),” provided the following insights.
Consider the Veterinary Staff’s Safety
Cat might be too feral to handle - not all vets have the guts and skill.— Tsu Dho Nimh BSC, MT(ASCP), AA, ET etc. (@TsuDhoNimh) June 23, 2021
Luring can work, but it's a long-term project.
One of the most challenging aspects of capturing and rescuing cats is gauging and avoiding potential aggression. Many animals, including domestic cats, are likely to display aggressive behavior as a part of an instinctual fear response.
Even if the cat was mellow when you captured it, there is no telling how a stray might respond to the bright lights of a clinic or interacting with multiple people in a small, enclosed space.
Additionally, not all veterinary clinics are equipped to deal with a stray cat. While some dog and cat hospitals would happily provide care for the animal, many do not have the training, space, time, or resources.
Further, you don’t want to put any of the vet staff at risk of getting scratched and contracting a disease or developing an infection.
If you’re preparing to stage a rescue of a neighborhood cat, contact the veterinary clinics and local animal shelters to survey their readiness to take in a stray.
They will be immensely thankful for it, as another survey respondent noted, “From a vet-tech standpoint I hated when people did this. 99% of the time the cat was feral & violent. Despite trappers good intentions, it puts the staff in danger…”
Recognizing an Aggressive Cat
I guess it depends on whether I thought it was tame enough to be safe for the vet to handle or to be homed. Some strays are friendly because ppl feed them/pet them already and some are wild and mean.— Vaxx yet? (@MustelidMaven) June 22, 2021
Another way to protect yourself from an aggressive stray cat is to know the signs of fear aggression like the back of your hand:
- Ears flattened against the head
- Vocalization, such as hissing
- Crouching low to the ground
- Tucking the tail underneath the legs
- Piloerection (the cat’s fur will stand up)
Be very careful about how you respond to a cat’s aggressive displays. Although you might be tempted to back away slowly, that’s the wrong move. Retreat reinforces the cat’s behavior, as you’re giving it precisely what it wants. You shouldn’t try to comfort the cat either – that could make it worse.
Instead, veterinary experts recommend “desensitization and counterconditioning” as the best approaches to addressing “existing negative emotions.” Plus, ignoring the cat and refusing to acknowledge the aggression until it subsides will be better in the long run than backing down or offering consolation.
Desensitizing a Fearful Stray Cat
All three of these kittens would have been feral if not for trapping efforts; they grew up inside a home instead & were adopted to be indoor-only pets. That said, it’s a ton of time & $$ to rehabilitate feral cats, so be sure you have support, space, & a vet willing to try. ❤️🐈⬛ pic.twitter.com/v5qtnAOqKQ— Donnelly West, Genetics PhD (@CatsCauseTypos) June 22, 2021
Shy cats aren’t too much trouble to deal with when rescuing stray cats. You’ll know a stray from a feral cat right away, based on its response to you.
More specifically, Alley Cat describes the difference between a stray and feral cat like this:
Stray: These kitties have had some level of socialization at some point in their lives. Most likely, a stray cat has gotten lost or left its home but is doing just fine on its own. It’s unlikely that this cat is dependent on humans in any significant capacity.
Feral: This cat has never had contact with humans or hasn’t had human interaction in so long that it’s no longer accustomed to it. Feral kittens younger than four months old have the best chance of being socialized.
If a cat is not familiar with you, it will likely express fear-based aggression, whether it is a stray or feral cat. To reduce your and the cat’s chances of being injured, it’s best to let the animal acclimate to your presence over time.
The next time the cat visits, spend some time sitting outside with it within its visual range but do not touch or approach it. In the simplest of terms, go outside and ignore the cat. Let the cat come to you when it’s ready to be friends.
Over time, you’ll want to get the cat used to life with people. Playing soft music, talking to the cat, and moving slowly and deliberately are all great ways to get the stray accustomed to all the noises associated with humans.
Think About the Cat’s Comfort
Another factor that can easily get lost in the emotional whirlwind that comes with rescuing a stray cat is the cat’s welfare. Yes, you read that correctly.
It’s easy to get caught up in “doing the right thing,” feeling warm and fuzzy in your soul, or receiving praise for your valiant efforts in defending lost pets. When you’re too enamored by these things, you risk ignoring what’s best for the cat entirely.
To avoid this mistake, it’s essential to acknowledge how the cat might be affected by being trapped and transported to a strange place. Although your intentions might be pure, the cat will likely be terrified and could endure lasting trauma.
With that said, if you’re not confident in your ability to safely and smoothly trap an animal, leave the rescue to a professional.
What to Do If a Stray Cat Keeps Coming to Your House
It’s tough to decide what to do when a stray cat keeps visiting your house. Although most people support the idea of trapping and rescuing the cat, opinions are split.
Yet, no matter which side of the fence you fall on, there are a few critical steps you must take when a stray cat repeatedly shows up at your door.
Trap the Cat
Trapping a stray cat is the safest way to handle and transport it. Never try to pick up a stray cat with your bare hands, as a scratch or bite could introduce a severe bacterial infection and other complications.
For these same reasons, you’ll need to ensure that the trap is secure, meaning that the cat can’t reach through and significantly injure you or wriggle its way out. Your local vet might have one or two traps to spare. If not, look for a metal drop-trap that’s at least 30-36” long and 10” wide.
Keep in mind that you can’t simply trap a cat and call it a day. Depending on how curious (or not) the stray cat is, you may need to let it acclimate to the trap by covering it with a blanket, removing the front trap door, and setting it outside as the primary feeding station. Do this for a few days.
This will allow the cat will get used to walking in and out of the trap, preventing it from developing any sort of fear response that may squander your rescue efforts. Just make sure to place the food all the way at the back to encourage the kitty to go all the way inside.
Make sure to place the trap in a safe place so the cat doesn’t have any reason to feel threatened when nearby or inside. Using a dark-colored blanket will help keep the cat calm. This will ultimately improve your chances of successfully capturing the cat. Hide the trigger plate, too, so the suspicious kitty doesn’t evade it.
Integrate these tips into your trap placement and setup, and you’ll get that stray in no time.
Check for Microchip
Once you finally have the cat secured, you’ll need to check it for a microchip. This is an excellent way to ensure you don’t accidentally steal someone’s cat.
It may not be as pressing of a concern if you rescue a clearly feral cat. However, if the kitty is shy yet interested in and calm about interacting with you, it’s best to verify that it doesn’t belong to someone already.
Whether this is your first instinct after capturing the cat, or the decision comes later down the road, a vet will check for a microchip sooner or later. For instance, if you decide to take it to a veterinarian for a spay or neuter surgery, the vet will usually scan for a microchip as part of the initial physical evaluation.
On the other hand, if you choose to surrender the cat to a shelter instead, the staff will confirm whether it has a microchip or not. This is because animal rescue shelters are legally obligated to make a “reasonable effort” to reach a found pet's owner. They can only do that if they have the contact information available via a microchip.
The presence or absence of a microchip is a critical determinant of what you do next. If there is a microchip, the right thing would be to return the cat to its owner. However, if nothing is indicating that the cat belonged to someone, feel free to proceed in adopting or fostering the cat with a vet’s guidance.
Multiple survey respondents who opted to explain their answers in a comment further cited euthanasia as a reasonable alternative to rescue.
One participant stated that such a humane end “sure beats life on the streets.”
Another individual who was in favor of euthanasia as a rescue alternative for stray cats compared a controlled, merciful death to outdoor and feral cats’ lives on the streets, saying, “I know people think it’s cruel, but I don’t think those folks really understand what outdoor cats deal with… I’ve seen cats that roam in the outdoor cat groups that are extremely ill and it’s unnerving.”
Research has repeatedly shown this to be true. For example, here are some of the primary dangers cats face when living outdoors:
- Vehicle collisions
- Injuries from fights with other stray or feral cats or wild animals
- Contracting fatal diseases or parasites from other animals
- Ingesting poison from baited rodent traps and similar items
- Harm from other people
Further, some people would rather have the stray cat euthanized than release it back into the “wild,” so to speak, due to ecological concerns. This is one of the most divisive points of contentions on the ethics of what to do with stray cats.
For one, cats can reproduce incredibly quickly. Females reach sexual maturity as early as six months old. When she’s ready to mate, she can breed throughout the year, pumping out as many as three 2-4 kitten litters each year. And these babies have got to eat.
As their populations rise rapidly, free-roaming cats (which can include both strays and feral cats) have a massive impact on the local ecosystem. Their populations can kill about 2.4 million birds and 12.3 billion mammals annually.
Apart from broader ecological issues, euthanizing the cat might also be the safest option for any humans involved. For instance, the vet tech’s safety concerns might require a cat that is deemed too feral to be put down.
Euthanasia is certainly not the prettiest option for rescuing a stray cat, but it certainly is a logical alternative to consider.
Trying to decide what to do with a stray cat that keeps coming to your house is heart-wrenching. In some circumstances, you might be forced to make a life or death decision for the animal. Plus, your choice can have significant impacts on your life, the local ecosystem, and, of course, the cat’s wellbeing.
This issue is highly subjective, so there will not always be a right and wrong resolution. To ensure you’re well-prepared for the choice when it’s presented to you, do your research and keep up with your Catzio community for the latest on public opinion for all things cats.
About the Author
My name is Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy, and I am a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, I've been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. My love for life science has influenced my professional and academic aspirations since I was a kid. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and 21 units of a Master's education in Environmental Policy & Management (concentration: Fish and Wildlife Management). You can learn more about me and my science writing and reporting work at my website, Black Flower Writing Services.