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Homeless Cats: The Difference Between Feral and Stray Cats

  A friend of mine moved away from our neighborhood recently. Since Jane has lived here the past two years,…


Homeless cats
A friend of mine moved away from our neighborhood recently. Since Jane has lived here the past two years, she has been feeding a homeless cat. She actually considers it “her” cat now. The cat, whom she named Dottie, has come to depend on Jane to set food out for her every day. Not only has Jane been feeding her, but at one point last year, she trapped Dottie in a crate and took her to be spayed and vaccinated. Prior to moving, Jane asked her vet about transporting Dottie to her new home. The vet advised Jane not to take Dottie with her. She was devastated. The vet said that Dottie is happy and thriving in her current surroundings, and removing her would be way too stressful. Was that good advice?

We, as cat lovers, believe all cats should be curled up on our couch and in our laps. They should have their own fluffy beds and fresh food and water available to them at all times. We want the very best for our beloved 4-legged friends. But sometimes what we think of as “best” isn’t necessarily so. A stray or a feral cat has a different set of needs and preferences. It starts by learning the differences.

Neighbors who have lived here for a while tell us that Dottie was left behind when another family moved away. How anyone could do such a thing is beyond belief, but that’s another subject altogether… So apparently, Dottie once had a home. She had a family. We assume that she was, at that time, an indoor cat. Dottie would not then be considered a “feral” cat. She is a “stray”. Most strays can be “converted” to happy house cats again, but feral cats generally cannot.

What are Feral Cats?

A feral cat is afraid of people. I mean, really afraid of people. A feral cat cannot be touched, even by someone who has been feeding her. She will actually hide from people. A feral cat is not likely the one who is coming to your porch for food, as they prefer to scavenge and eat wildlife. Generally, a feral cat belongs to a colony of cats, her own feline family, even though she is usually seen alone. There have been rare cases of adult feral cats becoming house cats, but they are primarily not adoptable. However, a feral kitten can be rescued while still very young and successfully adapt to living in the home. The difference is early socialization.

Young kittens are socialized by consistently interacting with humans, being talked to, played with, and held. Adult feral cats have never had a relationship with a human. True feral cats are born within their colonies, relating to and bonding only to other cats. Because of this, they have a natural fear of humans. It is not likely that they could ever adapt to anything but a life lived outdoors and free. That is their choice. That is what they are use to.

What are Stray Cats?

Unlike a feral cat, a stray might approach your porch or car. She is leery of humans, although appears to desire some type of association. She still probably would not let us touch her, though. Most likely, a stray has had some interaction with humans at some point in her life. Stray cats can actually become “feral” if they live on their own for an extended period, but if rescued in time, are indeed adoptable.

It’s hard to know the difference sometime. Jane trapped Ally in her garage once when she feared for her safety during a horrific storm. Dottie went crazy… screaming and clawing to get away. Even though she was not personally restrained, she was enclosed. So would Dottie still be considered a stray? Or had she crossed the line and become feral? Who knows? It’s really hard to determine if Dottie could have ever become a house cat.

Feral Cats vs. Stray Cats

When it comes to “feral” vs “stray”, nothing is cut in stone. Some people have been known to actually pet a feral cat, especially if the cat has had a long relationship with a food “provider”. More than likely, though, that particular cat has been “mislabeled” … If she were a true feral cat, she probably wouldn’t be coming to a person for food, right? But I can’t help but think that even a feral cat would come to a food bowl if it was left within or near her stomping grounds. See what I mean? It’s difficult to make the distinction… We could go around and ‘round. Regardless of Dottie’s reaction to being enclosed in a garage, I still believe she is a stray and not a feral cat, based on her known beginnings. It’s just very unclear.

Jane has been gone for 2 months now. I sometimes see Dottie around the neighborhood. She now has a new “provider” and is often spotted hiding under the bushes near the porch of the lady who feeds her. Whether she suffered any hurt or feelings of abandonment when Jane moved, we will never know. She looks good… clean and well-fed. But Jane’s vet knew what she was talking about. Moving Dottie to a new area would probably have been traumatic for her. Here, Dottie has her own hiding places, she knows the neighborhood pets, she knows where to go and where not to go, she knows where to find food, she is content and comfortable with familiarity. This is her home.

Follow-up: Holiday Barn Pet Resorts supports the Richmond SPCA and their efforts in the TNR, Trap-Neuter-Return program. Feral cats are humanely trapped, vaccinated, and neutered at their Smokey’s Spay/Neuter clinic for free. These cats are returned to their outdoor homes where their lives are greatly improved by better health. Another wonderful component of their TNR program includes educating the public about humane methods of cat care. For more information, visit:

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