Many animal lovers (erroneously) use the terms “feral cat” and “stray cat” interchangeably. In reality, there are some major differences between ferals and strays. It’s important to understand these differences (and how to identify a feral cat vs. a stray), especially if you’re involved in rescue work or if you’re considering adopting a cat.
Feral cats are truly wild animals. A true feral is born in the wild. This cat isn’t a lost or dumped pet. A true feral cat has never set foot inside a house! In fact, it’s likely that this cat has never been within 20 feet of a human.
Feral cats are wild animals. They are very social animals who live in colonies, ranging in size from 10 to 50 or more individuals. These colonies are comprised of blood relatives. New, unrelated cats may join a feral colony on occasion, but for the most part, the members of a colony are all related. When a new litter of kittens is born, most will stay with the colony for the rest of their lives. The colony members tend to be very tightly bonded and they typically travel as a pack.
Feral cats are rarely observed by humans. Like most wild animals, they avoid direct contact with humans. As nocturnal animals, they are most often seen at night, or at dusk or dawn. They are often found in industrial areas, living beneath cars or in abandoned buildings. They tend to live near humans, as they serve as a source of food.
A true feral cat will not approach a human willingly. They typically remain a significant distance away from humans, even caretakers who regularly feed the colony. If you attempt to approach a feral, he or she will initially remain very, very still. If you continue to approach, the cat will flee.
On the other hand, stray cats are typically pets who have been dumped, abandoned or lost. They may wander around populated areas during the daylight hours. Many strays actually seek out humans, although many may keep a bit of distance. For instance, a feral cat would never dream of sitting on your lawn or porch (especially out in the open), whereas stray cats are often found sitting in locations that are located near homes, businesses and foot traffic.
Stray cats tend to be solitary, though pairs are observed on occasion. Strays — especially intact males — are prone to engaging in fights. This is rarely observed among ferals, as they live in a colony with a well-established hierarchy.
Strays are generally fairly comfortable around humans, whereas ferals are not. For instance, if you feed neighborhood strays, they tend to wait around for dinner to arrive. They also get excited when they see a human approaching with their food (for instance, the cats may start nudging nearby objects and pacing in the area where they typically eat.) Ferals, on the other hand, will remain hidden an they’ll monitor their feeding area from a distance; they will not emerge until their dinner is served and they will leave immediately after eating. A feral would never wait out in the open, nor would they nudge objects or pace. Strays tend to linger after eating. They often groom and relax after a meal.
If you have a cat, and you’re unsure of whether it’s a feral cat or stray, consider some of the following behaviors:
- Is the cat vocalizing and meowing? Cats rarely vocalize when communicating with other cats; meowing in particular is a behavior that’s typically reserved for humans. Therefore, if the cat meows at you, it’s likely a stray cat, not a feral.
- Will the cat approach you? If the cat will not come within 20 or 30 feet of you, then it’s likely a feral. Ferals will be stone-still at first, then they will run away if you continue to approach, whereas a stray cat will remain in place until you get within a few feet. Stray cats tend to get fairly close to humans, although most will not accept petting unless you’ve earned their trust.
- Is the cat alone or is it part of a large group? Stray cats tend to be loners, though on occasion, they may be observed in pairs. (Exception: a mother and her kittens or young siblings.) If the cat is part of a group, it’s likely feral. If the cat is solitary or part of a pair, it’s likely a stray.
- What time of day do you see the cat? If you observe the cat during the daylight hours, it’s likely a stray. Feral cats rarely come out into the open during the day; they typically sleep during the day and hunt during the night.
- Does the cat play? If you observe an cat playing with objects or other cats, it’s likely a stray. Feral cats are usually quite uncomfortable around humans, so they will not play in the presence of a human. And adult ferals don’t play at all, in my experience (even after rescue — it can take several years for a former feral to “discover” play.) Very young feral kittens may play with each other or with objects, though this behavior quickly abates as their fear of humans develops and solidifies.
In addition, if you trap a feral cat, it will make extremely valiant attempts to escape the enclosure. In fact, the cat may injure itself attempting to escape the trap, whereas strays may be a bit upset at first, but they tend to calm within a few minutes.
Stray cats are fairly easy to tame, though it can take some time to earn the animal’s trust. It’s very possible to turn a stray cat into a pet.
Feral cats, on the other hand, do not make good pets, though on occasion, they can be tamed. Feral kittens are the best candidates for rescue. Also, feral caretakers often have success in taming cats who have been visiting for food since they were kittens.
For instance, I rescued a feral cat at the age of just over 1 year. Eliza had thwarted my rescue attempts as a kitten, but I persisted and ultimately captured her. Eliza had been visiting my property with her mother to get food and water from the age of approximately 4 weeks. By this age, she was already very feral and very frightened of humans. But during her visits, I would sit nearby and I would talk to her as she ate and drank. So while she never permitted direct contact during the first year of life, she became fairly familiar with my presence. This made her rescue (and taming) possible.
Ultimately, I captured Eliza, her mother and her mother’s litter of 3 new kittens. It took several months, but ultimately, Eliza became comfortable with living indoors. She was living with us indoor for approximately 6 months before she allowed us to pet her, but now, she actively seeks out attention! She is still rather quirky. Eliza spooks quite easily and she will not allow you to hold her. But she is happy, healthy and for the most part, tame! We also have Eliza’s three siblings. Sadly, her mother Kelsey died about one month after we captured her, but we currently have Kelsey’s sister Bernadette. We trapped Bernadette for spaying, but unlike most ferals, she has actually been quite responsive to our attempts to tame her! She is FIV-free, young and healthy, so we’re keeping Bernadette and we will attempt to transform her into a pet.
While Eliza was a true feral, she was in fairly close contact with humans from early in life. This made her a good candidate for rescue. Over time, many ferals learn to trust their caretaker(s), and this can also serve as a good foundation if the caretaker opts to attempt a rescue.
See my related article for more information on the life of stray cats, along with tips and tricks for handling and trapping feral cats for a TNR effort.