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There are millions of homeless cats living in the United States alone, despite the efforts of hundreds of thousands of shelters, rescue centers, and kind-hearted folk who adopt. Chances are you will run into a stray cat or two in your neighborhood as the seasons change, and as unneutered felines give birth to more kittens. 

Stray cats may come sniffing around your neighborhood, or you may find one begging for food at your door. If so, it’s unlikely you will have time to run to the store to stock up on cat food. 

So now you’re faced with a question: What to feed a stray cat without cat food?

In this article:

  • How to Handle Stray Cats
  • What to Feed Stray Cats
    • Don’ts
    • Do’s
  • Rehoming & After Care

How to Handle Stray Cats

When dealing with a stray cat, you’re going to make sure that it truly is a stray and not just a cat that is wandering around but spoken for. Look for tell-tale signs like collars and tags. Strays tend to have more scars and bruises. Another indicator is that they are almost never spayed/neutered.

what to feed a stray cat without cat food cute

It’s not always foolproof, however, as cats are increasingly being microchipped under the skin and might not have any identifiable information that you can see. Either way, even an owned cat can get lost from time to time, and may still require your assistance.

There are many best practices when taking care of a stray cat. You should always make sure that you handle it cautiously and tend to any needs. The first and foremost of which will probably be food.

What to Feed a Stray Cat Without Cat Food: Don’ts

If you’re sure it’s a stray, or you decide to feed it just in case, you’ll be wondering what to feed a stray cat without cat food. Luckily, there are many things you may already have around the house that will suit their diet.

No Milk

It’s a long-standing myth that cats love milk. While they will drink it, they actually lack the enzymes necessary to process standard cow’s milk that you buy in the stores. It’s best to avoid putting a bowl of milk thinking it’s the best solution. It is far better to provide a dish of clean water and some solid food.

Only if the stray is a very young kitten is milk ever appropriate; and only then with specialized formula. Try feeding it drip by drip from a syringe, or failing that, your finger.

Kittens require extra attention and should be taken to a professional at the earliest opportunity. Nursing kittens away from their mother need a special milk formula that replicates their mother’s milk. In some cases, they need to be rehomed with another new mother cat.

what to feed a stray kitten without cat food

No Dog Food

If you have to feed a stray cat without cat food, you may be looking through the cupboards for what you think is the next best thing: dog food. This is not such a good idea.

While sure they are similar, pet food is specially formulated for the stomachs of the animals they suit. Such as the levels of amino acids, proteins, etc., that allow them to have a healthy, balanced diet.

No for Most Veggies & Fruits

Some people think that they can feed a stray cat on vegetables and fruits alone, which is not the best option either.

A hungry cat will eat anything, sure enough, but cats are consummate carnivores. Food like tomatoes and potatoes might give them gastrointestinal problems. When you’re thinking of what to feed a stray cat without cat food, you should think protein.

See our complete guide on human foods that cats can eat to know what veggies and fruits are okay for cats to consume in moderation (i.e., bananas and eggs).


What to Feed a Stray Cat Without Cat Food: Do’s

Common wisdom states that if you’re going to feed a stray cat without cat food, you could use tuna or sardines. This appeals on many levels. But be careful.

Okay to Tuna

Tuna is simple, (usually) plain food that’s often in our cupboards. It’s also an ingredient or flavoring in a lot of commercial cat foods. It smells pungent, which will encourage a nervous stray to eat or direct a weak cat to the food bowl.

A lot of people use tuna to attract the cat in the first place. If it is hesitant to come towards you, practice patience. Also, try to use the most natural tuna possible. Some tuna cans/packs tend to be very salty which is not good.

Tuna serves to feed strays when you have nothing else in your cupboards. For this purpose, it is okay to use tuna if you have nothing else to feed a stray cat, but avoid using it on a regular basis!

Yes to Chicken, Beef, Lamb, etc.

A great option is simple cooked (boneless) chicken. Making sure it doesn’t have any additives or flavorings, you can also add a little plain boiled rice or even unseasoned scrambled eggs to the dish.

While sure, some cats will eat raw meat, it is better to give them something cooked and devoid of potential bacteria.

what to feed a stray cat

With any of these options, you should always try it sparingly. If you don’t know the history of the cat or its diet, you don’t want to be in a situation where you are upsetting a delicate stomach.

Yes to Plain Rice & Eggs, Sweet Potato…

Plain rice and plain scrambled eggs are good quick fixes for a starving stray cat.

A Fluffy Kitty reader even noted that you can add pumpkin or sweet potato to help calm cats’ stomachs and aid with digestion.

Often times, when people choose what to feed a stray cat they offer something instead of nothing. You might consider it okay because kitty lives outside and has to scavenge from bins and scraps anyway. The truth is, you may end up doing more harm than good that way. Do not feed your cat processed human foods.

Whatever the case, if you plan on holding on to this cat for a while you should absolutely invest in some proper, balanced cat food. This is to ensure the cat meet its nutritional needs. For that matter, check out our in-depth guide for cat nutrition


Rehoming and After Care

After deciding what to feed a stray cat without cat food, you should give it regular meals. About every 8-10 hours or so. Make sure to provide a fresh dish of water that you change regularly as well to avoid a buildup of bacteria (and, probably, cat hair).

As soon as possible, you should start looking for the owner. If you are sure it is a stray, you should contact your local vet for advice. They may take it to a shelter, or operate a neuter-and-release program.

You may even have decided to adopt it. In this case, you should get it vaccinated, registered, and make sure you stock up your cupboards with lots of tasty, well-balanced cat food!

Final Thoughts | What to Feed a Stray Cat Without Cat Food

In sum, feeding a stray cat without cat food doesn’t need to be like solving a Rubik’s cube. If you have spare food that is safe for cats, at least that’s something!

Already if you can provide a meal for a hungry kitty, the world will be in a better place. Thank you for being so kind and taking care of the cats in need of food, shelter, and love!


The Fluffy Kitty

The Fluffy Kitty blog inspires cat owners around the world to live a more adventurous and eco-friendly life with their cats. Read more about our story on our about us page.

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  1. Hey there!
    It’s nice article and great to have info like that, love your blogs <3
    just had a question I just taking care of stray cat but can't decide what food should I give to a pregnant feral cat that will be healthy for her and kittens as well other than cat food.
    Thanks In Advance !

  2. Thank you so much for your advice. I feed a stray long haired kitty and I give her boiled chicken every night. I’m hoping that she may gain weight to help her stay healthy this winter. What do you think? Also, I made kitty house with silver blanket the astronaut’s use, and straw. I am praying that keeps her warm. I would love any advice you can give me.

    1. Thanks so much, Carol. 🙂 Love the astronaut bed you made, how cool! Sounds like it should keep her plenty warm. Using straw is a great way to provide insulation. If you want her to gain weight easily, you could try Tomlyn’s nutrition gel which adds something like 26 kcals per teaspoon. Just add it to her daily meal. You could also buy some freeze-dried treats or toppers to supplement her meal. The good thing about chicken is protein, but you might want to supplement with a portion of quality-brand cat food to ensure your kitty gets the necessary added vitamins and minerals (such as Taurine), that which, by the way, can also be added as a supplement to raw or homemade cat food recipes.

  3. FINALLY!!! I’ve been looking for about 20 minutes about how often to feed this stray cat i seem to have adopted today. I have taken all the precautions so far (contacted police department to file a report, bright him to the vet to check for a chip, etc) and it seems he’s pretty much a stray cat. He’s inhaling his food so i was worried about him regurgitating his food (he hasn’t yet) so since it’s 8-10 hours, I’ll feed him in another 8 until he calms down a little bit.
    Happy catting!

    1. Bridget, thank you SO much!! That means a lot!! We are happy you’re adopting this little stray <3 He is probably inhaling his food because of safety reasons, but that will calm down once he feels safe and knows that his meal isn't going to be stolen by another feisty feline. In lieu of 2X a day (morning and night - we do this with Yoda btw), you can choose to feed him 3X a day to curve his hunger and help him eat more gradually too. Just divide the regular amount into 3 portions. Some cats prefer this, but it's up to you and your kitty. Best of luck with your new fluffy kitty!!! xoxo

  4. Actually that is not correct. Raw fish is very bad for cats and can be toxic. Tuna, is high in mercury and can also be toxic for cats if consumed regularly. Feeding a cat, even a feral cat, a diet of only tuna can lead to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. Albacore, Ahi and Yellowfin Tuna are very high in mercury levels. Skipjack Tuna contains the least amount of mercury.
    Cooked (not raw) chicken (without the bones), lamb, duck, beef, or venison, is the best thing to feed a cat, even a feral one.

    1. Hi Jennifer! Thanks for reaching out and reading Fluffy Kitty! We’d just like to clarify — we do not recommend using these easy go-tos on a regular basis (aka tuna). But thanks a lot for pointing that out and for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Adopted healthy male cat. Have tried feeding several different types of cost foods. Vomits moist, Dried. Prefers pates. Eats small amounts of a cheap dried food try to stop him from eating. Our other cat food Rachel rays salmon but always comes out undigested.. What to feed?

    1. Hello Judith, thanks for reaching out!
      What’s your cat’s age? Right now we’re feeding Yoda Pro Plan (we can’t get Blue Buffalo here in Belgium) and it’s optimized with lots of protein and is great for indoor cats. When cats vomit up their food, something is unsettling them. Either the quality is not good enough, or the food contains lots of grains, corn, by-products (basically no whole ingredients – especially protein). Check the ingredients label on the food package – I’m not sure about Rachel Rays salmon so start there. Blue Buffalo also offers patés if your cat prefers, you can find them online or in a local PetCo or PetSmart. Always make sure to follow the feeding instructions when you switch foods – also the fact that your cat maybe switching foods too often is prompting him to throw up – it could also be due to external stress factors (i.e., a change in routine, dirty litter box, unwanted guests..). We hope you can identify the problem that triggers this reaction! Please see our cat nutrition guide for more details about feeding your cat.

    2. Salmon is okay for cats, (it is low in mercury) as is Trout, but they can’t eat fish in general regularly because that can lead to malnutrition and vitamin deficiency. Raw fish is toxic to cats. Tuna, unless it is Skipjack, is very high in mercury and is vry bad for cats. It could be that your cat is malnourished and therefore is refusing to eat the fish dinner that you put out because his body needs nutrients that are not in it. I only feed my cats fish or seafood periodically as a treat. My cats like calamari, lobster, crab, sardines, etc, but they do not get it every day.
      If you cat is sick, (after you take him to a vet of course to make sure that he is not seriously ill) give to him cooked chicken, and you can add pumpkin or sweet potato to it as it calms their stomachs and helps aid in digestion.
      A raw diet is best for cats. Foods like cooked chicken, lamb, duck, beef, venison, is best.
      Brand is important as well. If you are feeding your cat Friskies (or anything Purina) you may as well have his tombstone engraved now. It is poison. It is filled with so much toxic crap that it causes serious digestive issues among other serious health problems. Animals are similar to humans in that they are not designed to consume “junk food.” Some cat food brands (just like some human food brands) provide the illusion of being healthy, but they are really junk in disguise. For example, a yogurt that is supposed to be healthy but is packed with processed sugar, artificial food dyes, certain preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup. It is not actually healthy. It is junk food that gives the illusion of being healthy.
      The following things are very bad for cats and should not be in cat food:
      Meat By-Products.
      Artificial Food Dyes, like Red #40, Blue#2, Yellow #5 (and any and all food dyes).
      Wheat, Soy or Corn Meal (or any type of grains / grain meal)
      Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
      Trisodium Phosphate (TSP)
      Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
      Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
      Propylene Glycol
      Ethylene Glycol
      Polyethylene Glycol
      I could type for hours but these are just the most common “toxic crap” found in cat foods.
      As far as it concerns by-products, it is not the actual organs (like heart, liver, gizzards etc) that are bad for cats and their digestive systems, but the other “fillers” added in – blood, bone, puss, genitals, hooves, etc. Even in the wild, cats leave certain things alone. Think about it. If Salmonella, Norovirus, BSE and etc can end up in human food and make us sick, it can also end up in cat food and make cats sick.
      There are several brands on the market that are relatively healthy, but they must be fed as supplemental feeding (in addition to dried food) as they do not contain enough nutrients in and of themselves. Some are rather pricy, but if you bulk order you can save money.
      Natural Balance (this does come in a Pâté)
      Almo Nature (raw food)
      Applaws (raw food)
      Fussie Cat (raw food)
      Tiki Cat (raw plus the Tiki Dark has organs, like heart and liver, in it!)
      My cats will eat all of these brands and have no digestive issues from any of them. Try to feed your cat one of these brands that has chicken or chicken and pumpkin, or chicken and sweet potato in it, as that will calm his stomach. See if you can get him onto a raw diet (or as close to raw as you can get) as that is best for him. If not, then Natural Balance is a good brand to feed him also. Good Luck!

      1. Hi again!
        Many many thanks for contributing your knowledge to our article! We totally agree with your remark about the poor food brands (still not sure how Friskies is even operating…) Since we travel a lot, some brands aren’t available in some countries than in others (the choice in Nepal was horrifying.. aka no choice!) Here in Belgium it’s okay.. We managed to find Pro Plan (still Purina) and are trying 1 bag of it since the protein % was higher than others (22% and of course no by-products!) It’s true everything you mentioned about all the bad stuff going into our cat’s food (let alone our own food). It’s important for our readers and for us as well – to verify brands, sources, and check the ingredients label! Thanks a lot for your helpful suggestions of quality brands. We will look more into them in future articles and reviews.
        P.S We have updated the article per some of your suggestions. Thanks for helping enrich the Fluffy Kitty community!
        Brittany, Paul, and Yoda =^^=

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