How to Tell If a Stray Cat Is Healthy
Stray cats, whether they are feral (meaning they've had very limited human contact), lost, or purposefully set out, have a rough time. No domesticated animal does well for very long living in the elements, even if they are being fed. Even a cat that appears healthy may have underlying issues. The best way to help a stray cat is to get it off the streets, to a vet and into a warm and loving home.
There are signs that you can look for in any cat, including strays, to let you know that they are experiencing health problems. Always remember that your safety is more important than anything else. If in doubt, leave the cat alone and seek professional help.
Look for Eye and Nasal Discharge
Respiratory illness is a real threat to cats trying to make it outdoors and can also be a sign of other health concerns, including FVR (feline viral rhinopneumonitis). Cats are also at risk of contracting two major feline viruses: FIV and FeLV.
Some of these diseases are chronic and some can be treated very easily with antibiotics by a vet. If the cat has eye discharge or seems to be sneezing or have a runny nose, he or she needs veterinary treatment as soon as possible to insure a return to good health.
Examine the Condition of the Cat's Coat
A healthy cat usually has a shiny and smooth coat. Cats that get good nutrition receive the vitamins they need to have healthy skin and a healthy coat. They also feel well enough to groom themselves.
The exception may be a cat with long fur such as a Persian. These cats need human intervention and grooming in order to keep their fur looking nice. If they are trying to live on their own, even if they are healthy, they may have a matted and dirty coat. Once these cats are rescued, they will need to see a professional groomer in order to get their coat in shape.
Listen for Heavy Breathing or Wheezing
A sick cat and one with a respiratory illness may also be having trouble breathing. You may hear wheezing or coughing. Just as in any other animal, this is the sign of a chronic condition and the cat needs to be extracted from the situation and placed somewhere where they can get medical attention and assessment.
Check for Limping or Other Physical Ailments
Another sign that the cat is ill may be if they have a physical deformity or open wound. The cat may have been in a fight with another cat, attacked by a wild animal or dog or even hit by a car. All of these signs can also be very dangerous for the cat and show that the cat needs medical treatment as soon as possible.
How to Catch a Stray Cat
It is very rare that a stray cat will come up to you or allow you to easily pick it up. The exception is young kittens and very tame cats that have either been set out or been lost from a domestic home.
Even then, a scared cat may bite or scratch, leaving you prone to infection or worse. The best way to catch the cat is to either hire a professional trapper or to purchase or rent a humane trap yourself.
I have also had some luck with using a large carrying crate, placing food in the back, and waiting until the animal went inside to close the door. The cat needs to be tame enough to feel comfortable coming around people (even if it doesn't want to be touched), and you have to be quick.
After you have captured the cat, you should transport it immediately to a vet or shelter for evaluation or medical attention.
Signs of Rabies
As with any animal that is a stray, rabies can be a problem for cats. It is important that you stay away from any animal showing signs of rabies and contact authorities, as it may be a health risk for other animals and people.
According to the ASPCA, symptoms of rabies include:
- sudden death
Cats may show very few symptoms before dying and may or may not have the classic drooling.
Classical Rabies Symptoms in a Cat
TNR or Trap-Neuter-Release Feral Cat Colonies
If there is a large group of stray cats living together, they may be part of a Trap-Neuter-Return colony or TNR. These cat colonies are usually cared for by organizations or volunteers who come and feed the cats and check the overall health of the group.
The cats will usually have part of their ear notched or missing as a visual cue that they are a part of a TNR colony. Usually, the permanent members of this group are too feral to be household pets. When they are trapped, they are also vaccinated.
If any new cats come into the colony, they are captured and assessed and either put into a foster-adoption program or placed back in the colony after neutering and shots.
If you are interested in helping to care for a feral cat colony or want to learn more about why they are important and why they work, contact Alley Cat Allies.
Even Cats in Poor Physical Condition Can Be Saved
Even if a cat is very sick, there is still a good chance that with the right care and attention, it can be saved. It is very important to get the cat evaluated by a vet, spayed or neutered, and up-to-date on shots. If at all possible, that cat should be brought indoors where its chance of exposure to illness and danger is minimal.
Cats are strong, despite their size and appearance, and with a little bit of help from us, they can thrive and bring us a lifetime of love and devotion.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
If a feral cat came around my home very sick and injured, does he know that we helped him get better by taking him to a vet?
I don't think cats can "know" in the way we would. But at the least, you know that you tried to help a sick and injured animal. That in itself shows you are a good person.Helpful 1
If a cat shows up at my door and it has its ears clipped, and it looks healthy what do I do?
Cats who have their ears clipped are neutered or spayed. Some of them may belong to a feral cat colony. Others may be privately owned cats. (I currently have my own, indoor-only cat with a tipped ear.) If it seems healthy, it may be a neighbor's indoor/outdoor cat. You can also post a picture on a neighborhood board (like NextDoor) and ask if the cat belongs to anyone. Personally, I would keep an eye on the cat, and if it hangs around or is hungry, I would assume it is lost or dumped. From there it depends on your local laws. You can either take it to a shelter as a stray or post flyers advertising that you have found a lost cat. Local cat rescue groups may either help or know if there is a feral cat colony in the area where the cat belongs. Just know that an ear tip only means it has been fixed; it is a myth that it means it is feral. It has a good chance of being either.Helpful 4