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Stray vs. Feral — What’s The Difference?

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 It’s common for people to lump all of the free-roaming cats in their neighborhood under the umbrella of “feral” when some of them may be stray instead. Knowing the difference between stray and feral cats can help you know the best way to interact with them, and it can also help you determine the best avenues for providing care that’s in the best interest of the cats.

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Image Source: Leans via Flickr.com

What’s the difference?
The main distinguishing difference between feral and stray cats is simply the way they relate to and interact with humans.

A stray cat has been socialized at some point in her life but has lost or left the human contact and dependence that come with having a home. Even though a stray cat can be scared and wary, she may be able to be adopted into another home under the right circumstances and with patience. Occasionally, a stray cat may become feral if she is without human contact for an extended period of time.

A feral cat has either never had contact with humans or hasn’t had contact in a long time. Feral cats lack trust for humans and will be fearful of people who try to interact with them. They’re not likely to ever be happy living indoors and would rather fend for themselves.

Kittens born to feral cats are very likely to become feral themselves unless they are rescued and socialized at an early age.

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Image Source: Nikita via Flickr.com

How will they act differently?
You can learn a lot by observing the ways cats act with you and with each other.

  • A stray cat may approach you or allow you to touch her.
  • A feral cat will keep a safe distance and flee if you initiate contact.
  • A stray cat will probably live alone.
  • A feral cat may belong to a larger feral colony
  • A stray cat may walk and behave like a house cat. For instance, she may display an upright tail that signifies friendliness.
  • A feral cat may crouch low to the ground and is unlikely to make eye contact.
  • A stray cat may be vocal and answer you when you talk to her.
  • A feral cat won’t meow or vocally communicate with you.

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Image Source: Jim Makos via Flickr.com

Why does it matter?
Knowing how to tell the difference between stray and feral cats can help you save lives.

It’s a shame for stray cats to live outdoors since they can often readjust to living with people. Being able to recognize a stray gives you the opportunity to find her a loving home on your own or through your local no-kill shelter.

Conversely, since feral cats will never be able to live happily and safely indoors, they are very likely to be euthanized if brought to a shelter. Being able to identify a feral gives you the opportunity to provide food and outdoor shelter to a cat who is ultimately happier and healthier living outdoors. If you need help managing a feral colony, seek help from a local Trap, Neuter, Return chapter.

Regardless of whether your neighborhood cat is stray or feral, she deserves compassion. Understanding her level of socialization will help you give her the care and respect she needs to survive.

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