Helping a sick or injured outdoor cat

I’ve had two experiences recently with sick and injured outdoor cats. I will share a short version of those stories and then provide tips and suggestions for helping outdoor or feral cats.


First was Charcoal, the gray outdoor cat that I feed in my backyard. He is feeder friendly cat, and I was able to get him to the vet for care.

Charcoal stayed in the cat playpen in the garage for a week for treatment, as he needed liquid medicine twice a day. I know Charcoal well enough to know that if I had released him, I would not have been able to get the medicine into him.

It took me longer to recognize that he was sick than an indoor cat due to spending limited time with the outdoor cats.

And Charcoal was skipping some meal and treat times. When I got him help, he was dehydrated, lethargic, had significant weight loss, and was not eating much. In addition, an X-Ray revealed that he had fluid in his lungs.

In about a week, Charcoal recovered and was released back into the yard.

Sadly, Charcoal passed away in January 2022 (about six or seven months after being treated.

a gray cat sitting by cat food bowls


And then, my friend who feeds outdoor cats in her driveway had a feral cat with a wound on its neck. This was a newer cat that she had never been able to pet before. She named him Muffin.

We started doing TNR together in 2017. She still feeds two cats pictured in this post, Sarah in her driveway, and Callie eats across the street.

One morning, she was able to pet Muffin. She told me he had a sore on his neck and might need the vet. Then he didn’t come around for a couple of days. We hoped someone else was helping him.

She borrowed a trap, and when Muffin returned, he would not go in the trap. So, I thought maybe he had ear mites or fleas, and since my friend could pet him now, she was able to put Revolution on him.

His wound got worse. On a morning when she was able to feed the cats a bit later, which meant the sun was starting to come up, she got a good look at the wound. He needed help ASAP.

The next morning, she was able to push him into a cat carrier. I set him up in the cat playpen in the garage and started calling vets in my area for an appointment, as my vet was closed that day.

a tabby cat in a cat carrier
Muffin, waiting in the cat carrier to be seen at the vet.

I found a vet that could see him. But unfortunately, his wound was quite large on his neck (it was large and disturbing, so not posting a picture of it). And he tested positive for FIV, and the wound was infected (it had a strong smell).

The vet recommended euthanasia for Muffin. The chances of a successful recovery were extremely low due to the FIV and the location and size of the wound. He was dehydrated too. It was like his body was already starting to shut down.

We could not help Muffin in time, and I feel quite sad about that.

The suggestions below are from what I learned while helping cats in my area. This includes Charcoal and Muffin, a feral cat, Chloe (mother of my Nacho), and others.

Perhaps, something that I list will help some outdoor or feral cats in the future.

Tips and Suggestions

Please note, I am not a behavior expert or a veterinarian. This list is based on my personal experiences with a limited number of outdoor and feral cats.

  • Watch for behavior changes or other signs that the cat might be sick. Noticing changes can be signifcantly harder with outdoor or feral cats that you do not see often (perhaps, only at feeding times).
  • When a feral cat suddenly becomes friendly, it may be asking for help. Muffin wasn’t friendly until he needed help. When cats become “feeder friendly” the process is usually slower.
    • My friend down the street (not Muffin’s feeder, a different friend) once had a cat become suddenly friendly. We thought she was preganat and about to deliver. The next day, I took her to the vet only to discover the cat had wet FIP and was about to die. He was euthanized.
  • Don’t assume someone else is helping the cat. If you are feeding the cat, someone else may be as well. If you don’t know other feeders, be prepared to get involved.
  • Have traps and carriers on hand. Or, have relationships with friends or a rescue, that you can borrow from.
    • A cat drop trap can make it easier to get the sick cat, and not worry about other cats going into a regular trap.
    • A drop trap can also be easier if a cat was already trapped once to get spayed or neutered. And food will not need to be withheld from other cats, when the only food source is in the drop trap.
    • Read tips for hard to trap cats.
  • Large dog crates or a pet playpen, can be used to hold the sick cat while waiting for the vet appointment or for treatment or recovery time.
  • Helping sooner is better than later. Getting the cat to the vet as soon as possible will give the cat the best chance.
  • Be on good terms with a vet or rescue. My vet office will do what they can to help me with any cat. Also, there might be a resuce in your area that can network to get the cat help.
  • Trap-Neuter-Return on ALL on all the feral cats. If there are friendly outdoor cats, they should also be TNR’d if they are not going to be taken inside (either adopted out by you or taken to a shelter). Alley Cat Allies explains how to get started here. Cats that are fixed are less likely to fight (Muffin’s injury may have been caused by fighting with another cat – we don’t know for sure).
  • Give yourself grace. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it will be too late for the cat and euthansia will be the best option to help the cat.

Helping outdoor cats can be challenging. But remember that trying your best is all you can do. Outdoor life is much harder for cats than living indoors.

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Heidi has been living with cats since 2003 and loves to talk about cats. She currently has seven indoor cats and two outdoor cats. She also is also a cat artist.

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