How To Tell If A Cat Is Stray, Feral, or Wild

by Joelle Steele

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Before defining the terms "stray," "feral," and "wild," it helps to know that we are talking about the house cat, the common domestic cat, Felis catus. This is the species of cat that we adopt as pets. A domestic cat shares its general appearance and much of its behavior with its wild cousins, but there are no "wild" house cats, exclusive of a handful of hybrids that are crosses between the domestic cat and a few varieties of wild cats, such as the Bengal (cross with Prionailurus bengalensis, the Asian Leopard Cat); Chausie (cross with Felis chaus, an Asian jungle cat); Savannah (cross with Leptailurus serval, the African Serval); and Pixiebob (cross with Lynx rufus, the bobcat). And a few other hybrids have their genetic roots in the wild strains of these crossbreeds.

House Cats

Domestic house cats, like all cats in the wild, are natural-born hunters, carnivorous predators with strong, sharp claws and teeth. They are physically agile, have above-average hearing, and can see well in the dark. They groom themselves, and they "communicate" with us and other cats through a wide range of vocalizations, including meowing, purring, growling, and hissing. They are territorial and mark their range with their scent. They are mainly flesh-eaters but also eat greens (such as grasses and even broccoli).

A house cat is normally socialized, partly by its mother cat and partly by its human companions who handle it when it is still a kitten. A domestic cat grows up around people and learns early what is appropriate behavior with its human companions. As much as cats are similar, they are also dissimilar, because their  personalities vary in much the same ways that human personalities do. Some are more outgoing and sociable, some shy and retiring, some playful and assertive, some talk a lot, etc.

Stray CATs

A cat that is stray is one who was born, raised, and lived in a human household, but was then abandoned or became lost or separated from its human companions. Strays are loners and usually get fed by cat lovers who feel sorry for them and may even adopt them. Strays are very adept at finding new homes because they are so well-socialized from birth. They are used to living in a house with people, having food set out for them at predictable times, being given a nice warm place to sleep, and being petted and played with and in all ways made a part of the human family.

The longer a cat is stray, the less likely it is to find a new home with people. If it does find a new home right away, it may require a little more time to adapt to its new environment if it is adopted. If it is overly shy, it may not find a new home at all and, over time, may join a feral cat colony.

Feral Cats

There are two kinds of feral cats: 1) a domestic cat that joins a feral cat colony after being a long-time stray; and 2) a domestic cat that is born of one or both feral parents and raised in the wild, usually in a feral cat colony. If left to live in a feral colony, the average feral cat lives less than half as long as a cat that lives in a human household. A feral cat is not and can never be a wild cat, but it is also not socialized like a common house cat.

Differences Between Strays and Ferals

While stray cats are not always immediately friendly, they often warm up to a person. That is not the case with ferals. They can be immediately recognized by their highly unsocialized behavior. Any cat can be afraid at times, but feral cats are always afraid of people. They will go out of their way to avoid people and will generally cower or run away if approached by a human. If cornered or threatened, they may hiss or growl, both of which are self-defensive behaviors and should not be interpreted as acts of aggression. Cats are aggressive towards their prey and sometimes to other cats, but not towards people. Feral cats see people as their predators and retreat.

A stray cat is likely to meow or purr if petted. A feral cat will not usually vocalize at all and will never let a human get close enough to touch or pet it.

A stray will approach people, even if keeping a slight cautionary distance, and it will make eye contact with a person and generally has its tail held upright, a sign of friendliness. A feral cat will never approach a person or make eye contact with them. It will move slowly away from a person, will crouch or crawl, stay low to the ground, and keep its tail down.

Strays often look very dirty, usually from sleeping in "temporary housing" such as crawlspaces under buildings, behind wood piles, in barns, etc. Ferals, on the other hand, are often very thin and trim animals that are, for the most part, well-groomed. Un-neutered male ferals are generally not as well-groomed as the females. The male ferals are easier to identify than the females because they tend to be quite muscular with large heads and thick cheek jowls. They may also be scarred on the face and head, and may have "stud tail," which consists of a greasy, thin-haired area near the base of the tail.

Stray cats can be seen during any time of the day or night, but feral cats tend to be nocturnal, sleeping during the day and coming out at night to hunt.

Adopting Strays and Ferals

Most strays are adoptable at any age. Feral-born kittens can be adoptable the earlier they are removed from the colony and the more quickly they can be socialized to people and life in a human household. Adult feral cats are rarely adoptable and are usually destroyed if captured. Volunteer organizations that manage feral cat colonies, do what they can to prevent this unfortunate outcome by trapping feral cats, spaying or neutering them, notching their ears to indicate they are spayed or neutered, and then either adopting them out if they are still young and have any social skills, or returning them to their colony to live out their lives without reproducing.

Summary

Identifying and making distinctions between and among cats is never an exact science, and the best approach to any cat is no approach at all. If you encounter a cat, it could be your neighbor's pet, it could be a stray, or it could be feral. Don't approach it at all, do not touch it, and do not attempt to pick it up. Any cat – old, ill, injured, afraid, or in any way feeling threatened – has the ability to defend itself with its arsenal of claws and teeth, and you could be injured as a result.

This article last updated: 02/09/2009.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.