Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Community Cat Awareness: What's the Difference Between Stray and Feral Cats?

Happy 2020 to all our readers! It’s hard to believe that I reached the five year milestone of blogging in December. The blog has grown so much in five years and has really gone in a different direction from where it started. The ride has been exciting, that’s for sure!

I started brainstorming ideas to write about in 2020 and decided to put more emphasis on community cats. So welcome to the first post in my Community Cat Awareness series!  I’m planning on writing about colony care, TNR, TNR ordinances, rescue groups who do TNR and colony care, and maybe some other topics that come to light along the way.

There are a lot of misconceptions and false ideas about community cats, so I thought I’d start out the series writing about the difference between stray cats and feral cats.

difference between strays and feral cats


Community Cats

Before I delve into the differences, I want to address the term “Community Cats.” I first became aware of the importance of this term in 2017 when I took a tour of Allie Cat Allies’ Atlantic City Boardwalk Cats Project. On the tour Alice Burton, Associate Director of Animal Shelter and Animal Control Engagement, encouraged everyone to use the term “community cats” vs. “feral cats”. Not all cats in a colony are necessarily feral. The ASPCA tells us that “Community Cats is a term used to describe outdoor, unowned, free-roaming cats. These cats could be friendly, feral, adults, kittens, healthy, sick, altered and/or unaltered. They may or may not have a caregiver. By this definition, the only outdoor free-roaming cats who are not community cats are those who have an owner.”

For the purpose of this article, I will be using the terms stray and feral cats, because while there are some commonalities between them, there are striking differences as well. Below I discuss these differences, and why it’s important to know them. However, moving forward in the series I will be using the term Community Cats more frequently.

Stray Cats

In most cases, a stray cat was at one time a pet who has gotten lost or, unfortunately, was abandoned. At some point in their lives, a stray cat has been socialized to humans and has also depended on humans for their survival. 

difference between strays and feral cats

It is possible that a stray cat can adopt feral behaviors over time as their contact with humans decreases and their fear of them increases. A stray cat can lead a happy life with a new family if they are rescued off the streets in time.

Feral Cats

A feral cat is born outside to other feral cats or stray cats. They have had little to no human interactions and are quite fearful of us. Unless a feral cat is rescued and socialized at an early age, they are not deemed to be adoptable and will live their life outside.

What is socialization?

Before I move on to discuss the differences in more detail, let’s talk about socialization. What exactly does this mean?

According to Alley Cat Allies, a socialized cat is friendly towards people and enjoys our company. They are accustomed to being petted and handled by humans and enjoy living indoors. In many cases they are used to being exposed to different people. 

difference between strays and feral cats

A cat who is not socialized will present at the opposite. They can be fearful, distrustful and at times aggressive. This aggression is often motivated by fear. For example, of you reach out to attempt to pet a feral or unsocialized cat, they may view your hand as a weapon that can harm them.

Differences Between Stray and Feral Cats

There are many differences between a stray and a feral cat. While the list below is not exhaustive it does touch on some major, important points.
  • Stray cats will likely approach people while a feral cat will not. A feral will likely avoid people.
  • A stray cat will likely be on its own and not live in a group. A feral cat will be part of a colony, which has a social structure and can be very bonded.
  • They have very different body languages. Strays may walk around with their tail in the air much like a house cat while ferals are more likely to crouch, stay low to the ground, and protect its body with its tail.
  • Feral cats typically hide during the day and come out more frequently at night. Stray cats are active during the day.
  • Feral cats are not adoptable, and shelters will rarely take them. Feral cats who are accepted into shelters make up a large percentage of cats who are euthanized in the country on an annual basis. According to the ASPCA, “The fact is, most community cats exhibit wild, shy or frightened behavior, and it's impossible to predict how or if they will ever acclimate to indoor life. While a community cat might look exactly the same as a pet cat, community cats survive by avoiding close human interaction. When properly cared for, community cats are happier outdoors in their own territory.” As mentioned above, a stray cat has a good chance at a happy indoor life if they are rescued before they become fearful of humans.
  • Stray cats may be very vocal and meow at you. Feral cats won’t meow or purr. When colony caretakers report that one of their cats purr, it’s a major breakthrough for them.
  • If a feral cat is spayed or neutered through TNR it will have what’s referred to as an ear tip.  A stray cat will not be ear-tipped. However, bear in mind that not all feral cats have been TNR’d and that is why they may not have the signature ear tip. 

difference between strays and feral cats

Why is it Important to Know the Difference?

When cats are trapped, it can often be difficult to distinguish between a stray and feral cat. This is because a stray cat may be very scared and may need some time to show what their level of socialization is. Not that long ago I was involved in a rescue of momma cat and her two babies. The momma cat, named Electra by her rescuer (Jenni of East Harlem Cats) is a perfect example of this. Electra was not very friendly in the beginning, but with time and patience, she started to shine as she became more comfortable and less frightened.

When a cat is trapped, its level (or degree) of socialization is taken into consideration to determine the best environment for them. Socialized cats and most times young kittens can be adopted, while feral cats are returned to their outdoor home. It would be a shame to return an adoptable cat back outdoors.


It’s key to recognize that if a cat approaches you or allows you to touch her, she is most likely a stray and not a feral. It’s also important to bear in mind that each cat is different and will act differently in various situations. Sometimes the best approach is to monitor them. Allie Cat Allies has more in-depth information that you can read here

difference between strays and feral cats

Two of my family’s cats we had when I was younger came to us as strays and found their way into our home. Both Lola and Lexy were strays as well. Lola somehow found herself in a dumpster, and Lexy was abandoned by her family and left outside. I can’t bear the thought of either of them living life on the street, and I’m so glad someone recognized how friendly they were and helped them find their way to shelters (and to me!) 

difference between strays and feral cats
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I hope you found this post helpful and informative. Stay tuned for the next installment. And if you have any topics you’d like to see covered, let me know in the comments below.

Are there community cats where you live? Tell us about them.


Photo credits: 
Suzanne Phillips via Flikr
Daniel Grill via Getty Images


  1. I'm so glad you are helping get the word out about the difference between stray and feral cats - it is a huge and important difference!

  2. Great post! It is important to know the difference between strays and ferals to give each their best chance at life.

  3. Yes, those really are important differences and great information. Brother Simon and Sister Seal were born feral and moved inside after a TNR session, it did take a full year for their socialization, but they graduated.

  4. This is great information! The PO'M was always friendly, so he was a stray. Sweetie ran away always, but she learned from The PO'M, and now we are all a purring, hugging, petting mass! Except, I cannot get either to willingly go into a carrier; I have to trap them for vet visits.

  5. me name sake.. we think.. waz a stray but boomer never said....me, mackerull, for sure... eye am feral...waz feral...but eye only like de big katoona N de food gurl...


  6. It's sometimes difficult to tell a stray cat from a feral one. So thanks for this info.

  7. Excellent post! I wish all the strays of the world could have forever homes and the ferals, the care they need. XO

  8. There is such an important distinction between the two! Thank you for this important post, and looking forward to the series!

  9. Outstanding and well written and vital.

  10. My Eddie Bear was a stray who found his way to my home. He was a lovebug and I'm thankful he joined our family. We cared for a feral for a couple years until we had to have him euthanized due to illness. Sadly, there are too many strays and ferals that need home & care.

  11. Good info. All but three of my cats were ferals from a colony on our land. They are all indoors now and more or less tamed. Some came indoors as adults and still tamed up. It takes time and effort but feral cats can live indoors and e joy being with people.

  12. Thanks for a good article. I am a volunteer with a local rescue that is trying to change the narrative about feral cats, and has wonderful information on their website. They are called TinyKittens, and they work hard at managing several feral colonies, but also have done ground-breaking work socializing adult feral cats. They have developed amazing skills at handling feral cats in a non-stressful way for both human and feline.
    Sometimes a feral cannot be returned to the wild because of health issues like kidney disease and diabetes, and TK finds ways to give them a good life with "hoomins" instead.

    1. Thank you. I'm learning even more from my readers, and I will go back and make edits very soon. Thank you for volunteering!

  13. very interesting post--never really thought about the differences between a stray and feral cat!

  14. Yes, it is super important to know the difference between ferals and strays. Our friends who manage colonies say many of the things you cover in your excellent articleZ!

  15. A very informative post! And congrats on reaching 5 years of blogging!

  16. Bear baffles me. I'm pretty sure he was born outside. There was a group of cats around that didn't interact with humans. I think Bear was still young enough (and quite frankly, desperate enough) to move away from being feral. I suspect he was that kitten that the Mom finally has to toss out of the nest so to speak when the toms start visiting again. I think he wanted connection more than anything, but he also couldn't forget the wariness he witnessed. I just can't believe an 8 month old cat would already be abandoned if he'd been someone's pet (and he wasn't fixed). I guess it doesn't really matter - but this post got me thinking about it again. I love your list of differences. I'm definitely going to keep a link for the next discussion I get in where people have no clue that strays and ferals aren't the same thing.

  17. It's indeed so very important to make these distinctions between feral and friendly! Our own cat Franklin was a friendly who was somehow TNRed and released onto the streets. He entered a friend's house and behaved like a socialized cat. Now he lives indoors with us, wearing his ear tip.


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