A cat owner’s nine month legal battle to reclaim her stray cat nicely illustrates the answer to the question in the title. I will recite the story here in outline and below it I discuss a couple of further topics.
A teaching assistant, Miss Senka Besirevic, had received a kitten as a present. After two years the kitten, then an adult, went walkabout and was lost. Senka’s domestic cat had become a stray. Strictly speaking, stray cats are domestic cats who have left their owner’s home and not returned. This is in contrast to feral cats who are often born in the “wild” and clearly have no owner. However, sometimes there is overlap between stray and feral cat. Sometimes stray cats become feral cats which complicates matters.
Returning to the story, Senka’s cat had set up home about a mile away in someone’s greenhouse (strays often stay fairly close to their owner’s home). At the time there were no occupiers in the house. Karen and Carl Green purchased the house and moved in. They noticed the cat in the greenhouse and started to feed her and over a number of years through their attention to the cat they felt that they had adopted her. They assumed that she was a stray cat and had no previous owner.
Then one day the cat became ill and they took her to the vet. Lo and behold the vet scanned the cat for a microchip and found one. The veterinarian telephoned Miss Besirevic who had lost her cat years ago. She was overjoyed and contacted the Mr and Mrs Green who had looked after her cat for years, and made her their own.
The new “owners” refused to give her up and an expensive legal battle ensued. The outcome was a foregone conclusion in my opinion and so it turned out. The original “owner” still owned the cat. If she had deliberately abandoned the cat by, for example, relinquishing her cat at a rescue centre then she would no longer be the owner but this had never taken place.
The lawyers for both parties to the litigation advised that the original owner remained the owner and the court made an order accordingly. This was the correct outcome.
However, over the years while building this website I have seen other outcomes under very similar circumstances. Those outcomes have been incorrect. The person who found the stray cat had claimed ownership and the original owner was unable to take possession of their lost cat. This occurred because in these instances rescue centres were involved. Rescue centres do not wish to divulge who the new “owner” is. They plead confidentiality to not disclose the name and address of the new owner which makes it impossible for the original owner to start a claim against them.
In answer to the question in the title, a stray cat probably has an owner and if a person finds a stray cat it is their responsibility to check whether the cat has an owner before they claim possession and ownership. In doing this they will avoid potential heartache. Obviously microchips are very good evidence that a stray cat has an owner. The amount of time that a cat has been a stray is irrelevant to whether the original owner has lost her ownership. The original owner will always retain legal ownership unless she/he transfers ownership by way of a sale or gives it up by way of abandonment or relinquishment or gift. Once a person relinquishes their cat they are declaring to the world that they no longer wish to be her/his owner.
As mentioned earlier in the article, sometimes feral cats can actually be stray cats and be ‘owned’. This might not be apparent but it may be the case. I don’t think that it is sensible to presume that a feral or semi-feral cat does not have an owner. He/she is most likely not to have an owner but it needs to be verified.
Even if a stray cat is not microchipped, the original owner, if there is one, can still, by way of any form of evidence, prove that he/she is the owner. I think you will find that with respect to random bred domestic cats there is no absolute method of proving ownership; not even a microchip. It is about all the evidence and microchips are excellent evidence. With respect to purebred cats there will be a bill of sale and therefore documentation to prove that the purchaser is the cat’s owner which will be evidence in addition to any microchip. Sometimes purebred cats become stray cats.
Just because a domestic cats wanders even for years it does not alter the legal status with respect to ownership of that cat unless something more happens which clearly indicates that title (as lawyers say) has been transferred to someone else, gifted or relinquished.
P.S. The story was widely published online. The photos are by Nick Wilkinson NTI/Newsteam. They images are thumbnails. If you click on them you’ll see the full version.