What is a Feral Cat? 

June 24, 2022 by The Spot Pack
a cat walking around a rusted fence

 The term “feral cat” is often used to describe any cat that doesn’t live with humans. However, this generalization isn’t completely accurate. A feral cat is a specific type of cat that lives out in the wild, and it’s important to know what a feral cat is and how it is different from other stray or outdoor cats.  

Feral Cat Definition 

Feral cats are cats that live outside and haven’t been socialized by humans at all or have only negative socialization history with humans. Many times, feral cats are kittens of abandoned house cats (or stray cats) who have never experienced a human interaction, leading to them being terrified of humans.   

Many people assume that a feral cat is always a vicious cat because they will often hiss or growl at a human who comes too close. However, these aren’t always signs of being violent toward humans. It could just be a sign of fear. Regardless of the emotion behind the outlash from a feral cat, it’s important to approach a feral cat very carefully.  

The Differences Between Feral Cats and Stray Cats 

At first glance, you may think that a feral cat and a stray cat are the same. However, there are major differences between the two types of abandoned cats, and knowing the differences is vital to safely approach any outdoor cat.   

The biggest difference between feral and stray cats is that a stray cat has been socialized with people. Many stray cats are abandoned pets. They have some type of relationship with humans. However, if a stray cat is abandoned for an extended period of time, that cat can become a feral cat, losing any connection it had with humans.  

If you come across a stray cat that is timid but seems friendly toward humans, it’s possible to re-acclimate them into the life of a housecat once again if you choose to. In addition, feral kittens are also able to be socialized if they are found and introduced to humans early enough. In general, it’s not recommended to try to socialize a feral cat who is older than four months old because it can be too stressful for both you and the cat.  

How to Know if a Cat is Feral Cat or a Stray 

If you come across a “community cat” (the umbrella term for an outdoor cat that doesn’t belong to a human), it’s important to know how to tell the difference between a stray and a feral cat. Knowing the type of cat you are dealing with will allow you to make the right decisions on how to proceed with any care or approach you plan on doing. Here are the best ways to tell a feral cat from a stray cat.  

Socialization 

Feral cats won’t approach you on their own but will likely hide from you. However, they may be a part of a cat colony, which is a community of other cats. They will likely have much better social skills around other cats than they do people.  

 In contrast, stray cats may approach you, your home, or your car because they have some amount of experience and knowledge of humans. They will also be more likely to live on their own in the streets instead of being a part of a colony.  

Body Language 

A feral cat will likely walk low to the ground, crouching or crawling from place to place. They will often tuck their tail under them or use it to protect their body in some way. A feral cat is much less likely to make eye contact with you as well.   

If you are in the presence of a stray cat, they may walk up to you as a housecat does with their tail in the air. Stray cats are more likely to show signs of friendliness, including eye contact or even blinking at you, a sign of trust.  

Vocals 

A feral cat won’t meow at you or beg you for food, and they won’t ever purr around you. However, a stray cat may answer your voice, beg for food, or even purr when they approach you.  

Physical Appearance 

A feral cat will have a well-groomed coat and may also have an ear tip, which is a sign they have been part of TNR (trap-neuter-return). However, they could also have some bald spots or signs of altercations, such as scratches or scars on their body. On the other hand, a stray cat will be much dirtier than a feral cat and have a much more disheveled appearance overall.   

Why it Matters 

You may think it isn’t worth the time or effort to determine whether a community cat is a stray or a feral cat, but it’s actually very important. When you know which type of cat you’re dealing with, you’re able to decide the best way to move forward with the cat instead of potentially wasting time and effort trying to socialize a cat that is feral.   

Stray cats may be able to readjust to the life of a housecat, which means that you could likely capture them and take them to a shelter or a foster program to find an adoptive family. If possible, you could adopt the stray cat yourself. However, if you take a feral cat to a shelter, they are more likely to be put down due to their inability to be adopted out. Leaving them in their environment will allow them to live their life out how they prefer instead.  

Can You Adopt a Feral Cat? 

Although you may feel like it’s best to bring any community cat into your home to keep them safe, it isn’t always in the cat’s best interest. Feral cats have little to no experience with humans, so they will likely never become comfortable with living in a house with people. If you find a feral kitten, you may be able to socialize them enough to adopt them. However, it’s not recommended to try to adopt an adult feral cat into your home.   

If you have developed an attachment to a feral cat, you do have potential options, though. If you work consistently at socializing with the feral cat, they may become comfortable enough with you to sleep in your garage or shed if they have easy access and humans aren’t around while they’re sleeping. This can give you peace of mind that the cat is safe if the weather elements become harsh overnight.  

How to Help Feral Cats 

If you have a feral cat or even a feral cat colony in your neighborhood, there are ways you can help them while still keeping your distance from them. Feral cats still have basic needs like housecats and other stray cats. You can help feral cats by feeding them regularly and making sure they have access to fresh and clean water. If possible, you can create a group of people in your neighborhood who can take turns making sure the feral cats in your neighborhood are taken care of.   

Another great idea is to build shelters for the feral cats around you. Building these simple homes can help feral cats get away from harsh weather conditions like heavy rain or freezing temperatures. Then, you always have the option of working with a local vet to try to trap the feral cats around you, get them spayed or neutered, and return them to their home (TNR) to help lower the overall feral population over time.  

Takeaway 

Feral cats are different from other types of community cats and therefore require unique care and approach. Make sure you take the time to determine if a community cat is feral or a stray cat so you can approach them correctly and safely. 

 

Resources 

https://forgottencats.org/what-is-a-feral-cat/ 

https://www.alleycat.org/community-cat-care/kitten-socialization-how-to/ 

https://www.alleycat.org/resources/feral-and-stray-cats-an-important-difference/#Difference 

https://www.alleycat.org/our-work/trap-neuter-return/ 

https://www.alleycat.org/resources/how-to-build-an-outdoor-shelter/ 

https://www.petbasics.com/health-and-care/can-you-tame-a-feral-cat/ 

 

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