Years ago my aunt, a huge animal lover, started to receive late night visits from a gorgeous ginger stray cat. Due to disgusting abuse by his previous owners he had no teeth or claws left and was very under nourished and extremely frightened. My aunt being very sensitive to animals saw that he was so hungry that his fear was overridden by a desperate need for food. He would let no one else near him except for her and if food was left out by someone else, he would know and leave it to go stale. She really had an amazing gift with animals. Eventually he trusted her enough to allow her to stroke him, but nothing more. He was content to live a wilder life if it meant he was safe from humans. We really are a disgrace to this planet.
So how do you help stray cats? How do you gain their trust?
Firstly you need to know the difference between a feral and a stray cat.
It's not always easy to tell because in time a stray cat will go back to its natural instincts, which is the same as a feral cats behaviour. Obviously a stray cat will have been abandoned by their owners or may have got lost. They might be wearing a collar, but if not you should be able to tell by the quality of their fur if they have recently become strays, rather than being a feral cat. If you can, take a photo of it and check with your local vets if anyone has lost their cat. Don't just presume you can take somebody else's cat, in a lot of places it is illegal. Also there could be a legitimate reason for them getting lost and there may be someone desperately trying to find them. Usually you can become a stray cats owner after about two weeks of notifying the local animal centres, vets etc.
A feral cat will be much less prone to engage with you and will be more likely to be aggressive, showing wild behaviour. You're also less likely to see them for any length of time, as any sign of a human and they're off. Can't blame them for that! Feral cats have been born into the wild from either feral parents or stray cats that haven't been spayed. They tend to live in casual family colonies and are able to survive in urban and rural areas. They aren't always popular as like other wildlife they may forage through your bins for food. Be warned, your neighbourhood may not thank you for starting a feeding programme for them.
So, if you want to help a stray cat the first thing you should do, of course, is feed them.
An adult stray that is under nourished will build themselves up quicker on kitten food. However go back to adult cat food as soon as you see an improvement. They will need the vitamins and nutrients from adult food once they have recovered. Try wet food as well as dry. See what their preferences are. Buy new cat bowls as they won't like the scent of other pets if you have them. Always provide fresh water every day. Feed them at night to begin with and leave dry food out in the daytime in case they start to come to your garden more often. They need to know they have a secure place to come to. After a while try to be present when you know the stray is going to turn up. Put the food down, keep back and talk in a calm, soothing tone. Don't try to pet the cat at this stage. Let it feed and leave if it needs to.
The main point is to gradually gain trust. You know you can't rush a cat. On the next occasion offer some biscuits from your hand. They may not take it, persevere and try again next time. If no one claims the cat and you decide to rehome this stray then capturing it in the most humane way is your next step. You may not be able to do this, so it's advisable to contact your local animal centre and they may be able to send someone to assist you. Once you've done that take your stray cat to the vets for a thorough check up. Deworming, flea and ear mite treatments and neutering must all be done. If you have other pets keep the new cat separate in one room until they've settled down and slowly introduce them.
Once you've decide to take responsibility of a stray cat and have brought it home, be prepared for the settling in period to take some time. You don't know what they've gone through, be patient. They will probably want to remain by your side as much as possible. In time this should calm down but remember they may be a little afraid of this new home. Pamper them with new cat toys, cat bed and stand. You may want to try a feline facial pheromone spray or diffuser to help calm them down.