In this article I refer to an American statute but what I write refers to any country anywhere on the planet. If you simply feed a stray cat it is not legally yours and I will explain why. Some people think that it is legally yours and I believe that they are referring to a Texas statute or perhaps other criminal statutes from other states.
Under the Texas Penal Code 42.092 of 18 July 2015, the statue refers to the word “custody”. A person has custody of a non-livestock animal i.e. a cat if he or she takes responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the animal. The person does not need to own the animal under the circumstances. Therefore feeding the animal could be construed to mean taking responsibility and that person would have custody of the cat.
However, in this statue the word ‘custody’ does not mean ‘ownership’. ‘Custody’ is a word that is used in the statute to assign criminal liability to a person if that person is cruel to a non-livestock animal.
So, for example, in the statute it says that if a person “fails unreasonably to provide necessary food, water, care, or shelter for an animal in the person’s custody” or “abandons unreasonably an animal in the person’s custody” he commits an offense.
As you can see the word “custody” has been defined because it is used in the statute in order to explain who is liable to be prosecuted for animal cruelty. The word has been used to widen the net for liability to include people who are not owners.
I don’t know of any other states with a similar statute of this one. In any event feeding a stray cat cannot make that cat legally yours. In order to acquire legal title to a cat there has to be more such as purchasing a cat under a contract or adopting a cat from a rescue shelter where the adopter signs forms which are evidence that the person has become the owner.
Sometimes ownership is acquired informally when for example a person finds a stray cat and take him home, feeds him, cares for him and the cat lives in the person’s home. This is clearly a case of a person taking responsibility for their cat and adopting him and therefore becoming the owner.
Conversely, if I walk down the street and see a cat and feed him momentarily that cannot be said to be the act of an owner of that cat. If I feed the cat for several weeks each day that does not make me the cat’s owner either. I am simply being kind to a cat and want to help but that cat may well have an owner in an adjacent house.
However, if I take the cat home and care for him then clearly I have by my actions and by implication declared to the world that I wish to become the cat’s owner.
If the person did become a legal owner of a cat because he or she fed that cat all the TNR programs in America would take on a completely different complexion. Under TNR programs volunteers feed feral cats. No one has ever said that they own the cats. They are free-living cats and people know it. There is no intention by the volunteers to own the cats. Quite the contrary, they are helping the cats in order to let them remain free-living.
In conclusion, therefore, under some statutes including this Texas statute feeding a cat might be construed as having custody of that cat but custody does not mean ownership in this context. It a bit like having possession of an item as opposed to owning it. They are two different concepts. It just so happens that within this statute the same criminal liability befalls a person who has custody or ownership of a cat.