Like pet cats, ferals and strays fall under the category of domestic cats. However, despite their similarities, there’s a big difference between the two. While feral cats are perfectly content living outdoors separate from humans, stray cats often crave human company and in most cases, are either lost or abandoned pets.
Whether you’re a TNR volunteer or an outdoor cat advocate, knowing the difference between the two can help you make sure that the decisions you make for the cats you encounter are in their best interests.
Common Characteristics of Stray Cats
Since most stray cats are socialized to people, they’ll usually have no problem walking up to you, receiving pets, making eye contact, or even eating treats out of your hands. They’ll appear relaxed and friendly, walking like a house cat with their tail up in the air. You may also hear them meow as a way to beg for food or respond to your (or another human’s) voice.
On the streets, you may notice that a stray cat is more active during the daytime and wanders around alone instead of with a group or colony. Their coat will most likely be dirty, matted, and disheveled—contrary to popular belief—as a result of stress from having to fend for themselves outdoors.
In some cases, stray cats slowly become ferals as they make less and less contact with humans. However, when re-introduced to a home and given the right amount of time to re-acclimate, there’s a good chance that they’ll revert back to being amiable feline companions. That means, stray cats may be fostered and, when the time is right, adopted out.
Common Characteristics of Feral Cats
Unlike strays, feral cats have no desire of being friendly with humans. Most of them would bolt the second you initiate movement or make eye contact. You’ll see them crouched low to the ground, their tails tucked between their legs, ready to run to safety when threatened. Yes, some may approach you for food, but there’s a very slim chance of them allowing you to move closer, let alone touch them.
While a stray cat may live alone, a feral cat will reside with a colony. Being used to living outdoors, their coat will normally appear clean and well-kempt. You may also notice that they have an eartip, usually on the left ear, signifying they’ve gone through TNR. However, it’s important to note that if a stray has been outdoors long enough, they may also have one.
And lastly, strays may be rehabilitated, but more often than not, feral cats can’t be. The majority of them prefer living outdoors and would never be happy living in a home alongside humans. Although, kittens born to a feral cat can become great pets as long as they’re rescued and socialized at an early age.
Why Does Knowing the Difference Matter?
Given that most stray cats are lost pets, being able to identify them allows you to possibly reunite them with their owners. Aside from that, you’ll be able to spare them from a life of suffering outdoors and give them a chance to find another family to love and care for them if their owner doesn’t take them back.
On the contrary, since feral cats have no interest in being a family pet and living indoors, bringing them to a shelter or rescue will most likely get them euthanized. Knowing how to spot a feral cat gives you the opportunity to provide food, outdoor shelter, and perhaps, even veterinary care, to cats that are simply happier and healthier outside.
If you’re interested in helping feral and stray cats in bigger ways, you can always extend a helping hand—whether through volunteering or donating—to animal rescue and TNR groups or organizations in your area.