What to do When You Find a Cat or Kitten Outside

Finding cats and kittens outside is a common experience in many areas of the United States. Many finders attempt to give the cats and kittens to their local shelters and rescue groups, assuming they each have the capacity and resources to provide care. Some finders don’t realize that if they asked, they could be supported by an organization to foster the found feline. Prepare yourself for a variety of situations and learn how you can save lives by rescuing cats and kittens in need.

Finding Cats Outside

Not all cats want to live indoors, so a cat found outside may want to continue living outside. However, if you’ve been seeing a particular cat (or two, or 10) in a certain area outside for several days in a row, it’s a good idea to take action.

Just like you can’t assume that a cat found outside wants to live with you in your home, you also can’t assume that the cat doesn’t need your help. 

What to do if you can’t get close to the cat

Cats in this case are likely undersocialized to humans, meaning they do not feel comfortable with people. In this scenario, it’s often best to access a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program. Finding a TNR program in your area can be easily done through a simple online search or by calling your county’s animal shelter or humane society. Be patient, offer your assistance where you’re able, and please understand that many TNR programs have waitlists.

TNR programs allow cats to be safely captured, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned to the outdoor home they know best. 

The main benefit of doing TNR with undersocialized cats is that you’re not forcing them to interact with humans or live indoors against their will. In addition, if you bring an undersocialized cat to a shelter, they will likely be viewed as unsuitable for adoption and may be euthanized.

If you’re unable to access a TNR program in your area, check out this video from Kitten Lady on how to do TNR on your own. Before you trap a cat, you need to have a spay or neuter appointment scheduled for either the same day or the day after.

If you’ve successfully captured a cat in a humane trap, please take a moment to visually scan for a collar. If the cat has a collar, contact the owner and return the cat to them. 

If the cat doesn’t have a collar and it’s not being cared for by someone in the community, continue with your plan of getting them sterilized and returned to their outdoor home.

What to do if you can get close to the cat

You have a lot more options in this case. Start by checking for a collar and contacting the owners if you find tags. If you don’t see a way to contact the owner, your next best step will be to get the cat into a carrier and take them to a vet. You can take the cat to:

  1. A private-practice vet
  2. A shelter vet who works for a municipal shelter
  3. A shelter vet who works for a non-profit organization
  4. A local low-cost veterinary clinic

Shelter vets offer many benefits when compared to their private-practice counterparts. Shelter veterinary costs are typically lower, and they’re able to provide proper care to undersocialized, feral cats. In general, private-practice vets are less experienced in caring for undersocialized cats, and visits are usually more expensive.

Whichever type of vet you work with, they’ll be able to scan for a microchip, contact the owner if the chip is registered, and perform a general health assessment. If there’s any downtime between getting the cat into your care and the vet appointment, keep the cat separate from your resident pets at all times.

You’ll need to coordinate a care plan for the cat if: 

  • You can’t find the owner’s contact information
  • The owner won’t respond
  • The cat is in poor physical health

You can, of course, choose to independently foster the cat by providing food, shelter, and veterinary care at your own expense — this must include vaccinations and a spay or neuter surgery. Once they’re ready, you can begin the search for an adopter.

If you’re unable to independently foster the cat, please find a local shelter or rescue group. It’s important that the organization you choose can find both a foster home and a forever home for the cat. Once you find an organization that can foster the cat, you can also offer to foster the cat for them. You’ll be surprised by how many groups would love to have your help, and they’ll cover all or most of the expenses.


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Thank you so much for considering a donation! 🙂

Any contribution is greatly appreciated!

– $6.00 allows us to buy a bag of litter
– $25 helps us buy 12 cans of cat food
– $100+ allows us to fund general medical procedures for any felines that we foster on our own

Thank you so much for considering a donation! 🙂

Any contribution is greatly appreciated!

– $6.00 allows us to buy a bag of litter
– $25 helps us buy 12 cans of cat food
– $100+ allows us to fund general medical procedures for any felines that we foster on our own

Thank you so much for considering a donation! 🙂

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Finding Kittens Outside

Where there are intact cats (cats who haven’t been spayed or neutered), there are kittens. Any time you see kittens outside, pause before you just scoop them up and take them inside. Assess their health as best as you can from a distance.

What to do if the kittens look healthy

Don’t approach or touch kittens with folded ears or closed eyes. These physical signs indicate that they’re still dependent on their mother cat’s care, and it would be detrimental to their health if you separated them.

However, certain conditions may require immediate intervention. Harsh weather conditions, inadequate shelter, and temperatures below 75 degrees can all pose immediate danger.

Otherwise, stay far away from the kittens and wait at least a few hours for the mother cat to return to her nest and care for them. If the mother shows up, make a plan to trap her and her kittens as soon as possible. Once trapped, you can foster them on your own or reach out to local rescue groups and shelters to find a foster home. If the mom is undersocialized and demonstrates feral behavior, you can still foster the whole family. Check out Kitten Lady’s video to see an example of how it can be done safely.

If you’ve waited a few hours and the mother cat doesn’t show up, it’s time to take immediate action to save the kittens. Get them warm with a covered heat source and slowly provide food that’s appropriate for their age. If they have fleas or other external parasites, you’ll need to address this in the first 24 hours that they’re in your care. A kitten in this state cannot survive without human intervention.

Finally, you can either foster the kittens yourself or reach out to organizations that can find a foster home. Make sure you also return to the area where the kittens were found so you can attempt to TNR the parents, just in case they’re still around. Otherwise, you’ll be back in a few weeks needing to help another litter of kittens.

If the kitten looks to be about the size of the kitten pictured below, you can assume they’ve been weaned from their mother and are in a good place to be socialized to humans. Kittens this size will be between 8 and 10 weeks old. There’s no time like the present to rescue a kitten like this, and it’s perhaps the easiest age to foster.

What to do if the kittens don’t look healthy

If you see that the kittens are dirty, thin, lethargic, or are crying loudly, don’t delay. Take them into your care immediately — you can work on finding the parents later. The kittens’ symptoms indicate that the mother cat has left them alone for too long, possibly pointing to signs that she won’t return.

At this point, you can either take them to a shelter immediately and see if they can find a foster home, or you can begin caring for them yourself. They will need medical care and enough time to grow before they can be adopted. In either case, make sure the kittens have access to a vet who is able to care for their age group.

If you decide to foster the kittens yourself, please explore every resource Kitten Lady has on her website and YouTube channel. She has information on how to successfully foster every age group you can imagine, especially kittens who aren’t old enough to eat on their own.

Continue reading for two true stories of finding cats and kittens outside.

Mia’s Story

Mia was found on a doorstep in rural Ohio. She was about 2 pounds, covered in fleas, infested with ear mites, and unable to open her infected eyes.

Since she was found alone and already had all of her kitten teeth, the finders figured that she was already weaned. On top of that, her health seemed very poor, so she was immediately taken inside and away from their resident pets.

The finders fed her and gently wiped away some of the crust on her eyes. In the morning, they took her to the vet who prescribed parasite treatments along with oral and ophthalmic antibiotics. She was also scheduled for vaccines and a spay surgery at that time.

Her finders also spent time looking around the rest of their property for other kittens and any adult cats, but none were found.

They continued caring for Mia until she had all of her vaccines and returned to good health. Eventually, they happily decided to add her to their home as an official family member.

Bambina’s Story

A few months after Mia was found, her family noticed a fluffy tabby wandering the property. She had specific sleeping spots on their property, but she didn’t want to get close to them. They suspected it could be one of Mia’s parents, and they wanted to get the cat spayed or neutered so they wouldn’t add any more kittens to the local population.

After spending several afternoons and evenings wandering their property with me and looking for more signs of cats and kittens, none were found. The night before I returned home, the fluffy tabby showed up on the doorstep.

She ate food right from our hands and rubbed her cheeks all over us. She was clearly socialized to humans to some degree and had finally decided that we were okay to be around. However, she had no collar, and we weren’t sure if the bump we felt between her shoulder blades was indicative of a microchip or not. Bambina made it clear that she had been loved by humans before, so we decided that TNR was not her only option. 

As we interacted with her more, we found large matts in her fur and noticed a significant patch of fur missing from her coat. She was very thin and very hungry.

We gently popped her into a cat carrier, brought her into a closed room, and set her up with more food and water. She settled in right away. As she ate, we also noticed an oral abnormality: Her lower lip didn’t cover part of her jaw, and her nose looked slightly crooked.

So began the mission to find a way to get Bambina spayed, vaccinated, and adopted into her forever home. Bambina showed us that she appreciated all the indoor comforts we offered her: blankets, clean litter, plenty of food, and lots of physical affection. She even allowed us to apply a topical flea treatment and let us examine her abdomen to see if she was nursing or possibly pregnant.

While we knew we could take her to a private-practice vet to get all the care she needed, we wanted to explore a more affordable option so that we could continue funding her care until we found her forever home. The options were pretty limited. I called about a dozen different phone numbers hoping to get a hold of the right people who could speak more about TNR programs in the community or point me in the direction of a spay and neuter clinic.

We also tried finding rescue groups that would have the resources for my family to foster Bambina. I finally got a hold of a foster-based rescue organization.

Both of these stories highlight the importance of making a plan when you find a cat or kitten outside. Instead of assuming that local shelters and rescuers can take the found felines into their care, please recognize that you also have the capacity to save lives.

Resources: kittenlady.org and Tiny But Mighty by Hannah Shaw

Exploring animal welfare one foster kitten at a time

One response to “What to do When You Find a Cat or Kitten Outside”

  1. […] if they have TNR’d the kitten’s parents. If they haven’t, ask them to share the location of where the kittens were found and either make a plan to do TNR yourself or find another program who can help […]


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