by Karen Geissert, DVM
Q: We recently found an adult cat at a nearby park. Since she was so hungry and had no collar or identification on her, we took her home with us. Although we put up notices around the park and reported the found cat to our local police station, no one has come forward to claim her. She is very thin and eats ravenously but seems fine otherwise. Does she need veterinary care?
A: Your dilemma is a common tale we hear at our veterinary practice—a Good Samaritan finds a stray pet and takes it home. You should be commended for your kindness but you should be aware that you might be committing to a larger responsibility than simply providing food and shelter for this lost pet.
What should be done when you find a pet? First, you should make every attempt to reconnect the lost pet with its owner, such as the efforts you describe. If the pet has no identifying information on a collar or harness, it may have a tattoo or a microchip implant. Most shelters, veterinarians, or police departments have a microchip reader to trace the pet’s owner.
Then comes the hard part—deciding whether you should turn the lost animal over to an animal control officer or a shelter that will accept lost pets, or whether you will accept the responsibility of caring for a new pet. If you decide to keep it, a veterinarian should examine the pet and run some basic diagnostic tests. All rescued pets need to be vaccinated which is especially important for rabies prevention. Cats should also be tested for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus before they interact with any other pets in your household. Animal shelters typically keep new animals separated from the rest of the animal population if they do not know the vaccine history or if the animal is showing signs of illness. Animals that have passed screening and appear healthy are then put up for adoption.
Rabies exposure is a serious risk you face when taking in a stray. If the animal has a bite wound, the risk may be substantially higher. Since the vaccination status is unknown, the pet could have been exposed to rabies and appear healthy but be incubating the virus. It can take up to six months for the rabies virus to produce symptoms so be very careful that no one is bitten during this six-month observation period. Unfortunately, there is no known diagnostic test to determine whether the animal is carrying the virus; only after the animal’s death can infection be confirmed by testing the brain for the active virus.
So whenever you find an unidentified stray animal, you need to be sure that it does not present a health threat for your family or your household pets before you adopt. Does the pet have any parasites that could present a risk for your household? Is the pet behaving normally? Are there any obvious medical problems such as a wound, lameness, or the inability to eat or drink? Not all disease processes may be readily apparent and some screening tests may be needed. A veterinarian will help you assess the health of the animal and whether or not you should keep it.
This post also appeared in The Beacon, Acton, MA, on Thursday, September 4, 2014.