Feral and Stray Cats – An Important Difference

Part of Ireland's TNR Manual

How to Help Community Cats

Adapted for Ireland from Alley Cat Allies.

(Download Alley Cat Allies' PDF version of this document)

Feral, stray and pet cats are all members of the same species; they are all domestic cats. But stray cats and feral cats are also different from each other in a very important way - in their relationship to, and interactions with, people.

Note that, in Ireland, the waters are muddied further through the diverse cultural attitude towards cats. Cats' development within this culture means that the distinction between feral and stray is even less clear cut. We're highlighting a further important category - semi-feral or humanised.

Whether you are a rescue volunteer, veterinarian or feral cat advocate - or you just share your neighborhood with feral cats - knowing how to tell the difference can help inform how best to interact with a cat or what, if any, intervention would be in each cat’s best interest.

What is Socialisation?

We use the term 'socialised' to mean cats who are friendly towards people - or cats who enjoy companionship with us in our homes.

Kittens becomes socialised by interacting with people - being held, spoken to and played with - from an early age. If a kitten does not become accustomed to people holding her and petting her within a crucial window of three to twelve weeks old, she will grow up apprehensive of humans and will not be suited to or happy living in homes.

What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?

Companion and stray cats are socialised to people.

Feral cats are not socialised to people. While they are socialised to their colony members and bonded to each other, they do not have that same relationship with people.

Stray

  • A stray cat is a cat who has been socialised to people at some point in her life, but has left or lost her domestic home, as well as most human contact and dependence.
  • Over time, a stray cat can become feral as her contact with humans dwindles.
  • Under the right circumstances, however, a stray cat can also become a companion cat once again. Stray cats that are re-introduced to a home after living outdoors may require a period of time to reacclimatise; they may be frightened and wary after spending time outside away from people. ·
  • Another definition that may help:

    A stray cat is a domestic cat that has been abandoned or has ‘strayed’ from home and become lost. Stray [cats] were once pets and they can usually be successfully rescued and placed in homes. – Stray Cat Handbook

Feral

  • A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with humans, or her contact with humans has diminished over time. She is fearful of people and survives on her own outdoors. A feral cat is not likely to ever become a lap cat or enjoy living indoors.
  • Kittens born to feral cats can be socialised at an early age and adopted into homes.

Where do 'humanised' cats come in?

  • Humanised cats fall on a continuum between strays, who've known a loving home at some point, and out-and-out ferals, who happily live without contact with human animals. They'e never known a loving home per se, but they have had enough contact with humans to be 'humanised' and can become valued members of a household.
  • Humanised cats were most likely handled as kittens, when they were small and adorable. In adulthood, their caregivers may have given them extra attention due to their more overt friendliness.
  • Humanised cats are likely to have received mixed attention from the humans in their lives - negative and positive - and therefore are unsure if you're safe or dangerous.
  • Humanised cats are more likely to have been neglected and/or abandoned, rather than stray.
  • Many humanised cats can adjust to living with people and can be adopted as companions.
  • Humanised cats will exhibit behaviours associated with both stray and feral cats.

Why does it matter?

  • Stray cats can readjust to living with people and can be adopted as companions.
  • Adult feral cats are not socialised to people, which means they cannot be adopted. As a result, they are likely to be killed if picked up by some SPCAs or brought to shelters, so it is in their best interest to continue living outdoors.
  • Stray and feral cats can be difficult to tell apart, especially when they are trapped or frightened. Scared stray cats often need time to relax and show their level of socialisation. Find out more at Alley Cat Allies' How to Soothe a Scared Stray.
  • Trap Neuter Return takes into account each cat’s level (or degree) of socialisation to determine the best environment for them. Feral cats are returned to their outdoor home after being trapped and neutered. Socialised cats and kittens can be adopted into homes, though we don't recommend it until less cats and more homes are available in Ireland.

How do I tell the difference when the cats are outdoors?

Since it is difficult to determine each cat’s socialisation 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 socialised.

STRAY

FERAL

SOCIALISATION TO HUMANS

May approach people, houses, driveways or cars

Will not approach and will likely seek hiding places to avoid people

SOCIALISATION TO OTHER CATS

Will likely live alone, not be part of a group

May belong to a colony

BODY LANGUAGE

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

VOCALISATION

May be vocal, meow or 'answer' your voice

Won’t meow, beg or purr

SCHEDULE

Will be visible primarily during the daytime

More likely to be nocturnal; occasionally out during the day

PHYSICAL APPEARANCE

Will probably be dirty or dishevelled

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 eartip

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.

We recognise that a cat’s level of socialisation and behaviour is not always black and white, particularly for feral cats who recognise their caregiver. They may show signs of familiarity, such as a tail up or hanging out on a caregiver’s porch, but these behaviours 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.

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,' explains Alley Cat Allies Feral Friend Genevieve Van de Merghel. Who can blame them? The cat is in a new and unfamiliar place.

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.

STRAY

FERAL

TOUCH BARRIER

It may be possible to touch the cat eventually or she may tolerate a small amount of touching with an object

Cannot be touched, even by a caregiver

CAGE BEHAVIOUR

May come to the front of the cage

Will likely stay in the back of the cage and retreat as far back as possible

May eventually rub against the cage in a friendly way

If jolted or frightened, may shake, rattle, or climb the cage, and could become injured banging into the cage

LEVEL OF RELAXATION

May relax over time

Will remain tense and unsocial

RESPONSIVENESS

May investigate toys or food placed near the cage

Will likely ignore all people and toys, and possibly even food

May respond to household sounds like cat food cans or bags being opened

Will not show any familiarity or interest in household sounds

FEAR AND ANXIETY

May hiss or growl to show anxiety

Will be aggressive and lash out if threatened or cornered (signs of aggression include ears back and eyes dilated)

What do I do next?

Once you have evaluated a cat and feel like you have a sense of the cat’s level of socialisation, the next step is to get the cat neutered. From there, use your evaluation to do what’s in the cat’s best interest:

Part of Ireland's TNR Manual

How to Help Community Cats

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