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A Feral Cat Or A Stray Cat? How To Tell The Difference

Oct 14, 2016 · Updated Apr 16, 2017 · ·
  1. Anne
    A Feral Cat Or A Stray Cat? How To Tell The Difference
    There's an unfamiliar cat visiting your backyard. Maybe this kitty hides away under your porch, only coming out to eat the cat food you're leaving out? Or maybe he or she meows at you from afar or even approaches you? What should you do?

    Figuring out if this is a feral or a stray could make a huge difference in how you can help that cat.

    First, some definitions. What do the terms "stray" and "feral" even mean in cats? After all, biologically speaking, feral cats and strays are the exact same species. They're domestic cats, identical to our own pampered pet cats. However, behaviorally, there is quite a difference between them and it affects the way in which you can help make their lives better.

    What's a feral cat?

    A feral is a domestic cat that had little or no socialization with humans during the first months of its life.

    Kittens form their view of the world between the ages of 2 and 16 weeks. That is when they learn to distinguish between friend and foe. Plenty of positive interaction with humans teaches them to trust people and see us as a source of food, protection and comfort.

    In contrast, kittens that were born outside of a home and had no close loving interaction with humans learn to see humans as a potential threat. While biologically they are still domesticated cats, they have gone feral and reverted to wild behavioral patterns. You can expect a feral cat to behave much like a wild animal when cornered or trapped.

    Is it possible to tame a feral cat? The short answer is: Yes. There are ways to work with a feral cat to make him or her less apprehensive of people. The process is slow and requires a good knowledge of feline behavior and - preferably - some experience. The younger the cat, the better the chances for him or her to become fully accustomed to humans, to the point of becoming a suitable pet.

    However, most experts agree that adult feral cats are best left feral, as the process of socializing them is time-consuming and can be stressful for the cat. These kitties can live long happy lives when provided with food and shelter so this is considered the best option for them.

    The most important thing you can do for feral cats is spay or neuter them. That will keep the cats healthier and prevent the birth of more feral kittens. The method used to neuter feral cats is known as TNR. That's an acronym for Trap-Neuter-Return which basically describes the process. The cats are humanely trapped, neutered in a veterinary clinic, then returned to the place where they were captured or to a better location where they can be cared for.

    You can read more about TNR and feral cat care here -

    What's a stray cat?

    A stray cat is simply a pet cat that no longer has a home. That cat grew up in a home and had the proper socialization with humans but then he or she either got lost or was abandoned by the previous owners.

    A stray cat needs a home. It may be able to survive on the streets but it would be immensely better off in a loving home. For a cat that's lost, the best outcome is to be reunited with his or her family. Unfortunately, some stray cats were deliberately and illegally abandoned, so they don't have a a loving home to return to. In that case, they need to be re-homed. Left on the streets, a stray cat is not only at risk for car accidents and predators, but also of abuse by humans.

    If you find a stray cat, the best thing you can do is take her or him into your home (kept separately from your own cats). It may be lost, so try to locate the original owner. If that doesn't work, look for a good forever home, or adopt the cat yourself. If you can't do that, the local pet shelter is the next best option.

    So, how can you tell if a cat is a feral or a stray?

    There may be a few visual cues that can help.

    If the cat appears to be a purebred, it's far more likely that you're dealing with a stray cat and not a feral one. Just keep in mind that long hair or a colorpoint pattern can also appear in the general cat population and are not indicative of the cat being a purebred. However, if you come across a cat with a distinctive look like a Persian's, it's very likely to be a stray.

    If you see a male cat that's clearly not neutered, there's a greater chance of it being a feral than a stray. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking, people tend to neuter their male cats to avoid their hormonal behaviors. A cat showing the distinctive full cheek pads of a whole tom cat is more likely to be feral.

    If the cat looks underweight, sick or just unkempt, it's more likely to be a stray. However, even if the cat appears to be healthy and well-groomed, it may still be a stray that has only recently got lost or was abandoned.

    More often than not, the only way to tell a stray apart from a feral is by the cat's behavior.

    If the cat is friendly, approaches you without any sign of fear, rubs against your legs and lets you pet her or even scoop her up in your arms, you can be pretty sure that she's not feral. It could be the neighbor's new cat or it may be a lost stray.

    If the cat won't let you get near him or her, hisses at you if you try to approach it when cornered and generally seems to avoid contact, it's most likely a feral cat. Feral cats may get used to their caretakers who feed them regularly but are unlikely to approach other people voluntarily.

    It's not always that easy though.

    Sometimes it can be difficult to tell a stray apart from a feral. In a sense, "Feral vs. Stray" is a bit of a false dichotomy. It's not always a black-and-white distinction and tends to be more of a spectrum. A cat may be essentially feral but more friendly than average due to some socialization with a human caretaker. Some feral cats learn to approach humans for food and even display affection. They still prefer to stay outside and don't do well when confined or cornered. They're sometimes called semi-feral cats.

    Strays can be easily confused for ferals if they are essentially shy pet cats. When lost, they may be too apprehensive of humans to approach them and can easily be mistaken for feral cats. If you try to capture them forcefully, they may struggle - sometimes tooth and claw - to get out of your grip. However, they are unlikely to display overtly aggressive behavior when cornered.

    Experienced cat people can often still tell ferals apart from strays. Subtle cues in body language and behavior can indicate the level and type of fear the cat displays. These signs can tell a rescuer whether that cat needs to be trapped, neutered and returned to a safe place or trapped to be gently coaxed out of his/her shell and eventually re-homed.

    Not an experienced rescuer and still want to help? Here's what you should do

    Have you found kittens? The younger they are, the less difference the distinction between feral and stray makes. Read this article to see what you should do -

    What to do if it's an adult cat that showed up near your home? First, see if you can easily tell if it's a stray/lost cat. If the cat is friendly and approaches you, try to very gently lift it. If it lets you do that, it's almost certainly a stray cat that needs rescuing. Try to get the cat into a carrier and into your home where you should keep her or him separated from your own cats. Look for "lost cat" ads in your area and see if you can find the cat's home and care for the kitty until you find the original owner or a good forever home. If you can't keep another cat in your home, take him or her to an animal shelter (preferably a no-kill one).

    If the cat avoids you but you suspect it might be a scared lost cat and not a feral, leave food out and sit nearby to see what happens. With any luck, within a few feeding sessions, the cat will understand you're a friend and approach you. If the cat still seems hostile when you try to get closer, it may be a feral cat. Get in touch with a local feral cats organization and ask for their help with trapping and neutering the cat. They should be able to help you with more instructions and advice as well. Alley Cat Allies is a national organization that can offer you help and put you in touch with local caretakers of feral cats.

    Last, but not least, ask us! We have an active forum called Caring for Strays & Ferals. Post your question, describing the cat and the situation with as many details as you can, and our experienced members may be able to help. We can also help you locate a rescue organization near you.

    See a cat in need? Don't turn a blind eye.

    It may be challenging but helping a cat in need - whether stray or feral - can be an extremely rewarding experience. Show compassion and help these kitties!

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  1. Missjay
    When I first moved into my new house there was a mother cat who looked like she had folded ears with two young kittens, I only saw her once and she ran away from me along with the kittens. About a month later we brought home a pet kitten who is a spoiled brat when it come so to food, not wanting to waste the food I ended up putting about half a cane of pate wet food out. I was so shocked when the mother cat came back! After I used all the pate if I wasn’t i wasnt planning on feeding anymore but I Came home a few days later and she was sniffing my trash can. I continued to feed her and have realized now she is missing her ears, possibly from frost bite. She now will vocalized to me, let me get close to her, and has been bringing her kittens around! However it looks like she spread the word and I’m worried all these cats will upset the neighbors or worse get the cats euthanized for being strays. Help! Advice? I’ve grown very attached ‘chloe’ the momma kitty and don’t wanna ruin the trust I’ve slowly built up
  2. Joanie3
    I think I just need someone to tell me it's ok to return a cat I found two weeks ago. I think I have done all I can for him.
    l'm almost positive he is feral. His ear is tipped, he is neutered. He approx 8-9 yrs old weighs a little over eight lbs. The vet said most of his teeth were surgically removed but he otherwise he was healthy for an outdoor cat. He had an upper respiratory infection (got a shot of antibiotics for it). His ears were infected, Vet used a wash, cleaned out his ears with swabs, and gave him some ear drops. He was negative for FIV/FLV.
    I've kept him in an xl crate in my spare room. He has a little covered bed in the crate that he never leaves except to eat and use the litter. I keep three-quarters of the crate covered. He never makes a sound (except for an occasional howl in the middle of the night), he never looks at me but he will let me scratch the top of his head. He eats and drinks, poops are solid, and he seems to be urinating normally. The first few days his poop was soft and smelly. I managed to get some Revolution on him to kill the fleas. Maybe it killed the parasites as well.
    I have three of my own cats. They haven't interacted at all but I'm sure he is aware they are in the house.

    I've spent the past two weeks posting on lost and found sites, calling people for advice but everyone says something different. I even went to a TNR meeting.
    There aren't colonies anywhere near where he was found.
    People on social media are cruicfying me because I want to release him. He is scared and miserable. I don't think, at this point in his life, he'll be able to be socialized. The weather is an issue but it seems like he's been out there for a while and has been ok thus far.
    Is there anything else I should do before I return him to where I found him?

    Thanks for reading and for any advice you can offer.
    1. houseofnine
      Can you get him into a spare bathroom? That's what we've done at our house, on a few occasions. Once they get checked out by vet--snap tested, deflea/deworm, then kitty gets released into the adjacent bedroom (hub's office). Then they stay there for up to a few months while they get used to it. We have a ton of cats already--11 residents plus the latest feral we grabbed before the blizzard Jan 5. Most of our guys are friendly--2 of which are super friendlies AKA "ambassadors." We keep everyone separate til one of the friendlies wants to get into the office. With any luck the feral comes out and they sniff each other. There will be hissing--remember that's just a mild warning. Keep kitty visits brief.
      You should lie on the floor when talking to your boy. Have him associate you with food. Make sure you stick to a routine & announce yourself whenever you're coming into his room.
      Don't give up. It'll take time & patience, but it's worth it to save a life. He'll settle in. Best of luck.
    2. Joanie3
      Lol. I don't have a spare bathroom. My house is very small. He is in the spare bedroom in a very large crate. I cannot afford a 4th cat. I've already spent $300 on the stray. It's been two weeks and he won't look at me or come out of his covered bed. I've sat on the floor, talked to him softly, tried to coax him out with treats. He doesn't trust me at all. Maybe he was abused at one point.
    3. houseofnine
      Hi Joanie, I hear you. We can't afford it either but I piggyback on a rescue's discount b/c I keep the cat after it's fixed up. Is there a rescue that can help you? Look at the alleycatallies web site for local resources. If you're in or near CT, I might have contacts that could help. I'm sorry you can't keep him..maybe there is a barn cat program near you? That might be the best compromise.
    Chatty is a stray, she was abandoned as she was the former churches next to where I lives cat/mouser so I was told, but they sold the church and the new church threw her out into the wild or so I was told. I don't know where she came from all I know is that I'm glad she found me taking pictures of the moon, she's a sweet little girl and the 5 or 6 toms (that may have both been stray or ferals that brought her to me, I like to think that now I thought I saved her from an attack, I never knew she was with kittens, and both of the fathers come around to try to see her I won't let her outside until she gets spayed. who became a (mama) I let her in the closed sunroom that looks into the backyard though). . . currently screening forever homes for her 4 adorable little ones who will be a month old on Christmas Day[​IMG] . The picture is from day one after I fed her and gave her water she came to my desk giving me kitty kisses, and that is the picture of the moon in the background I was taking when she found me. [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
      kiggy purraised this.
  4. lauriec515
    Wild ferals can be tamed,  and my now 14 year old Candy was once a feral kitten born to a feral mom.  Took months, but I was able to tame them both.  A neighbor took in "mom cat" and I have Candy.  She was indoors for a year before she let my husband pet her!  We have company..... you will not see her!  She hides under the box spring of our bed.  I currently care for 2 former ferals,  a mother and daughter. Had them spayed via Forgotten Cats.  I have a sheltered insulated cat house for them.  I am the only one that can pet them.  They are 10 and 11 years old.  It took me 9 YEARS to pet the mom.
      kiggy and CHATTY KATTY HOME purraised this.
  5. snowpawprint
    thanks alot for this article, as i was starting to get confused myself
      CHATTY KATTY HOME purraised this.
  6. tarasgirl06
    Thank you so much for yet another extremely intelligently written and informative article that may well save many innocent lives.  *Go forth and TNR!*
      CHATTY KATTY HOME and Anne purraised this.
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