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Feral cat vs stray cat: What is the difference?

Two cats on a street

Stray cat or feral cat: What is the difference?

© JancickaL - Pixabay

Distinguishing between a feral cat and a stray house cat isn't always easy. However, there are a few indicators to look out for if you find a wandering cat.

By Zoë Monk

Updated on the

Feral, stray and pet cats are all from the same species. They are all domestic cats whose lives differ significantly in many ways. Often people confuse or alternate between the terms feral cat and stray cat, but there are distinct differences.

Let's look more closely at the meaning of these terms and how you can tell the difference between the two.

What does a stray cat mean?

The term stray cat refers to felines with recent socialisation or recent life as a domestic pet. They, unfortunately, end up on the streets for several reasons, from abandonment to simply getting lost. The majority of RSPCA cats and those in rescues tend to be strays as they are usually able to fit back into family life without too much struggle. The number of stray cats in the UK increases annually, and knowing what to do when you find a stray cat is important, so it has the best chance at a future.

What does feral cat mean?

A feral cat refers to felines who have never had any human interaction. Alternatively, a feral cat definition can also include cats who have lost all contact with humankind over a long period. Feral cats are often born from strays or other feral cats and are used to living in the great outdoors. They are naturally fearful of humans and other animals and can appear aggressive. Feral cat behaviour can be the main indicator for deciding whether a cat is stray or feral.

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

Identifying a stray or feral cat is dependent on both physical and behavioural factors. Being sure before you attempt to catch or tame the cat is advisable. Not many feral cats can be happily tamed and live inside the home, so the right measures need to be implemented. Consider these signs which help to tell the difference between strays and feral cats:

Physical differences

  • Stray cats often look unclean and dishevelled as they are not used to living outdoors
  • Feral cats usually have clean fur and are relatively well-kept
  • Stray cats may be underweight or look unhealthy as they are not used to fending for themselves
  • Feral cats are often more muscular and lean in build and often have scars due to their survival techniques

Behavioural differences

  • Stray cats may act much like domesticated pets. They may walk towards you with their tail raised high and seem friendly
  • Feral cats do not want to be approached and will avoid any human interaction or touch
  • Stray cats may be very vocal and purr and meow when touched
  • Feral cats do not usually vocally communicate with humans
  • Stray cats are often found out and about in the daytime, seeking food, shelter and human contact
  • Feral cats are usually nocturnal and rarely seen in the daytime

How to catch a feral cat

Catching a feral cat is not always a good idea. It is often dangerous and can be extremely traumatising. There are instances when capture is necessary. The cat may be injured, or it may be living in an unsafe place. Keep in mind that cats are protected in UK law too. They are considered the property of their owner, so you must be 100% sure before attempting to catch a feral cat.

Most attempts to catch feral cats are due to overpopulation and colonies growing to an unmanageable level. It is important to explain to a local feral cat rescue or nearby vet that you bring in the caught animals for neutering and recovery. You may find that Cats Protection is offering local schemes for neutering too. Professionals can advise on the right traps and be sure you act safely and fairly for the colony. It is particularly important to be careful of a feral cat with kittens, so you must plan accordingly.

Can you domesticate a feral cat?

Feral cats are essentially wild animals. They do not know anything about living with humans and have no socialisation. They often have many diseases which could put other domestic pets at risk. Learning how to tame a feral cat takes time and patience and is not always possible. There is a higher chance with younger cats, especially new kittens, which can be domesticated from as close to birth as possible. Most rescue centres and charities prefer to deal with feral cat colonies through the trap-neuter-return process, which humanely traps the cat, provides neutering and returns them to their colony's home.

While it can be upsetting for cat lovers to see a feral feline living out in the neighbourhood, they are generally happier there than brought inside and forced to live in a way they do not understand.

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