Health & Wellness

What to Know About Adopting a Stray

What’s more poignant than a pet without a home? Before you take in a foundling, know everything that’s involved.
Published April 9, 2018

When Lauren Butler, 40, an actress and mom from Forest Hills, NY, noticed an unfamiliar gray cat roaming her neighborhood, she worried it might be hungry. “I put out food and water, and then she followed me inside,” Butler recalls. Within a few weeks, Grayson, as the cat was dubbed, had become an official member of Butler’s household. This process, however, wasn’t as simple as it sounds; adopting a stray is a serious decision, and before committing, Butler and her husband had to take the following essential steps.


What you need to know about adopting a stray 


Don’t assume every found animal is a stray

There are no official statistics on the number of stray pets in the US, but Inga Fricke, director of pet retention programs for the Humane Society of the United States, estimates that roughly half of animals in many shelters are strays. “It can be difficult to tell if an animal is homeless or just someone’s pet that got loose,” says Ari Zabell, DVM, DAVB, a veterinarian in Vancouver, WA. Also, Zabell notes, a recently “rehomed” pet can sometimes get confused and run away.


Handle with care

If you come across what you have reason to believe is a stray, approach it cautiously. “If the animal is cowering, scared, injured, or in distress, go slowly,” says Carley Faughn, PhD, manager of Dogtown at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT. “You don’t know a strange animal’s health status or vaccination history, so if it bites, you could get seriously hurt.” (In case of a bite, always seek medical help.) When in doubt, contact animal control or the police with the animal’s exact location. But if the animal appears calm and friendly, lure her into a safe place, such as a crate, with treats—though it’s advisable to leash dogs first.


Get to the vet

Butler took Grayson to a veterinarian within 24 hours to see if she had any health issues—or a microchip containing an owner’s contact information (an exam confirmed fleas but no microchip). If you plan to keep a found animal, it needs to be assessed for conditions such as fleas, ticks, tapeworm, and rabies, some of which could be transmitted to other animals in your home. Private vets can be pricey, so inquire whether local clinics, the Humane Society, or the ASPCA offer lower-cost care. (Some shelters and rescue organizations may do free checkups, but might require you to surrender the animal.)

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Practice due diligence

If you find a stray, you have a legal responsibility to try to locate the owner. Indeed, failing to do so could put you in violation of the law because pets are considered property in all 50 states. You can’t become the new owner unless you have attempted for three to seven days to reunite the stray with the original owner. Butler scoured her neighborhood (as well as her town’s Facebook page) for Missing Cat posts, contacted animal control and rescue shelters, and put up flyers with Grayson’s photo and other details in the local pet store. She also put out the word on Facebook. “No one came forward,” Butler says.


Figure out what’s best for both of you

If no one claims the animal, the next decision is the big one: Is adoption appropriate for you and your family? Pet ownership is a big responsibility; moreover, a stray who’s spent a lot of time alone may have problems adapting. If you conclude that keeping the animal isn’t a good idea, you can try to find someone else to adopt it (check “rehoming a dog or cat” at Otherwise, contact the Humane Society, SPCA, or animal control in your area about placing the animal in a compassionate shelter where other potential owners may come to find a new pet.


Showing ferals some love

Taking in a feral, or “community,” cat (a common sight in many neighborhoods) may seem noble, but the attempt is unlikely to succeed because ferals have had little human contact and are unused to being confined. Bringing one to a shelter is a virtual guarantee that it will be euthanized; instead help by seeking out a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program, in which ferals are humanely trapped, taken to a local clinic, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and eartipped, then returned to their outdoor homes.

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