What to Feed Stray Cats in Your Backyard That Need Help

With a 32 million stray and feral cat population in the United States, chances are you’ve met a few free-roaming felines in your backward. One of the most effective ways you can get involved with community cats is to trap, neuter, release, and feed them. But what to feed stray cats in order to be the most help to them? The best thing to feed stray cats is any cat food that is considered complete and balanced by The Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO. In this article, we’ll address other questions you might have about helping strays, like:
  • The healthiest food to feed stray and feral cats
  • What’s the difference between feral and stray cats
  • How else you can make a difference for the colossal stray and feral cat population
Let’s see how you can be an ally to cats everywhere, starting with what you feed stray and feral cats.

What’s the best food to feed stray and feral cats?

The single best thing to look for in food for feral cats and stray cats is that the top ingredients are meat. Cats are obligate carnivores so they must eat diets that consist of meat and animal proteins to function and thrive. It’s best to buy commercial cat foods that are considered complete and balanced by The Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO. These cat foods have all of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and nutrients cats need, like taurine. The most affordable and economical way is to purchase large bags of dry cat food, or kibble to feed feral and stray cats. This cat food can often be bought in bulk at discounted rates, is easy to store, and is convenient to travel with and dish out to cats, especially if you feed cats at multiple sites.

What if cat food isn’t an option?

What if you want to help feed stray or feral cats but don’t have any cat food? Are there any items in your pantry or fridge that are appropriate for cats? Cats can safely eat small quantities:
  • Plain scrambled and hard-boiled eggs
  • Plain baked or boiled boneless and skinless chicken breast
  • Unsweetened, unflavored pureed or canned pumpkin
As a whole, cats do best when they eat cat food that is specifically formulated for them. Dry cat food, or kibble, is affordable, especially if you’re buying it in bulk or are splitting the cost with friends or family. Avoid feeding stray or feral cats:
  • Cans of tuna
  • Cow’s milk
  • Lunch meat cutlets
  • Raw meat
  • Fried chicken
Many of these foods are hard for cats to digest, and may even be toxic for cats like onions, garlic, or salt Canned fish specifically packaged for human consumption, like tuna, often contains high amounts of salt which may cause vomiting and diarrhea in cats.

How is a stray cat different from a feral cat?

The main difference between a stray cat and a feral cat is that stray cats once had homes. Perhaps they were abandoned by their owners, or maybe they got lost. Stray cats are domesticated and have been socialized by humans. Feral cats are wild. They’re born into colonies of other feral cats and have never lived with or been exposed to humans. These cats may express aggression or fear towards humans, and they’re often not spayed, neutered, or vaccinated.

Differences between a feral and stray cat

Since feral and stray cats look the same, how can you tell the difference between the two? Here are some things to look out for when determining what type of cat you’re feeding:
  • Stray cats come closer to your home
  • Stray cats are often thin or emaciated
  • Stray cats are often dirty or mangy
  • Stray cats are known to approach humans
  • Feral cats may run away if they see you
  • Feral cats are often hostile towards humans
  • Feral cats often live in large colonies of cats

What to feed stray cats in your area

Will a stray cat starve if I stop feeding them?

It’s possible that a stray cat will starve if you stop offering food, but it depends on the cat. Some stray cats get the hang of hunting fast; others never do and become malnourished, thin, and sickly. There are many strong opinions in the cat caring community about feeding stray and feral cats. There are just as many people who advocate against providing food for free-roaming cats as there are people in favor of it. We believe it’s up to you whether or not you choose to bust out the kibble to feed the strays or feral cat communities in your local area. Just know that if you’re feeding a large colony of cats rather than a single cat or two if the feral cats aren’t being spayed and neutered promptly enough you may see their population spike up. If there’s a time we do find providing food beneficial to roaming cat populations it’s in the winter, particularly if you live in snowy areas. This is because the small prey felines usually hunt may stay in their holes and burrows or hibernate, reducing the stray cat’s food source significantly. Feeding stray and feral cats protein-dense and vitamin-fortified dry kibble or wet food during the winter months gives them essential nutrients and helps them stay healthy throughout the coldest season of the year.

Will stray cats get attached to me if I feed them every day?

Cat personalities vary, so whether or not stray cats form a bond with you also varies. If the cat in question was once a well-loved house cat, there’s a high chance they’ll become attached to you. For some stray cats, the relationship is purely food-motivated. They’ll happily chow down on the food you leave out at mealtimes, but they don’t further engage with you. In some other cases, the stray cat may approach you and express physical affection like head bunts, purring, and following you around. This is more likely in highly social indoor cats who’ve been abandoned. Often these cats can be “adopted” and safely brought into your home after they’ve been thoroughly checked out by your vet and are given a clean bill of health.

What are some issues with feeding stray and feral cats?

In some urban and suburban areas, not all residents are keen on their neighborhood being turned into a feline feeding ground. Large amounts of cat food that is left out may attract insects and “undesirable” animals like raccoons and opossums. The solution is simple: set up a routine where you remove the cat food after a certain amount of time, not leaving large amounts of food behind. Cats are creatures of habit and will quickly catch on that they have a window of time to eat their food before you leave, taking the food with you. When possible use reusable bowls and plates. Stainless steel cat bowls and dog bowls work well as they’re easy to clean and disinfect and lightweight enough to easily travel with.

Are TNR programs responsible for feeding feral cats?

Yes! To begin with, regularly feeding feral cats makes trapping them to be sterilized and vaccinated a whole lot easier. But, Trap, Neuter, Release, or TNR, programs aren’t exclusively focused on just feeding feral cats purely to spay, neuter, and vaccinate them. TNR programs also provide regular care for feral cat colonies or community cat populations. That includes meeting their basic needs like feeding them nutritious and balanced cat food and providing shelter. Many TNR and community cat programs also build shelters for cats out of scrap lumber, large plastic storage bins, or even repurposed dog houses! Straw, old blankets, and towels are often used for insulation in these cat shelters. TNR programs curb the feline population and help give existing feral and community cats some protection from starvation, illness, and weather-related injuries or conditions like frostbite.
what to feed stray cats feral

How else can I help stray and feral cats?

There are many ways to help stray cats. Making sure they have access to nourishing and balanced cat food is an immediate way you can ensure the survival and health of free-roaming cats. To get more involved in helping stray and feral cats you could contact your state or city’s humane societies, animal shelters, or local rescues to see if they have room for the stray cats you’ve been feeding. A good tip is to get in touch with your town or city’s Animal Control department. These state and government-funded, or municipal, organizations are considered open-admission shelters and are required to take in abandoned companion animals like stray cats. You could also try to contact privately-owned and operated shelters or “humane societies.” Know that they can turn stray cats away, and in some cases may even charge you a fee to admit the cat or cats into their shelter.

Seeing if the cat has a home

There are a few ways you could go about seeing if a stray cat secretly has a human family. First, browse around online to see if anyone in your area has posted anything about a lost cat. Facebook and Nextdoor are the most popular platforms for missing pet ads. You could also physically check hot spots in your neighborhood. Public libraries, coffee shops, bookstores, and of course pet supply stores, often have community bulletin boards where people can post up flyers for missing cats. Your next best bet is to put up your own posters or flyers announcing that you’ve found and taken in a cat, sharing details about their appearance, personality, and the place you found them. Ultimately, one of the most effective ways you can find out if the stray cat you’ve taken in has a human family is to see if they’re microchipped! Your local veterinarian and your town or city’s Animal Control department have scanners that can read if your stray cat has been microchipped and can retrieve the contact information of their human family.

Feral cats

While at first, it may seem that feral cats are too fierce and wild to rehome, that isn’t always the case. There are instances where very young feral kittens can be taken in by human foster families and socialized. According to the Cats Protection and Feline Advisory Bureau, kittens younger than 12 weeks old have more of a likelihood of becoming tame, compared to older kittens and cats. Generally speaking 8 weeks or younger is best. But genetics do play a role, and in some cases despite being very young feral kittens can’t be socialized to live with a human family at all. There are also cases where feral cats who’ve been neutered and vaccinated through TNR programs can be taken off the streets and brought to organizations where they’re “rehomed” as barn cats. These barn cat initiatives and programs are a win-win for both the humans who “adopt” the feral cats, and the feral cats themselves. Relocating feral cats to barns, stables, or other farm properties gives cats shelter and safety from the elements and the dangers they’d otherwise face from humans or other roaming cats. It reduces their chances of being hit by cars, suffering painful injuries or infections, or coming down with serious illnesses like FIV. Feral cats turned barn cats also control rodents and other pest populations, eliminating the need for dangerous chemicals!
How to Trap a Feral Cat for TNR

How do I catch a stray cat?

Sometimes catching a stray cat is as easy as naturally developing a bond with them through mealtimes. In other cases, you may want to use humane trapping tools that are commonly used in TNR programs. The Havahart trap is one of the most popular traps. Its large size, spring-loaded drop door, and smooth, rust-proof interior make this a highly effective and safe trap. You could purchase a Havahart trap on your own, or try contacting your local Animal Control, humane society, or TNR groups to see if they could lend you one of their traps.

Can I get sick from touching a stray cat?

You most likely won’t get sick from touching a stray cat. For one, there’s a possibility they may be vaccinated against many diseases, like rabies, if they once had a human family. But there are still some risks when coming in close contact with stray cats. Ringworm, a skin fungus, is highly contagious and can be transmitted from cat to human and spread to other humans and cats the infected person touches. Cat bites are also a serious risk. A bite from a cat with an unknown vaccination history is cause for an immediate trip to the doctors’ office or emergency room for prompt treatment. Fleas, ticks, and parasites on cats could also easily be spread to humans and other cats or animals in your household. It’s a good idea to take preventive and precautionary measures like wearing gloves, frequently washing and disinfecting your hands, and changing your clothing and footwear after being in close contact with stray cats.

Why won’t animal shelters rescue feral cats?

Animal shelters typically don’t rescue feral cats for a few reasons.

They may not have enough space

The cat overpopulation crisis is very real. With 3.2 million cats entering US shelters every year shelters often simply don’t have the room to take in extra cats.

They may have to euthanize cats who are too ill, injured, or wild

There’s a reason why humane societies and privately-run shelters don’t take in stray or feral cats. In some cases, these cats are too ill, injured, or wild to be properly rehabilitated and adopted out. T he only solution may be euthanasia, and this would go against these shelters’ “no-kill” policies. It could also cause euthanasia rates to go up in open-admission shelters, which would reflect poorly on shelters and may be misunderstood by well-meaning people.

The cats could have highly contagious diseases, illnesses, or conditions

Ringworm, fleas, parasites, FIV, FeLV (feline leukemia), and upper respiratory infections are all highly contagious diseases, illnesses, and conditions that are common in stray and feral cats. These could quickly spread through the entire shelters’ cat population. This poses a danger and health hazard for the shelters’ “resident” cats.

Final thoughts on feeding strays

Knowing what to feed stray cats is just one way you can start to actively bring about change for the lives of free-roaming felines. Providing healthy nutrition for stray and feral cats not only helps them get the nutrients they need to thrive, but it also makes it easier to trap, neuter, release, and potentially even rehome these cats. With this solid understanding of the best foods to give stray and feral cats, you can be an ally for cats everywhere and play a role in curbing the cat overpopulation crisis, and reducing the likelihood of community cat populations facing injuries, illnesses, and life-threatening conditions. So grab that 20-lb bag of kibble, your trusty Havahart trap, and a can-do attitude, it’s time to start saving the world for cats, one feline at a time.
Victoria Tomis