Figuring out how to get rid of stray cats humanely from your yard can help you protect your property and backyard birds. Homeless feral cats, also known as community cats, differ from stray cats, but any type of outdoor felines may cause damage to gardens, breed litters of kittens, initiate territorial attacks with other cats, transmit diseases, and kill countless birds per year. With care and proper use of cruel-free deterrent and repellent techniques, you can reduce the visits to your yard while helping to control the feral cat population in your neighborhood.
Stray Cats vs. Feral Cats
There's a distinction between a stray neighborhood cat owned by a neighbor that occasionally wanders into your yard and a truly feral cat that does not have an owner or home. A wandering or stray outdoor pet may wear a collar and sometimes will be notably sociable with people. Feral cats are quite skittish around people and will have wilder behavior than a house cat. The methods used to get rid of stray cats may differ, depending on if you're dealing with a true feral cat or just a wandering stray pet.
10 Ways to Get Rid of Stray Cats
Remove Food Sources
Feral cats will stay in any area where food is plentiful. Avoid feeding your own pets outdoors and cover trash scraps securely to deny unwelcome cats an easy meal. Do not add any meat scraps to a compost pile. Keep grills and barbecue pits clean to avoid enticing smells.
Board up holes in old sheds or garages, under decks or porches, or in simple shelters such as woodpiles or window wells to avoid providing shelter to feral cats.
Cats are known for their love of relaxation and making a yard uncomfortable can discourage visitors. Fill flower beds and areas where cats tend to lounge with sharp pebbles, eggshell shards, or a layer of chicken wire so the ground will be uncomfortable.
Unaltered males will be attracted to any female cats in heat. Pet owners who spay their female cats are less likely to attract wandering males. Unaltered females should be kept indoors during their heat cycles.
Use Commercial Repellent
Cats have very keen senses of smell and taste, and commercial repellents are available to discourage unwanted cats. Natural repellents to sprinkle on flowerbeds or gardens include moth balls, ammonia-soaked rags, ground mustard, cayenne pepper, citrus peels, coffee grounds, and citrus-based sprays. Reapply repellents after heavy rains or long periods for the best effectiveness.
Use Scare Tactics
Old-fashioned scare tactics can discourage cats from visiting a yard regularly. Ultrasonic sirens, motion-activated sprinklers, and motion-activated lights can all be useful. If cats are jumping on a fence in one area, a sensitive bell or can of beans or marbles that will fall when the cats jump can be effective to scare them away.
Homes where dogs are allowed to roam in fenced-in yards are less likely to be visited by feral cats, especially if the breed is one renowned for chasing, such as a terrier or herding dog. If your dog has a history of actually catching small animals, though, it should not be allowed to chase cats, as it is illegal to deliberately wound a domestic cat.
Contact the Owner
If it seems likely the stray cat is a domestic pet that just happens to be wandering, you may already recognize the pet, or it may have a collar and identification tags that allow you to contact its owner. Be reasonable but firm about the problems their pet causes in your yard. Pet owners have a responsibility to control their animals, and most owners will respect this. You may, however, need to firmly indicate that calling animal control is an option if the problem continues.
Call Animal Control
Most communities staff animal control specialists who will address wild animals or loose domestic animals that are causing danger or nuisance. The degree of involvement varies depending on your community. Some agencies will actually take measures to trap and remove a true feral cat; others will come to pick one up if you have trapped it yourself.
Use Humane Traps
Spring-loaded humane traps can be effective for catching feral cats that can then be turned over to wildlife control officials or local shelters and rescues. Place traps in areas where the cats frequent and bait them with appropriate food or appetizing scents. Be aware, though, that you may trap a different creature, such as a raccoon or opossum.
Work With Neighbors
A feral cat's territory usually extends well beyond a single yard. Talk to neighbors about the problems with feral cats and encourage them to take similar steps to discourage unwelcome visitors. Neighborhoods that work together generally have fewer problems with feral cats.
Watch Now: 7 Ways to Keep Cats Out of Your Garden
Techniques to Avoid
No matter how problematic feral cats may be in the yard, certain techniques should never be used to keep these unwanted visitors away, including:
- Poisons or any toxic contamination
- Shooting, even with non-lethal ammunition or pellet guns
- Inhumane traps, including glue traps
- Aggressive dogs
These techniques are difficult to control, and using them against feral cats can violate local laws. Furthermore, because these methods are unpredictable, using them can have negative consequences against unintentional targets such as neighbors' outdoor pets or other wildlife.
It is always wise to take steps to protect backyard birds from cats by choosing safe birdhouses and feeders, avoiding ground feeding, and providing safe cover for birds to take shelter. By protecting the birds and using different tactics to discourage any feral or stray cats, it is possible to keep feral cats out of your yard and ensure birds are safe.
What Causes Stray Cats?
A stray cat—whether it is simply a wandering local domestic house cat or a true feral that has bred in the wild through no fault of its own—will be drawn to your yard because it has features the cat finds attractive. In the case of the typical house cat, this means the creature is able to find food, water, and shelter. Bird lovers who have positioned birdhouses, bird feeders, and watering stations may find that neighborhood cats come in droves to hunt birds.
How to Prevent Stray Cats
Preventing stray cats from spending time in your yard is largely a matter of denying them the habitat they prefer. It is important to use several techniques to keep feral and stray cats out of your yard. While one tactic may be effective against one cat, using several techniques can be more effective to keep other stray and feral cats from moving in when the first cat has moved out. Other options include:
- Landscaping that discourages cats: Sharp foliage with strong odors, thorny bushes, stinging plants, and sharp-edged mulch can all be part of a bird-friendly landscape that discourages cats.
- Supporting community programs: Trap-Neuter-Return-Monitor (TNRM), which is supported by the ASPCA, and feral sanctuaries care for feral cats in humane ways. These programs may help reduce the feral cat population over time.
- Supporting local adoption shelters: Care facilities can provide cats with a safe, healthy home rather than permitting strays to run loose. The more support these facilities have, financially or through material donations and volunteers, the more cats they can care for.
Can feral cats be hunted?
Although feral cats are sometimes regarded as vermin, especially in rural areas where they can become quite plentiful, it is a violation of animal cruelty laws in virtually every jurisdiction to wound or deliberately kill a domestic species such as Felis catus, the common house cat. Only animal control agencies are authorized to painlessly euthanize domestic species, even animals that roam as feral creatures.
Will a stray cat go away on its own?
Depending on the size of its available territory, a stray cat's visit to your yard may be very sporadic. Or, if it's a domestic cat that escapes occasionally, you may see it only rarely. But feral cats that find good shelter and food sources—or the hormone scent of a nearby potential mate—will very likely visit your yard on a nearly permanent basis, unless you take measures to discourage them.
Can I simply ignore a stray cat?
In many ways, a true feral cat can be seen as another form of wildlife, and some homeowners may regard its hunting of mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and other garden pests to be perfectly acceptable. Just as bird lovers dislike stray cats, some gardeners may welcome them for the predatory benefits they offer, just as a fox or owl is welcomed. However, if you find that multiple cats are frequently prowling your yard, this is no longer a natural phenomenon, and it's probably time to take steps to control the population.
Does vinegar keep cats away?
Cats hate the smell of vinegar so continuing to spray it around your yard may keep strays away. Don't spray vinegar on grasses or plants you would like to keep growing because acetic acid may damage them (unless you want to use it as a weed killer, too).
Cats and Birds. American Bird Conservancy.
Deak, Brooke P., et al. The Significance of Social Perceptions in Implementing Successful Feral Cat Management Strategies: A Global Review. Animals, vol. 9, no. 9, p. 617. 2019. doi:10.3390/ani9090617
How to Keep Frustrating Felines out of the Garden. Life at OSU.
Animal Welfare Act and Animal Welfare Regulations. U.S. Department of Agriculture.