When to save an outdoor cat and when to let it be

I lived in San Diego for almost 10 years. For much of that time, I lived in the most amazing apartment overlooking Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas. The ocean views were spectacular. The community was very laid back and friendly. It was like a dream.

One of my best friends, Suzi, lived right across the street in a townhouse that sat atop a bluff overlooking the beach below. We spent a lot of time watching sunsets on the bluff together. Oftentimes, after the sunset, we’d walk up the street to Pacific Coast Highway to our favorite Mexican restaurant to have dinner and the best margaritas on earth.

Then we’d stumble home and pinch ourselves to remind us that we weren’t actually in a dream. Life was really good.

Anyhoo, one night we were walking back from dinner, we passed an empty lot where construction was about to start on a new home. In the darkness, we could spot something moving from the middle of the lot toward us.

Suzi, ever the drama queen, freaked out a little because she thought it was a skunk. As it came closer though, we heard it meowing. She trotted right up to us and started leaning up against our legs and asking for pets. She was so docile and friendly. She wasn’t wearing a collar though, so I wasn’t sure if she was a cat community cat, or if she wandered away from her home.

I picked her up and quickly realized she was declawed. This meant she must be a stray from someone’s home and not an outdoor cat. The outdoors was definitely not the place for a declawed cat. She would have no way of warding off predators, so I brought her home with me.

Throughout the next 1 ½ weeks, I put signs all around the neighborhood with her photo. I called the local shelters and let them know where I found her and would keep her until her owners turned up. I even placed a Craigslist ad. This was before Nextdoor, Facebook and Twitter were a thing.

Despite all my efforts, the owner never turned up. I would have kept her myself because she was so sweet, but my cat Bailey made it very clear in the beginning that he could not, would not share his living space with another feline. Not ever. Stop asking, you moron!

Fortunately, a friend and coworker, Joe, decided to adopt her. He named her Bella — and they lived happily together for many many years.

In this case, it was actually pretty easy to tell that Bella had belonged to someone because she was so well socialized, had a beautiful coat, and cats cannot declaw themselves. Also, side note, don’t declaw your cats. It’s dumb.

Under normal circumstances, I would have left Bella right where we found her because she’d have a much better chance of finding her way home on her own. But because she was declawed, I took her in because she was basically defenseless without her claws; and it wasn’t safe for her to be outside in the first place.

So when do you take in a stray cat versus leaving them to find their own way back home?

Finding a cat outdoors is more common than you might think. It’s estimated that there are between 30 million and 80 million outdoor community cats and between 75 million and 95 million pet cats in the United States.

Community cats live in close proximity to people but do not typically live as pets inside homes, so they may be fearful of human interaction. Pet cats may live a strictly indoor life or spend some portion of time outdoors.

If you have found a cat that seems friendly, this cat is likely an indoor/outdoor house pet and is not lost. The cat will most likely return home on its own. If you are worried about the cat’s safety, bring the cat indoors, and try to locate the owner. Talk to your neighbors, make a flier, and post on neighborhood social media groups.

If you see a cat in your neighborhood that runs away when you approach or freezes with a tense, crouched body, flat ears, and/or dilated pupils, this cat is likely an outdoor community cat, a cat that has had limited interaction with people and cannot be adopted as an indoor pet.

The best way for people in the neighborhood to care for community cats is by getting them spayed/neutered, vaccinated, putting out food and taking them to the vet if they are sick or injured. This is a process known as Trap-Neuter-Return-Monitor (TNRM). If you find a cat who has one of its ears tipped (surgically removing a small portion of the ear), that is a signal the cat has already been vaccinated, spayed/neutered and is being monitored by someone or multiple people in your neighborhood.

Cats that are healthy typically appear well groomed and physically fit or chubby. These are the cats you generally want to leave be. They have a much better chance of finding home without the help of humans.

If the cat appears unkempt, underweight or is visibly injured or sick, they likely need medical assistance. That would be the time to take the cat to your veterinarian or call us at Pasadena Humane.

In my neighborhood now, there are two community cats I see on a fairly regular basis. I always check to make sure they appear to be healthy and free from injuries. These two seem comfortable with humans nearby but not comfortable enough to approach. They’re healthy, though, and appear pretty well fed. So I don’t bother them. They seem to appreciate it.

If you’re someone who allows your cat to be indoors and outdoors, do me a favor. Make sure they always are wearing identification around their neck and are microchipped.

The collar signals to people in your neighborhood that the cat belongs to someone. Without that, someone might assume the cat is lost and will take it to a shelter like ours. If that happens, the chances of you being reunited go way down. Clear, visible Identification is key for cats.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t declaw your cats. It’s dumb.