It is common in the university cities to see cats outside lounging or roaming. Sometimes, cats may even act friendly toward you every time they see you. Is this cat a stray or an indoor/outdoor cat making the rounds? How do you know if you can call this cat yours or not?
The determination is difficult, but there are few behavioral signs to watch for. If the cat is roaming freely in the daylight hours, it is probably owned by someone. If it acts friendly and unafraid of people, it is probably owned. If the cat is clean and appears groomed, it is probably someone’s pet. And if it is not searching for food when you spot it multiple times, again it probably is someone else’s cat.
Ownerless cats prefer to be more nocturnal. They actively hunt for food, skirting the edges of buildings and garden plantings. They are not well groomed and may have debris in their coat. Certainly, if it walks up to you and lets you pet it, perhaps it rolls over too, count on them living elsewhere.
If you decide to take possession of a cat, have it checked out by your veterinarian. They, as well as your local animal control agency, can scan for indicia of ownership. Another tip: If the prospective new cat goes easily in a kennel crate and doesn’t howl while it’s there, it is probably someone’s pet kitty.
Now all the rules above apply primarily to adult cats. For the farmers, landowners, and those who use community dumpsters, finding a batch of kittens that has been dumped is more obvious.
Some but certainly not all farmers welcome cats and kittens at their place. No one I know prefers to have someone just dump the felines on their property. Most would appreciate a call or contact in person to see if the cats can meet the farmer’s need for rodent control.
Still other farmers and landowners are conservationists, too. They know the damage feral cats can do to native wildlife including small rodents and birds. For them, outdoor cats are not welcome.
Consider the life the cat will lead in a rural setting outdoors. Some studies have shown that feral cats don’t live much longer than 2 to 4 years. With no other attention, cats that live a feral life are exposed to diseases they could be vaccinated for. They face predators that city cats rarely if ever face on a day-to-day basis. Often, they are left to fend for themselves on what they can catch which puts proper nutrition out of reach.
In fairness to farmers and landowners, most times I would say they are not interested in your problems with a pet. While they may accept a box of kittens, they do not have the time or desire to nurse them, get them vaccinated and buy cat food for them. Sorry, but I have to side with the rural residents here, and even if they let you leave your cat, don’t drive away necessarily with delusions of grandeur for complete care as a pet.
This last piece is for apartment-dwelling students. Some of you got cats as pets and emotional support animals while you were here. While you may have big plans moving forward with your lives, now is not the time to leave a cat behind.
Most people who have cared for an animal feel some emotional discomfort or dissonance when they have to give a pet up for any reason.
Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email firstname.lastname@example.org.