What Is A Feral Cat? Learn How To Recognize And Help An Outside Cat

Published by Annie Anderson
Last updated: March 30, 2024

As a long-time kitty lover, have you always wondered how to tell if a cat is feral or a stray? 

Did you ever stumble upon a feral cat and wanted to help it and befriend it but didn’t know how? All of your concerns and questions can stop now; you’re looking at the ultimate guide on feral cats! 

If you want to know the definite answer to the question “What is a feral cat?” and many more, stay tuned!

How To Tell If A Cat Is Feral?

Usually, it’s super easy for us to determine whether a cat is a feral or belongs to someone and has just recently escaped or abandoned its home. Newly free-roaming cats appear well fed and taken care of; you can tell they belong to someone. 

The really tricky part is when a cat has been outside for a while, and you can’t tell at first glance whether it’s a stray cat or a feral cat. A common misconception is that these two terms are synonyms, when in fact, they’re not. 

Why is it important to discern the two? 

Well, for one thing, it can make or break the entire experience you might have with a cat you’ve found outside and want to help the best way you can.

Spot The Difference Between A Feral Cat & A Stray Cat

The first thing you need to know is how to tell whether the cat is a feral or a stray. 

When in the presence of such a cat, one can easily be confused because they can look pretty similar. As mentioned earlier, the terms “stray” and “feral” are often used interchangeably – which, although understandable, is a huge mistake.

It’s important to remember that “feral” is a designation of behavior, not location, which means the differences between feral and stray cats are in how they behave towards humans.

While stray cats and feral cats have some things in common, there are a few crucial differences that help you tell them apart. 

The most significant one is that stray cats are socialized to humans. Most likely, they were someone’s pets that were lost or, even worse, abandoned. 

On the other hand, feral cats have very little to absolutely zero interactions with human beings. As they reverted to this wild state, feral cats typically fear humans and won’t react well – unless very young at the time – if one tries to adopt and adapt them to living indoors. 

Generally, if a feral cat is not socialized by the time it’s five months old, it likely won’t ever be. It’s best to leave them be in the wild with their colony, to which they can actually bond. 

Stray cats can become feral if their contact with humans dwindles. But if they’re lucky enough, stray cats can also become loving pets once again. 

That’s not all. Here are a few more signs that can help you distinguish stray cats from feral cats:

  • Stray cats might approach humans, houses, and cars, while feral cats look for a place to hide. 
  • Feral cats will likely live in colonies, while strays are usually alone.
  • Their body language is different. A stray cat may walk like a house cat with its tail in the air and make a lot of eye contact, whereas a feral cat will crouch and avoid eye contact.
  • Feral cats are primarily nocturnal beings. Stray cats are active during the day. 
  • Stray cats are more vocal. They might meow and respond to your voice, while feral cats won’t do the same.

How To Care For a Feral Cat?

In spite of their wild nature, feral cats still need some level of care from humans. PETA has issued a brochure that explains how volunteers can help a colony of feral cats. 

As a feral cat colony caretaker, it’s important to find a veterinarian with whom you can establish a good rapport and who is somewhat flexible. It’s not like feral cats can actually adhere to a timetable.

Estimate your budget based on the size of the colony and what each cat might need; it’s best to discuss it with a vet. 

Also, keep track of all the kitties in the colony. Stay organized by maintaining vet records on each cat.

Another vital thing to do is to secure food and water for the cats. Find a dry and sheltered spot to feed them.

Since many feral cats live in colonies, their population usually proliferates. The brochure also speaks of the so-called TNR, or trap-neuter-return program, which is geared towards reducing the number of unwanted cats. 

Currently, there are millions of feral cats in the United States, many of which are sick, dying of various conditions, and don’t live long enough to die of “old age.”

The TNR program ensures the cats are humanely trapped, examined, vaccinated, and sterilized by a vet. The cats are then returned to a familiar environment and (hopefully) cared for by the volunteers. 

The opinions on TNR are split. 

Some believe it to be a noble cause as neutered cats can gain weight and have fewer health problems. Others argue that returning the cats into the wild constitutes re-abandonment and doesn’t fix the problem at a larger scale. 

Can A Feral Cat Be Domesticated?

That depends on the cat’s age. 

Adopting and socializing a grown feral cat is a Herculean task. However, there’s a small window of time where you can attempt to domesticate a feral cat, and it’s only the first five months of their life. 

If you arm yourself with patience, the feral kitten might just become your beloved pet. 

But if they’re older than that, the best thing you can do is leave the cat to live with its colony and take care of it by becoming a volunteer like described above. 

Are Feral Cats Dangerous?

If you’re thinking about approaching a cat you found outside, do it with caution. Make sure to follow the cat’s lead

If it’s friendly, be patient and get to know it to build up trust. 

Keep in mind that, while stray cats might tolerate touching, feral cats certainly don’t, not even from the caretaker that feeds them. 

That’s another difference between stray cats and feral cats: 

As you get to know a stray cat, it will probably relax over time in your presence, while the same cannot be said for a feral cat. Feral cats will remain tense and could lash out aggressively if feeling threatened. If found in the same situation, a stray cat will simply hiss but likely won’t attack.

One vital question that many people ask is whether feral cats are actually dangerous to humans and public health. 

According to the National Feline Research Council, although it is possible, the rate of feral cats spreading diseases to humans is often misrepresented. 

They claim that the risk of getting a disease such as rabies or toxoplasmosis from a feral cat is minimal. The misinformation and exaggeration of the level of threat these cats pose to humans are dangerous and counterproductive.

Feral Cat Diseases & How To Help Them

It’s a devastating fact that feral cats live short, hard lives on the streets. They encounter many dangers, which usually means they don’t die of old age, like most house cats. 

Some of the diseases these poor cats suffer from can have deadly effects. The common conditions in feral cats include:

  • Herpes viral conjunctivitis
  • Feline AIDS
  • Leukemia
  • Infectious peritonitis

These can get pretty serious. However, the sad truth is that even the easily treatable conditions can turn deadly for these feral animals if vets don’t examine them.

That’s not where the list ends. 

Feral cats often have minor cuts or puncture wounds that turn into infections and abscesses. 

They can also suffer from untreated upper respiratory infections that leave their eyes and noses filled with mucus to the point where the cat cannot see or breathe.

Feral cats are also no strangers to ear infections and ear mites. They will scratch their ears until they bleed cause they are driven mad by the pain and irritations. 

Worms, fleas, and untreated infections can lead to significant blood loss and anemia, which can cause a slow and agonizing death. 

Even if a feral cat manages to escape all these perils and somehow makes it in the wild state, it may still fall prey to a cruel death at the hands of humans: 

Across the United States, feral cats are mutilated, shot at, drowned, poisoned, beaten, set on fire, and tormented in any other imaginable way. 

Feral Cats – Conclusion

So, how can you help in this situation?

We’ve already established how you can take care of feral cats. Find a vet, come up with a plan on how to help and care for the cats, and make sure to commit to it 100%. 


Feral cats need your help just like any other cat. The main difference is that they require a different approach and a lot of patience. 

It may take time but don’t give up cause you may be the only hope for these fluffy felines!

Do you have any advice or experience with feral cats? We’d love to hear it!

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