Feral or Stray – An Important Difference
Stray cats and feral cats are different from each other in a very important way — in their relationship to and interactions with people.
- WHAT IS A FERAL CAT?
- WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A STRAY CAT AND A FERAL CAT?
- HOW DO I TELL THE DIFFERENCE WHEN THE CATS ARE OUTDOORS?
- HOW DO I TELL FERAL AND STRAY CATS APART ONCE I TRAPPED THEM?
WHAT IS A FERAL CAT?
A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with people or her contact with people has diminished over time. She is not socialized to people and survives on her own outdoors. Most feral cats are not likely to ever become lap cats or enjoy living indoors. Feral cats have had little or no contact with people, and so they are wary of us, and cannot be adopted. Feral cats have kittens that can be socialized at an early age and adopted into homes.
A feral cat’s level of socialization and behavior is not always black and white, particularly for feral cats that recognize their caregiver. They may show signs of familiarity, such as a tail up or hanging out on a caregiver’s porch, but these behaviors are usually limited to the cat’s interaction with the caregiver and only develop after building a relationship over time. Always remember: this does not mean that the cat is a good candidate for living indoors.
Feral cats have a home—outdoors. They live and thrive in every landscape, from the inner city to rural farmland. Since feral cats are not adoptable, they should not be brought to animal pounds and shelters, because there they will likely be killed.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A STRAY CAT AND A FERAL CAT?
A stray cat is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in her life, but has left or lost her indoor home, as well as most human contact and dependence. She can become feral as her contact with humans dwindles. A stray cat can under the right circumstances become a pet cat once again. Stray cats that are re-introduced to a home after living outdoors may require a period of time to re-acclimate; they may be frightened and wary after spending time outside away from people.
HOW DO I TELL THE DIFFERENCE WHEN THE CATS ARE OUTDOORS?
Since it is difficult to determine each cat’s socialization during a stressful event such as trapping, it’s a good idea to observe cats on their own outdoors using the guidelines below. Remember that these guidelines are not hard and fast rules and that just one of these traits is probably not enough to draw a conclusion.
Bottom Line: If a cat you don’t know approaches you or if you can touch her, she is most likely not feral. Not all stray cats will do this though, especially at first—each cat will act differently in a variety of situations. More monitoring using these guidelines may be necessary to determine if the cat is socialized.
SOCIALIZATION TO HUMANS
|May approach people, houses, porches, or cars
|Will not approach and will likely seek hiding places to avoid people
SOCIALIZATION TO OTHER CATS
|Will likely live alone, not be part of a group
|May belong to a colony
Might walk and move like a housecat, such as walking with tail up—a sign of friendliness
May crawl, crouch, stay low to the ground, and protect body with tail
|Will probably look at you, blink, or make eye contact
|Unlikely to make eye contact
|May be vocal, meow, or “answer” your voice
|Won’t meow, beg, or purr
|Will be visible primarily during the daytime
|More likely to be nocturnal; occasionally out during the day
|Will probably be dirty or disheveled
|Will probably have a clean, well-kept coat.A male with a big head and thick neck, muscular body, and/or scars from fighting is more likely to be feral, since these are traits associated with intact males. He may also have a spiky coat from high testosterone levels and less time spent grooming; may also have “stud tail”—hair loss, greasiness, or bumps at the base of the tail due to hormones.
|Will not have an ear tip
|Will likely have an eartip if neutered as part of a TNR program
PREGNANCY, NURSING, KITTENS
|A female who is pregnant or lactating is more likely to be feral, since only 2% of feral cats are neutered in the U.S.
HOW DO I TELL FERAL AND STRAY CATS APART ONCE I HAVE TRAPPED THEM?
When in a frightening or stressful environment—such as a trap or a shelter—a friendly stray cat may act like a feral cat, avoiding people and possibly even showing aggression to avoid being touched. A lot of cats seem feral in traps but are just afraid.
Here are some ways that will help distinguish a feral cat from a scared stray cat when they are frightened, confined, or in a new place.