What to do if you find a stray cat — plus the £5,000 mistake to avoid

New UK legislation has made it mandatory for all cat owners to microchip their pets. The rule, which came into effect just this year, is intended to make it easier for lost or stray cats to be reunited with their owners. If an owner is found to not have their cat microchipped, they could face a £500 fine if one is not inserted within 21 days. Here, the experts from Catit explain what this means for cat owners, what to do if you find a stray cat, and other laws cat owners need to bear in mind — including the common mistake that could cost you £5,000 in fines.

The new microchipping law
According to data from Cats Protection, around 2.8 million cats in the UK weren’t microchipped in 2022— that’s around 26% of the UK’s pet cat population. These unchipped cats are particularly vulnerable to being lost or stolen as there’s no way to trace them back to their owner.

Under the new law, cat owners have until the 10th of June 2024 to get their cat microchipped. All unchipped cats must be microchipped before this date. Afterwards, owners will need to chip new cats before they reach 20 weeks old. If owners fail to microchip their cat, they will be given 21 days to do so. Failure to chip a cat after this time will result in a £500 fine. Chipping your cat is very simple and can be done at your local vet for around £20–£30 (Cats Protection). During the appointment, a small microchip will be inserted under your cat’s skin. The procedure is very quick and painless and can feel much like getting an injection.

The microchip will have a unique code that can be used to identify your cat via a database. The code will also be connected to your contact details so it’s important to keep the chip updated if your details change.

What to do if you find a stray cat

If you find a lost cat, the new microchipping law will make it much easier to locate the cat’s owner, but there are a few other steps you can take before taking it to a local vet to check the chip. Under the Theft Act 1968, a lost or stray cat is the ‘property’ of the original owner, so all the necessary steps must be taken to find the cat’s home wherever possible.

How to identify a stray or feral cat

If you come across a cat and you feel concerned about their safety, you should first check that the cat is indeed a stray rather than simply an outdoor cat or a feral cat.

Stray cats are those that have previously had a home but have run away, become lost, or have been abandoned. As they’re used to being around people, stray cats are generally found around residential areas. While they may be anxious or frightened, they can be rehabilitated back into domestic life. As they’re not used to living outside alone, stray cats may have a dishevelled appearance and might be thin and in poor health. Domesticated outdoor cats that aren’t lost will appear healthy, neat, and clean.

On the other hand, a feral cat is a cat that was born and lives in the wild. These cats tend to have very little human interaction and as a result may run away if you try to approach them. They might also have the potential to become aggressive if they feel threatened. As they’re adapted to living outdoors and are used to being able to wander around farms and roam in large spaces, feral cats are better at looking after themselves in the wild, so will look well-fed and groomed.

Approaching a stray cat

If you have identified a cat as a stray, you should approach it carefully so as to not frighten them. Hold your hand out and call to the cat in a gentle, calm voice. You could also offer some dry food and water to encourage the cat to approach you. Avoid leaving out wet food, as this could contain potential allergens. Dry food can also be left outside for a period of time as you establish trust.

Finding their owner

Once the cat has established some form of trust with you, you can check to see if they are wearing a collar with the owner’s contact details on it. If the cat doesn’t have contact details on its collar, you can attach a note to ask if the cat belongs to someone. If there is no collar, you can add a makeshift one made from paper. This way, if the cat does go home, the owner can either send a note back (cats will go back to where they’ve learnt trust) or they will post on social media to let the neighbourhood know that the cat is theirs and is safe and well.

You could also ask your neighbours if they recognise the cat, either by going door to door, posting on your neighbourhood social media group, or putting up posters. Some cats may look like a stray if they have been in a fight or have health concerns, but they are still owned.

If no one steps forward to claim the cat, you can get the cat checked to see if it has been microchipped. There are two ways to do this. You could ask on social media to see if there is anyone in your local area with a microchip scanner — there may be someone nearby who looks for lost animals in your area. This is a good option if you can’t get to a vet, as they will usually come out to you. It will also help avoid any upset as you won’t need to move the kitty from its surroundings.

Alternatively, you can take the cat to your local vet to get it scanned. If you’ll be driving with the cat in tow, be sure to put it in a secure cat carrier. According to the Highway Code, all animals should be suitably restrained in the car so that they cannot distract you while driving. Failure to restrain the animal appropriately could lead to a fine of up to £5,000 (RAC).

A top-opening cat carrier will make the journey much more comfortable for a nervous stray cat. These open from the top instead of the front, which can make the cat feel less cornered. It’s also much easier to get the cat in and out of this kind of carrier, which is perfect for cats that aren’t familiar with you.

What if no owner steps forward?

If you’ve tried all the reasonable steps to locate the cat’s owner and no one comes forward within seven days, the cat can be rehomed. You will be able to decide whether you will take the cat in yourself or send it to a rehoming shelter.

What other laws do cat owners need to know?

We all love our feline friends and want to make sure that they live the best, most comfortable life possible. But did you know that this is actually required by law? The Animal Welfare Act 2006 states that pets should have five basic needs met. These are:

• Access to a suitable environment
• A suitable diet
• The ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
• The need to be housed with or apart from other animals
• Protection from pain, suffering, injury, and disease

This law applies whether you’re looking after a cat on a temporary or permanent basis.

While it goes without saying, make sure to provide your cat with a comfortable place to rest and play, with regular access to food and fresh water. Many cats can be fussy when it comes to drinking so you may want to invest in a cat water fountain. This will provide a constant flow of fresh, filtered water which can encourage even the fussiest felines to drink regularly. An automatic cat feeder can also supply your cat with consistent, balanced meals, even while you’re out and about. These are also great for building trust with a stray cat, as you can make sure they are eating enough without binge eating in fear of where their next meal might come from.

“Our cats are part of the family, so of course we want to keep them safe. As free-roaming animals, it can be difficult to keep tabs on where your feline friends are. That’s why the new microchipping law is great news, as it increases the chances of so many lost cats being reunited with their families.

“A collar and tag are also a good idea for outdoor cats, allowing your pet to be reunited with you much more quickly if they stray too far from home. Just make sure to choose a quick-release collar that will snap open if it gets stuck on something.”
— Paul Trott from Catit

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