Many apologies for just jumping in and asking for your advice when I've only just registered, I hope I'm not being rude. However I'm getting myself into a bit of a state over my "problem". It may seem trivial, but I'm hoping that you as cat lovers will be able to give some good advice.
And just to warn you, I'm prone to rambling, so sorry in advance for what is bound to be a long post...!
In January 2000 we rehomed a cat (Carrots) from the RSPCA. He has access to the outside via a catflap and as soon as we put it in all the other neighbourhood cats (and there are lots!) tried their luck at getting into the house. They had no chance, Carrots kept them out very enthusiastically (we'd been told he didn't like other cats at all).
However, a few months later in October I got up in the night a couple of times and thought I saw a ginger cat disappearing out of the door. I put it down to my sleepy imagination! But in the November we went on holiday - a neighbour looked after Carrots and told us when we got back that she'd seen a ginger cat in the house.
After that I saw him frequently, he was often in the house when I got back from work, but would dash out as soon as I got through the door. But... bit by bit he got braver. He'd stay in the house if I was there, but run off if my partner came in, but then got used to him too. Same with the Small Child! He obviously wasn't a stray, and I guess we should have thrown him out there and then, but he seemed to get on ok with Carrots and we figured that if Carrots didn't mind him hanging around then we didn't either. We never encouraged him or fed him, but of course he soon started nicking the food too.
So, that was over 3 years ago. Since then, this cat (who we jokingly called Sooty as he's ginger, and which has unfortunatelystuck!) has just moved in full time. We found out that he belongs to one of our neighbours and tried to tell her that her cat was practically living with us but to be honest she's not "all there". She first said "don't think you're stealing my cat" but when we mentioned him again a few weeks later she just said that he was "wild" and she hardly ever saw him and didn't know where he went!
This lady has 5 or 6 cats now - from what I gather Sooty is about 9 years old and she's had him as a kitten, but has gradually added to her cat collection. I don't really know why Sooty moved in with us. It's quite a noisy household! However, he's quite a sensitive and very affectionate little cat - I know that she got another new cat just before Sooty started visiting us, so I wonder if he just reached his tolerance threshold as far as other cats in the house was concerned and didn't want to live there anymore. At least three of her other cats are male, and quite "dominant" amongst the neighbourhood cats. It's a bit of a mystery since I wouldn't even say that Carrots and he are friends. They seem to tolerate each other - they play fight together a lot (which sometimes gets a bit over-enthusiastic) and sleep on the bed together occasionally, but there's not huge amounts of interaction, grooming etc.
Anyway, whatever the reason, Sooty likes it here. He's the most adorable cat. Incredibly affectionate and cuddly. It may sound silly but he and I just "bonded" (Carrot's is more of a daddy's boy!). If I cry, he'll appear from nowhere and lick my tears. He sleeps under the quilt next to me at night. He and Carrots both go out to pee, and for a wander occasionally, but at least 90% of the time they're in the house. I know that he goes back to his "proper" owner very occasionally to grab some food (she was moaning he treat the house like a hotel!) but then Carrots eats at all the neighbours' houses too! The difference is that I know he isn't actually LIVING with someone else. I think it was when Sooty brought us his first mouse (yuck) that I really realised that he sees this as his home. I just can't emphasis enough the fact that he actually 'lives' here rather than just being an opportunist nicking the food!
OK, that's the background - I warned about rambling!
My problem now is that we're hoping to move house later this year and I just don't know what to do about Sooty. Practically everyone I've asked has said "just take him" but I still feel uncomfortable. I'd kind of kidded myself that she didn't care about him, but not long ago she was looking for him to have his vaccinations done, so she's obviously reasonably conscientious, which makes it even harder. I'm afraid that, even though we told her several times that he was with us a lot, the last time we saw her we said we hadn't seen him for ages just because if I decided to take him I didn't want her to put two and two together.
In an ideal world, I'd just explain the situation and ask if we could take him with us. I like to think that a good owner in her situation would see that he's happy living with us and would say yes (it's not as if she has the pleasure of his company any more!). I just really don't see that happening though. I also thought of maybe offering to "buy" him and giving her some money - she might be the kind of person that would agree, but personally I'd be offended if anyone did that to me. And of course, if I ask and she says no then it really would be immoral of me to just take him - and she'd know it was us too if he didn't turn up for his weekly feed!
Another option is just to leave him, after all he's not our cat or responsibility. But I just couldn't do that, not in a million years. It would be as if I was abandoning him - I'd never ever do that to Carrots, and Sooty doesn't understand that he's not really "ours". Of course, maybe he'd just trundle off quite happily and find another friendly neighbour, but I couldn't live with myself if I just left him. Particularly since he and I are so close (he's sleeping next to me as I type!).
I'm desperate to know what I should do. I've tried to look at it from the perspective of "who would suffer most if I just took him, Sooty or his 'owner'" - if he belonged to someone who was more concerned about the fact that he wasn't around much, and tried to keep him with them, then I'd feel very differently (I'd be gutted if anyone stole my cat) but I honestly can't help feeling that in this case it would be Sooty who would suffer.
What do you think I should do? It'll be months before we move so I've got some time to think, but I've been thinking for ages now and haven't reached a conclusion. The only way forward that I can think of is to ask her now whether we can keep him - if I explain the situation and she says 'no' then I assume she'll make more effort to keep him with her to make sure we don't take him. If she didn't, then in a few months time I would maybe feel happier about taking him anyway.
Grrrrr it's a dilemma! It makes me wish we'd just thrown him out to start with - not really though, I'm too in love with him to wish that!
Once again apologies for the incredibly long long post - and from a "newbie" too!