stray cat sitting alone

How to Tell if a Cat Belongs to Someone

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One of our biggest fears as cat owners is that our little cat will go missing. The thought of us standing at the backdoor tapping her food bowl day and night and waiting for her to come home fills us with a strange and deep sense of dread.

Of course, cats can and do go missing for days and then reappear.

It’s fascinating to read about how far cats can travel when lost.  They they may not even be lost but off exploring, wandering around until they’re ready to return without a thought for how worried their owners have been.  

But what if the opposite were to happen?

Imagine that a cat arrived at your door or in your garden and found you.  You might become quite fond of the animal or you might be eager to get it back to its owners.

We wanted to find out more about what happens in these situations and how to tell if a cat belongs to someone. 

Owned, Stray or Feral Cats

stray cat sitting alone

Cats are either owned by someone or they’re a stray or feral.

A cat that has owners will have a place to sleep, food to eat, water to drink and they’ll appear healthy. Of course, even owned cats can be mistreated or neglected so this won’t always be the case. 

Cats like to wander so if you have outdoor space it’s likely you’ll see them exploring your yard or garden. Cats can be very friendly and sociable towards strangers so be careful not to fall in love with a cat belonging to someone else.

A stray cat is a cat that has had an owner but for one reason or another is now separated from them.  In some cases, the cat may have been abandoned by its owners or it may have gotten lost and is unable to find its way back home.

A feral cat is a cat that has had either limited or no human interaction and for all intents and purposes has turned wild.  Feral cats often live in groups and are scared of humans and prone to hiding.

It can be difficult to tell if a cat belongs to someone when they start hanging around your property. Cats can act as if they’re hungry but may be well fed and cared for further down the street. 

Encouraging someone else’s cat to eat and stay at your house isn’t a good idea. The cat could be on a special diet to manage an illness or condition and your food could make it ill. At the very least, the cat may put on extra weight which will have a negative bearing on its health. 

How to tell if a cat belongs to someone

You may be able to tell if a cat belongs to someone by looking at them and observing their behavior.

  • You may be able to tell if the fur is in a good condition, do they have a healthy weight, are they wearing a collar? and what’s the condition of their paws.  It’s important to remember that older cats may look thinner or appear to have a less glossy coat but may still be well cared for.
  • Feral cats that have been neutered and then released will be missing the tip of their ear.  This is so volunteers and community members know the animal can no longer procreate.
  • We often assume that a cat with a collar has an owner but this isn’t always the case.  It could be that the cat is lost or has been abandoned.  If you’re unsure, you can attach a paper note to the collar asking if the cat is owned and leaving your telephone number and details.  If the cat has owners, they should get back to you and let you know.  If the tag remains on the collar, it could be that the cat hasn’t been home or is unable to get there.
  • Asking around your neighbours can be a useful way of tracking down the owners as well as verifying the movements of the cat over a certain time frame.
  • Local shelters and veterinarians may have knowledge of missing cats in the area. Facebook groups can be a good source of information and so can old fashioned signs or posts.  It is worth keeping some details back just in case more than one interested party comes forward.
  • If you’re able to put the cat into a carrier, you could take it to your local vet who’ll be able to scan for a microchip.  If they are able to get a reading, it’ll give you the contact details for the owners.
  • If you’re worried about where the cat is sleeping, you could always provide temporary shelter outside: a cardboard box and an old towel or blanket can help.

How to tell if a cat is microchipped

The only way to tell if a cat is microchipped or not is to take it to a veterinarian or a cat rescue or shelter and get them to scan for one.  The process is quick, easy and won’t cost you anything. It’s the easiest way to reunite a cat with its owner.  

How long before a stray cat is legally yours

This is a difficult one and may vary country-to-country. In the UK, the cat is the property of the original owner.  This isn’t going to be a problem if the owner abandoned the cat or if a shelter or veterinarian is unable to trace the animal but it could mean that a year or two down the line the owner may want their cat back providing, of course, they can prove it was theirs.

In the US, you may need to check in your local area about what the rules are.  We found that in Lanes Country, Oregon, for example, that ‘a cat is legally owned after the finder has cared for it for six weeks’.  It seems that in many areas it’s enough to make a reasonable effort to find the owners and then to take the cat in.  If the owners do appear eventually and want the cat returned, you may be able to get compensation from the owner for caring for the cat whilst it was in your care. 

what does it mean when a stray cat comes to your house?

Who knows why cats do anything? They’re a law unto themselves. It could be that your home falls within their territory.  If they’re a sociable cat, they might enjoy the attention and will keep coming back regularly if you feed or interact with them. 

If you’ve recently moved into the house it could be that the cat used to live there and has either been abandoned or has returned to the place it knows well. Getting into contact with the previous owners may yield an answer. If there are food sources or areas to shelter on your property, then this could attract a stray cat, too.

If you’re spiritually minded, it’s believed by some people that cats are sensitive to energy and that a home filled with good energy will be attractive to a stray cat. Some also believe that cats can remove bad energy from a home.

Of course, we think some superstitions are ridiculous – our beautiful black cat has bought nothing but luck and love (and a few furballs) into our home. 

Adopting a stray cat is a rewarding and heart-warming experience but it’s important to do everything you can to locate an owner before bringing a cat into your home.

It isn’t always obvious how to tell if a cat belongs to someone but you can always contact a local or national cat charity or organisation for advice on further steps to take.