What Is A Feral Cat?

By Chyrle Bonk, DVM July 16, 2019

If you’re in the cat world at all, then you’ve probably run across the term 'feral.'  Most of us assume it just means a cat that is wild, but it’s so much more than just that.  There are actually varying degrees of ‘wildness’ in cats that you see living outside without the comforts of the human world.  Let’s dive into what a feral cat is exactly, and how they should be dealt with.

What Is A Feral Cat?

Feral cats are cats that live outdoors and lack any socialization to people.  A feral cat is not a special breed of cat.  In fact, they are the same species as our house cats.  They live off the land, usually in colonies, and are unlikely to ever be tame enough for adoption into a home.

When confronted with a cat on the street, it can belong to one of three groups: pet, stray, or feral.  The differentiation is all based on the degree of socialization or comfort and friendliness it has towards people.  Why does it matter which group a cat belongs to?  Knowing what type of cat you’re looking at will help you determine how you should act towards it, and what, if any, intervention needs to occur from there.

Pet Cat, Stray Cat, Or Feral Cat - What’s The Difference?

I think we’re all pretty comfortable with what a pet cat is. They are cats that are comfortable with and actually seek out human interaction.  Pet cats are pretty easy to spot.  The distinction between stray and feral cats may be a little more difficult to nail down.

  • Feral Cat vs. Stray Cat

The main difference between a stray cat and a feral cat is that strays have had human socialization somewhere in their past.  These are cats that have lived in the comfort of humans, but have left or lost their home.  Stray cats can usually readjust to living with people, although they may take some time to acclimate.  Stray cats are more likely than feral cats to approach people and houses.  They may not want immediate contact with people, but they aren’t typically afraid to be in the vicinity.  When compared to a feral cat, stray cats may be dirty and matted. More often than not, they probably won’t hesitate to make eye contact or meow at you.  Feral cats are less likely to be seen during the day and will usually crouch, crawl, or slink around trying to stay out of sight.

  • Feral Cat vs. Pet Cat

This one should be fairly easy to figure out since pet cats are very used to human interaction, and feral cats try to avoid it altogether.  A pet cat is more likely to come up to you or at least walk around normally, and possibly even with their tail in the air, whereas feral cats will crouch or crawl to avoid you altogether.  Pet cats may meow at you or otherwise engage with you by rubbing on your legs or sniffing your fingers.  Pet cats and feral cats will both be clean and tidy, but you may notice that most male feral cats have big broad heads and thick necks, usually with scars around the face and ears.  The bigger head and neck comes from not being neutered, and the scars come from fighting.

  • Stray Cat vs. Pet Cat

Since a stray cat is essentially a pet cat that no longer has a home, they may be harder to tell apart depending on how long they have been a stray.  Both kitties may still approach you, but you may notice that a stray cat is dirty and unkempt because they aren’t used to living outdoors.  Stray cats may also be a bit more fearful but will still engage with you the way that a pet cat does.  Depending on the amount of time that they have been a stray, most of these cats can be successfully adopted back into homes.

The Life Of A Feral Cat

Many of us may think that the life of a feral cat is similar to a lion, tiger, or bobcat and the truth is that it’s not far off, not exactly.  It seems that feral cats have combined lifestyles of pet cats and wild cats.  For example, instead of roaming the savanna or stalking a breezy grassland, feral cats tend to congregate more around urban areas.  Even though there are more people in these areas, there are also more food and shelter opportunities.  This is why we see most large feral cat populations in cities across the United States rather than the more rural areas.  This doesn’t mean that a feral cat is tied to any one area.  Most will roam a specified territory going where the food is.  Feral cats can hunt for mice, rats, and birds or even scavenge through dumpsters.  Some are also fed by well-meaning humans.  These cats are also typically found in colonies rather than alone.  Colonies help in the procurement of food, raising offspring, and overall survival rates. 

When it comes to survival rates, feral cats need all the help they can get.  Feral kitten survival rates can be as low as 25%.  Those feral cats that reach adulthood generally will only live a couple of years if they are on their own, but their life expectancy will increase to double digits if taken in by a colony.  Feral cats face many challenges including starvation, natural and human-related traumas, disease, and extreme weather conditions. 

Can A Feral Cat Be Domesticated?

In general, it’s not a good idea to try to domesticate a feral cat.  Feral cats are scared and untrusting of humans.  Even if you’re able to trap them and get them indoors, they won’t ever be comfortable living this way.  They may also become aggressive if you corner them.  Feral cats have adapted to living life without or with very little human intervention.  Adult cats that have been brought up this way are extremely hard to change and even dangerous to try changing.

With that being said, feral kittens have a higher success rate of being domesticated.  The younger, the better since the more that feral kittens learn from their mother and other members of the cat colony, the harder they will be to tame.  When trying to domesticate a feral kitten, it’s best to be patient, take small steps, and not push too hard.  You will want to give these kittens lots of positive exposure to humans without causing fear or anxiety.  Let them get used to you and dictate the taming procedure.

What Should You Do If You Find A Feral Cat?

There is much controversy surrounding the question of what should be done with feral cats.  Many people think that feral cats have a miserable life filled with danger and unhappiness so they should be euthanized.  Others don’t think their living conditions are all that bad, they just don’t want them living in their area.  Large feral cat colonies can decimate local bird populations, spread disease to pet or stray cats, and can cause unsanitary conditions wherever they choose to defecate.  There are a few different options when it comes to feral cat management.  Ask your veterinarian or local shelter to find out what the best options are in your area.  Here is a list of some possibilities:

  • Relocation

If feral cats are causing trouble in a certain area, then efforts can be made to relocate them.  This option typically has limited success since feral cats establish a territory that is all their own, and they may try to return to that territory.  Trapping and moving a group of cats is also not the easiest task.

  • Colony Caretaker

These are individuals that voluntarily watch over a colony of feral cats by providing food, shelter, and medical attention when necessary.  Most of these caretakers are supported by a local shelter or rescue group.

  • Trap-Neuter-Return

This program humanely traps feral cats, has them sterilized, ear tipped and vaccinated, and then returned to their colony.  Ear tipping is a way of identifying which cats have been sterilized.  The idea behind Trap-Neuter-Return is to help control the population and provide some immunity against disease.  These programs are typically funded by donations and run by volunteers.

If you come across a feral cat, it’s important to first decide whether it’s truly feral or a stray.  This is important because most stray cats can be re-acclimated to living with humans and stand a better chance of adoption.  If the kitty is a true feral, you can then contact your veterinarian or local shelter to find out what programs are available to either relocate the cat if they are causing problems or to have them spayed or neutered.


The distinction between a feral, stray, and pet cat may seem trivial, but in fact it is the difference between adoption and returning to a life on the streets.  Just remember that feral cats tend to be afraid of humans and will try to avoid them at all costs.  If there are feral cats in your neighborhood that keep themselves out of trouble, it’s best to just let them be.  They have adapted to living in these conditions.  If you choose to get involved, contact your local shelter or veterinarian for options and programs available to support the feral cats in your area.

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