Fresh tracks after a snowfall are an easy way to track strays if you get up before heavy traffic begins. Try to approach the stray. If you think the cat is a stray, approach slowly while speaking in a soft voice. If the cat acts skittish, try bending down to its level.
Hold out your hand and call it with a sweet voice. If that doesn’t do it, return to the area later with a strong-smelling food, like tuna or dried liver. Don’t get too close if the cat seems tense or nervous. If the cat feels cornered, it may bite or scratch. If the cat has tags and lets you get close enough to read the phone number or address, contact the owners to find out whether the cat is supposed to be outside. Some tags have the contact info for a veterinary clinic instead. The vet may not be legally allowed to give you the owner’s contact info, but they can pass on a message.
Provide shelter, water, and catnip for a potential stray cat. This may help to keep a lost cat near you until you can assist it. Place the food outdoors very late at night, in a small space that a cat could access but a larger animal could not. In sub-zero temperatures, oil from a tin of sardines poured over kibble works well. If you cannot approach the cat, you could ask Animal Control or a local animal shelter to capture it. Find out their policies before you make the call, especially if the cat does not have tags. Many shelters euthanize cats that do not seem adoptable.
Shelters generally offer a better chance at a good life for strays than they find on the streets. In a shelter, the cat will not die of starvation, injuries, or exposure. If you would rather catch the cat yourself, buy a humane cat trap from a hardware store, or ask animal control if they have any available for loan. Cover the trip plate and wire bottom of the trap with newspaper, so that the cat won’t instinctively avoid stepping on the trip plate. Bait the trap with a small amount of strong-smelling food. Do not set the trip plate on a hair trigger.
If the cat triggers it prematurely and escapes, it may never come back. It’s better to risk the plate not going off, since you can put out more bait and try again. Too much food will create a mess if the cat panics and scatters it or vomits. In exceptionally cold weather, cover the trap with a sheet or towel, then heap snow over this covering to help keep the cat warm and calmer once it has been trapped. Check the trap frequently but carefully. Check the trap as often as possible, but approach slowly to avoid scaring away the cat at the wrong moment. Gradually move the feeding spot closer to the trap, and eventually inside it.
If the cat won’t go inside, try covering the trap with a towel sprayed with cat pheromone spray. Once the cat is eating consistently inside the trap, set it to trigger. Decide what to do with the cat once it is trapped. Once you have captured the cat, contact a local shelter to ask about local laws. In some areas, you are required to take lost pets to a shelter so the owner has a chance to find it. If you do not plan to look after the cat at home, arrange in advance for a shelter or animal control agency to pick up the cat.
Keep the cat in the trap in a quiet, dark area while it waits. Minimize the amount of time the cat has to wait, as this is extremely stressful for the animal. A stray pet tends to have a dirty coat, and a tendency to meow and make eye contact. It may eventually relax, come up to the front of the cage, or investigate toys or people that come near the cage. Even a friendly cat often panics in a trap. Wear heavy gloves when near the cat, and have a thick towel or blanket ready to throw over the cat if it tries to attack you. Set the carrier on its end, with the door at the top. Push down on the cat’s back immediately with your other hand, until you can get hold of both back legs. Stretch your arms apart as far as you can, lift the cat, and put it rear-end-first into a carrier. Quickly close the door on top of the cat. Hold the door down with one hand and brace the carrier between your legs until you have latched the door securely. Set up a safe place for the cat to stay.