8 things to do if you find a stray cat or dog

We've all come across a stray cat or dog and wondered what we should do. Read on for our tips on figuring out how to take care of a stray dog or cat.

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Marina di Marzo

We've all come across a stray cat or dog and wondered what we should do. Read on for our tips on figuring out how to take care of a stray dog or cat:

1. Figure out whether the animal is feral or a stray.

This can be extremely tricky. According to the Humane Society, well-groomed, friendly cats are more likely to be lost or abandoned pets, not ferals. But the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says the opposite: lost or abandoned cats are more likely to be badly groomed and frightened because they are stressed and not used to surviving alone. Feral cats can also deceptively friendly and well-groomed.

The most reliable test is to capture the animal indoors or in a cage, according to the ASPCA. Though this test is not always accurate, a feral cat will typically resist being inside any kind of enclosure, while a stray cat is more likely to cooperate. Feral cats are also more likely to not be spayed or neutered.

(Note: If you seem to have a lot of feral cats in your neighborhood, consider getting involved with a Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) program to help keep the feral population in check.)

2. Decide whether you might be willing to accept the cost and possible life care of the animal.

This is the most important question to answer. The stray may be suffering from injuries, or its owner may have abandoned it, leaving you in charge of paying its medical bills or taking ownership of the pet. You must also be willing to give the pet back to its owner, even if you form an attachment.

If you're not willing to accept these plausible outcomes, call a nearby shelter or animal control agency instead, and tell them where you found the animal. However, shelters and agencies are often overrun with stray animals and because of limited space, they may be likely to euthanize an animal.

3. Slowly (and subtly) get the animal contained.

If you want to try to catch the dog or cat, create some kind of barrier using a leash, piece of clothing or rope to corner the animal, suggests the Humane Society. If you try to catch the animal, you will likely scare it away or get attacked. By slowly securing the perimeter, the animal may not notice it's being trapped.

4. Entice the animal with food.

Place any strong-smelling food nearby, kneel on the ground and speak calmly. If the animal runs away, but you saw it near your home, try to return to the same spot at the same time another day, and see if the pet comes back for more food, the ASCPA says.

Encourage the animal to eat, and resist trying to pet or touch it because that might frighten it.

5. Get the animal into a cage, cardboard box, bag, blanket, or your car.

If the animal cooperates and eats the food, make a trail of food leading into a cage, your car, or any kind of enclosure.

If you don't have any kind of restraint in your car, it's a bad idea to drive around with a loose animal, according to the Humane Society. In that case, you should call police or animal control and wait for them in your car with the animal until they show up.

If you do manage to safely restrain the animal, drive to a nearby veterinarian.

6. Notify everyone about the animal.

After the vet tends to any injuries the animal may have and checks to see if it has all the necessary vaccinations, ask the vet to scan the animal for a microchip. A microchip should be able to reveal the owner's contact information.

If the pet doesn't have a microchip, call any local police department, animal shelter or animal control agency, and leave them a description of the pet in case its owner calls searching for their pet, the ASPCA recommends.

Post a "found" ad online or in your local newspaper, suggests the Humane Society. You might want to try your neighborhood blog or list-serve as well.

7. After you return home with the animal, accommodate the animal.

If you already have pets, make sure to find a room for the stray animal to stay in separate from your resident pet to avoid confrontation suggests The Humane Society.

Of course you'll want to make sure you provide a bowl of water and food, and a comfy place to sleep. For cats, find a large container to serve as a temporary litter box.

8. If no one reaches out to claim the animal, decide whether to keep the animal or let it go up for adoption.

Every state has laws relating to a holding period for stray animals. In Virginia and the District, after five days an animal is classified as "abandoned," according to the Code of Virginia and the Washington Humane Society. In some states, the holding period varies depending on the county or whether the animal had a microchip or tag. Be sure to check with your local animal control agency.

If the holding period expires, and you made a strong effort to find the animal's owner, you can label the animal as your own with a collar and tag or a vaccination record.

If you plan to give up the animal, make sure to find a shelter that is not overcrowded to ensure the best possible chance for adoption. Also, post an ad on Facebook and Twitter — you never know if a friend could be inspired to adopt.

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