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 –
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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 –
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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!