Animal experts agree that you should not feed stray cats and dogs because it negatively impacts both them and wildlife. For cats it can result in direct conflicts with wild animals, predation, disease transmission and complaints from neighbors. For wildlife, regular human handouts can result in habituation where wild animals associate people with food (this is the number one cause of urban wildlife conflicts and in many cases the result is the removal and elimination of the wild animal). However, since most people want to help when they see a starving, sick or injured animal, it is important for them to know how to help those animals in a responsible way. If you know in your heart that you're a rescuer, equip yourself to do the best possible job by always having the following items in your car: Phone; phone numbers of local animal control, a shelter, and a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic; cat carrier or cardboard box; collars and strong leashes for dogs; heavy blanket; water bowls and water; strong-smelling foods, such as canned tuna or dried liver and an animal first-aid kit. The following is a list of recommendations for what you should do when you encounter strays or wildlife in need of assistance:
Check of ID
Determine whether a dog or cat has guardians by checking for collars, tags, and clipped or notched ears (which are exclusive to cats that have been spayed or neutered and released back to the streets). Lost pets who have been on the run for weeks or months could be dirty, skinny, and flea-ridden even though they might have come from a wonderful home. So, don’t assume that an animal has been neglected or abandoned just because he or she is in rough shape. It’s also possible that street animals count on a circle of caretakers to provide them with food, water, and companionship even though they don’t have a home.
If an animal is wearing an ID you may be able to immediately contact the owner and return the pet. If the pet is wearing an ID but you are unable to immediately contact the owner, you may choose to hold onto the pet for a few hours and wait for a call back from the owner. Even if you choose this course of action, it is still advisable to immediately file a ‘found’ report with your local animal shelter in case the owner calls or goes there to search for the pet.
If the pet is not wearing an ID tag, the best course of action is to either take it to your local animal shelter or call the animal control/police department to pick it up. The shelter staff will scan the animal for a microchip, and they can immediately look up the owner’s contact information for an animal that is chipped. The animal shelter is the best chance for animals to be reunited with their owners because the shelter is the one obvious place where owners are likely to look for lost pets. While most shelters maintain a database of “found” reports, these reports are often inaccurate due to the subjectivity of the person describing the animal. Many people are not familiar with breeds and coat colors and may not be able to give an accurate description of the animal they have found. One alternative would be to post a picture of the found animal in the shelter’s computer database if the shelter has software with that capability. This would allow you to hold the lost pet, while still allowing the owner to find it at the shelter via a photo. If the dog or cat is without an ID tag you could also provide a temporary one that includes your name and phone number.
Check for distress
Determine whether an animal is in distress by looking for protruding bones indicating that it is undernourished, missing fur indicating a skin infection or a visible wound. If you notice any of these the animal will need to be rescued, but first you should ask anyone who is around whether they know the animal or who might own it.
Be alert for rabies
Be alert for animals infected with Rabies. An animal with Rabies could act disoriented, aggressive or it could appear to be choking. Note the location of the sighting and, if possible, take a picture of the animal. Then alert the authorities. If you are bitten, wash the wound with regular soap, and run water over the injury for a full 15 minutes. Then seek medical attention.
Do not spook the animal
Keep a safe distance so that you don’t spook the animal into traffic or cause it to run off. A frightened and sick or injured animal can behave unpredictably. A sudden move on your part, even opening your car door, can spook them and cause them to bolt—possibly right onto the highway. Use caution when approaching the animal. When moving toward the animal, speak calmly to reassure them. Make sure they can see you as you approach and perhaps entice them to come by offering strong-smelling food such as canned tuna or dried liver. (Remember that you could get bitten or scratched if you attempt to hand-feed an animal.) Let the dog or cat approach you. A friendly dog will wag its tail, perk up its ears and sniff you. A friendly cat will sidle up to you with its tail and ears up, and it may rub against your leg. Let them signal how much contact they want. Instead of swooping in from above when petting an unfamiliar dog, walk along a curve and line up with the animal’s left or right flank. While avoiding direct eye contact, crouch down and present the palm of your hand with a gesture of “I come in peace” and allow the dog to sniff your hand. Keep in mind that street animals, even friendly ones, may not be used to belly rubs or back scratches and too much contact may frighten them.
Alert your local animal control
Call your local animal control if you cannot safely approach the animal or if it runs away (in rural areas, call the police). Do so whether the animal is injured or wearing an identification tag. Leave your phone number with the dispatcher. If you’re in a vehicle and the animal looks or acts threatening stay in your car. Make sure you report to the authorities the exact street address where the animal was last seen or where the animal is by using road names, mile markers or landmarks.
Take the animal to the nearest animal shelter
If you are able to transport the animals, take them to the nearest animal shelter so that they can be scanned for a microchip. If possible, restrain the animal. Create a barrier or use a carrier, leash, piece of cloth, or length of rope to keep the animal in the area. It’s wise to place a towel or shirt over the animal’s eyes to calm its nerves. If you plan to keep the animal in the event no owner is found, notify animal control that you have the animal or that you have taken them to a veterinary hospital for treatment. Check local regulations so you can be sure of your legal obligations. Some municipalities allow you to keep the pet while you attempt to find the owner, while others require you to relinquish the pet. If you take the animal to a shelter, be sure to claim “first and last rights.” That means you can adopt the animal if they are unclaimed and due to be euthanized.It’s also a good idea to call the animal control facility daily to let people there know you are interested in the animal’s welfare.
(An exception to the rule about transporting stray animals is when you find kittens without their mother. It isn’t a good idea to immediately relocate kittens because the mother might be nearby or searching for food. What you should do is keep track of their location and check on them again since it’s possible that they really have been abandoned. And if that is the case, they need to be taken to a shelter.)
Transport sick animal to a vet
Transport obviously sick dogs and cats to a shelter or to a vet or animal hospital. Do this ONLY if you have had experience with ill or injured animals. If you haven’t had any experience, note the location of the animal(s), take pictures, and then call someone to help and wait until help arrives. You should not take an injured animal to a vet or animal hospital unless you’re willing to assume the responsibility for paying the vet fees. Vet care is not cheap. Anyone who is committed to trying to save injured stray animals should discuss this issue in advance with the veterinarian. Understand that all animal care and control facilities have budgetary and/or space limitations. Animal control might not be able to provide expensive surgery to treat an animal’s injuries. In those cases, shelters are likely to euthanize the animals to relieve their suffering.
Be sure to contact your local animal shelter or animal control office BEFORE bringing the animal into your home. This will give you an opportunity to let the appropriate agency know that you have the animal and to provide a description to them in case the owner contacts them; and it allows them to scan the animal for a microchip (this quick ID check could help you find the owner right away). Make sure you can keep your resident animals separate because the found animal could be sick, fearful, or aggressive with other animals. Once you have them safely at your home, take pictures and create a “found pet” flier to post around the area in which the animal was found. You can also post notices at veterinary hospitals and on websites such as petfinder.com. Many times, the animal you find along the highway will turn out to be dis-owned, unwanted, and unclaimed. Even so, in almost every state, the animal is not "owned" by the finder until the holding period for strays (as specified by state or local laws) has expired and the finder has tried to reunite the animal with their original owner and/or has taken steps—obtaining vaccinations, license, collar and identification tag—to prove they are now the owner. Be reasonable about how much you can afford to do for that animal if no owner shows up. Be honest about whether you’re willing to add them to your household and whether you will be willing to return them to their original home if the owner turns up after you've started to form an attachment. If you can’t add them to your household or wouldn’t be willing to give them up to the original owner, your best option is to take the animal directly to the shelter or contact animal control for help.
Every state has laws concerning keeping wild animals as pets because most people cannot meet the needs of wild animals. Wild animals have complex behavioral, social, nutritional, and psychological needs. They need to be with members of their own species. The laws are varied and complicated, so if you decide that you want to take a wild animal into your home, first check the laws where you live to make sure you won’t end up paying a hefty fine or going to jail.
Feed species-appropriate foods.
Wet pet food is preferable, as well as plain chicken or tuna; or stick to simple boiled foods like rice, potatoes, and eggs. It isn’t a good idea to provide milk or cheese because most animals have a digestive system that is not designed to break down the fat associated with dairy products which leads to complications such as vomiting and diarrhea. Also avoid providing spicy, sweet, deep fried and/or salty food which is difficult to digest.
Set up multiple feeding stations and choose areas away from car and pedestrian traffic if you are feeding a pack or colony of animals. It is best to choose areas where they are already scavenging, such as near a dumpster. If you stick to the same spots the animals will know exactly where to come to get fed.
Feed on a schedule
Feed them on a schedule because dogs, cats and wildlife are quick to fall into a routine, especially one that involves food. Once you start feeding strays you make a commitment that could last for years. Street animals are poor at hunting and live off the scraps they can find or depend on people to feed them. If you don’t plan to be consistent, it is better to not start at all. If you’re feeding a cat colony you can monitor the cats and know the total number being fed, when new cats show up, when a familiar face is missing, and if a cat is injured - which will also make it easier to trap cats for spaying/neutering or other medical needs. If you stop feeding them, they will stay in the same area but be forced to expand their search for food.
Feed on reusable dishes
Feed on reusable dishes that can be picked up and cleaned. Animals are likely to ingest parasites if they eat food that is placed directly on the ground. Disposable containers can often blow around as garbage once they are empty. Picking up the dishes after the animals are finished eating will keep the area clean and tidy to reduce complaints and will also reduce flies and other insects.
Feed only as much as is needed.
Food which is left out for extended periods of time or overnight can attract unintended wildlife, including rats, raccoons, skunks, crows and other birds, opossums and even coyotes (who will happily make a meal out of a cat); and some animals, such as foxes, will take food and bury it to be eaten later.
Provide fresh water. Be sure water is available and replace it regularly in clean containers.
Be mindful of the neighbors and do everything you can to prevent animals from entering the neighbors' yards
Provide shelter for stray animals.
This gives them a safe place to escape the elements and it can also prevent them from seeking shelter in a neighbor’s shed, porch, or crawl space. Making a shelter for homeless animals is easier than finding a shelter. You can create a temporary shelter by using plastic bins, cardboard boxes, or bricks.
Find homes for animals (if possible)
You can help reduce the number of cats living outdoors by spaying/neutering the ones you feed and by finding homes for the friendly cats and kittens.
Wash your hands
Wash your hands with soap and water and wash your clothes as soon as possible after interacting with street animals - this is imperative if you have pets of your own. You want to avoid parasites and viruses even though the possibility of picking up a disease is quite low.