What to Do If You Find a Cat Outside: Stray vs. Lost Cat

Is the cat you found outside a stray who needs help? Or is the newcomer a neighbor cat looking for free snacks and good company? Learn how to tell the difference here!
Cat outside in front of ocean

So you’ve found a cat hanging around outside. Determining what to do with your new furry friend can be challenging. After all, there are so many factors to consider when you find a cat! Chances are you’re wondering:  “how can I tell if this cat is a lost cat, a stray, or a neighbor cat just paying a social call?” — good job, you’re considering all the right things.

While it’s natural for animal lovers to worry about free-ranging cats out on their own, outdoor cats can be more than meets the eye. I’ve compiled a list of CatProfiler-approved steps to take to help you:

  1. Understand the situation of the cat you found
  2. Ensure that the cat you found gets the help they need, if any

Step 1. Determine if the Cat You Found Got Lost Outside

If you’re a cat lover like me, the temptation to adopt a cat you’ve found is probably suffocating. After all, they’re cute! They want to hang out with you and demand all of your attention! But there’s a chance that the cat wooing you already has a forever home. For example, I have a friend who almost had her outdoor cat get adopted right under her nose! Check out Marjorie and her cat’s story to see the signs of a non-lost cat in action.

With this in mind, here are some tried and true signs that a cat is not lost:

The Cat Has a Collar

Tortoiseshell munchkin cat with a collar standing outside
Photo by Raychan on Unsplash

I know, I know — this should be obvious right? But it’s important to consider when determining the ownership status of a cat, so I figured it’s better to be safe and mention it!


There are a few possible scenarios worth mentioning when it comes to a collared cat:

1. A neighbor has taken a liking to the neighborhood cat and decided to accessorize them

2. The cat has an owner, is an outdoor cat, and is not lost

3. The cat has an owner, is an indoor or outdoor cat, and is lost

At the end of the day, a collar on a cat means that someone loves/loved this them. Whether you think their behavior is indicative of a lost cat or not, play it safe and call the phone number on their collar tag!

The Cat Looks in Your Window to See What You’re Up To

Cats who are hungry and scared will probably not take the time of day to see what book you’re reading on a Sunday afternoon. That is to say, if a cat is looking into your window and actively observing you, they’re likely not in any distress. Instead, the cat you’re dealing is bored and curious!

It’s safe to say that if the cat you found outside is your little observer, you (probably) don’t have a lost cat on your hands. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the steps to make sure, though.

The Cat Invites Themselves Into Your Home

Is your outdoor feline friend invading your home? Criticizing your housekeeping? Making themselves at home on your furniture? Great news! The cat you found doesn’t have boundaries, and seems confident in this type of territory — both of which are signs that this cat is outside a lot.

All in all, a confident kitty in your house isn’t cause for concern. In fact, they’re probably out strutting into all the neighbor’s houses in their free time too.

Long-haired orange tabby laying on a patio outside
Photo by Ludemeula Fernandes on Unsplash

The Cat is Wooing You

So the cat you found is gazing into your eyes, batting their eyelashes, telling you that you’re THE ONE, THE ONLY, demanding to be brushed.

Basically, the cat you found is a Casanova. Catsanova, if you will.

This mini-panther has TONS of experience getting people to fall for them. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re probably one of the many humans they’re keeping in rotation. One thing is for sure: if the cat you found is acting like this, you don’t need to worry about them being lost or in danger outside. They know what they’re doing.

Step 2. Establish if the Cat You Found Outside Needs Help

Just because a cat isn’t lost doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t need help. Make sure to check their condition whether you think they have an owner or not!

Your furry friend may need help if they are:

  • Bony and starving
  • Frantic and afraid
  • Filthy

If any of these are true for the cat you found, it’s unsafe for you to leave them outside on their own. Even if these aren’t true, make sure to keep reading to learn how to ensure the safety of a found cat!

Step 3. Take Precautions to Ensure the Cat’s Safety

Make Sure They Get a Square Meal

Cozy cat in blanket
Photo by Carla Luca de Tena on Unsplash

This is primarily for cats that are clearly bony, starving, or lost. Who knows when that kitty had their last meal! It’s important to make sure they get plenty of food and water to keep their strength up while you get them the help they need.

Post Them on Social Media

Social media is a great way to reach a wide range of people in a small amount of time. A great place to post about potential lost cats is Nextdoor! Nextdoor is an app that allows you to specifically connect with your neighborhood. Once you make a post to it, your neighbors who also have Nextdoor will be able to see it and comment on it! If you’re not sure how to make a post on Nextdoor, check out this article.

You may have a neighborhood Facebook group, or something similar that is unique to your local community — make sure to post there too!

Here are some guidelines to ensure your social media post will be the most helpful:

  • Lead with your concern. First, let people know that you found a cat outside, and you’re worried it may be lost.
  • Include a good quality, full body picture of the cat you found. It’s important to capture any of the cat’s unique markings since they could be identifiers!
  • Let your neighbors know that you’re open to conversation. Finally, end with a message that encourages people to reach out to you if they recognize the cat.

Scan Them for a Microchip

Lots of owners chip their cat when they adopt them. If you think the cat you found is lost, or in danger being outside, then take them to the vet to get them scanned!

Talk to Your Neighbors

Talking to neighbors is an incredibly underrated method of communication. You may think social media is better because of its potential to reach people quickly, but there are a lot of people who don’t use social media at all! So, to ensure that you inform as many people as possible about your furry friend’s situation, make sure to meet your neighbor’s FACE-TO-FACE.

Tag the Cat You Found With a Breakaway Collar, and Let Them Stay Outside

Do you feel like the cat you found is in good enough condition to stay outside? But you’re still worried they may be lost? Put your own breakaway collar on the cat and add a personally engraved tag that says “Does anyone own this nice kitty?”. Make sure to include your phone number so your neighbors can contact you! 


Cat collar tag that reads "Does anyone own this nice kitty, call 479-8796", an example of the type of tag to put on a cat found outside
You’d be surprised how well this works!

TL;DR, If You Found a Cat Outside:

  • Determine if they’re lost/in danger
  • Give them help if they need it
  • Get them a microchip scan
  • Post them on social media
  • Talk to your neighbors
  • Communicate with your neighbors via collar tag

You could be instrumental in reuniting a lost cat with its grieving owner! Good luck!

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