What is the Difference Between a Stray and Feral Cat? | Lola The Rescued Cat
Monday, June 28, 2021

What is the Difference Between a Stray and Feral Cat?

Our Community Cat Awareness series is well underway, and I enjoy bringing our readers information they can use to help cats living outside. In this post, I discussed what the term "Community Cat" means, but I felt it was important to delve a little deeper.

Some people think that all cats living on the streets are feral, but that is a misconception. Today I'll discuss how you can tell the difference between a stray and a feral cat.

What is the Difference Between a Stray and Feral Cat? 

Stray Cats

In most cases, a stray cat was at one time a pet who has gotten lost or was abandoned, and has been forced to survive on its own. At some point in their lives, a stray cat has been socialized to humans and has also depended on humans for their survival. When re-introduced to an indoor home, a stray will most likely display its domesticated nature. 

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. Feral cats are unsocialized and are fearful of humans because they have had limited, or negative, interactions with 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 as the opposite. They can be fearful, distrustful, and at times aggressive. This aggression is often motivated by fear. For example, if you reach out to attempt to pet a feral or unsocialized cat, they may view your hand as a weapon that can harm them.

Cats develop wilder characteristics with each succeeding feral generation (Neighborhood Cats, 2013). A stray cat who once lived a socialized life indoors will tend to be less feral than her offspring. However, a tenth generation feral cat will tend to be wilder than a second generation.

Differences Between Stray and Feral Cats

There are many differences between a stray and a feral cat. While the lists below are not exhaustive, they do touch on some of the major, important points.

Stray Cats

  • Will likely approach people. They may also be vocal (meowing, or anwering to your voice.) 
  • Are more likely to be active during the day. 
  • Will likely be on its own and not live in a group. 
  • Will often look dirty or disheveled. Stray cats are stressed because they don't know where to find food or shelter. As a result, they stop grooming. 
  • Less likely to have an eartip.
  • Might move and walk like a house cat, with their tail up in the air. 
  • Has a good chance at a happy indoor life if they are rescued before they become fearful of humans.
  • May have just appeared recently and may look lost or disoriented.

    difference between strays and feral cats

    Feral Cats

    • Rarely approach people and will most likely run away or hide. 
    • Typically hide during the day and come out more frequently at night. 
    • Will be part of a colony, which has a social structure and can be very bonded.
    • Will have a clean coat and look well kept (unless they are ill or injured.)
    • 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 eartipped. 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. 
    • Unlikely to meow or purr. When colony caretakers report that one of their cats purr, it’s a major breakthrough for them.
    • May crawl, stay low to the ground, and protect their body with their tail. 
    • 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.” 
    • Has probably been seen around the neighborhood for a while and may appear to recognize their surroundings. 

    Why is it Important to Know the Difference?

    Being able to assess whether a cat is feral helps in determining what the best situation for them is. Socialized cats, and most times young kittens, can be adopted. Feral cats cannot live a happy life indoors, so the most compassionate choice is to return them to their own territory and their colony family. 

    Not that long ago I was involved in a rescue of a momma cat and her two babies. The momma cat, named Electra by her rescuer (Jenni of East Harlem Cats), was very frightened in the beginning, but with time and patience, her friendly personality began to shine as she became more comfortable and trusting. Jenni found her a wonderful foster home and she was saved from life on the street.


    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. Alley 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!) 

    I hope you found this post helpful and informative. Stay tuned for the next installment in this series to learn how to tell how old a kitten is. If you've missed any of our Community Cat Awareness posts, you can catch up on them here.

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


    Photo credits: 
    Suzanne Phillips via Flikr
    Daniel Grill via Getty Images
    Best Friends Animal Society

    Forever Home Adoption Center
    Alley Cat Allies
    Neighborhood Cats (2013).  Neighborhood Cats TNR Handbook: The Guide to Trap-Neuter-Return for the Feral Cat Caretaker (2d ed.)
    Kortis, Bryan (2014.) Community TNR Tactics and Tools. Pet Smart Charities. 

    About the Author:
    Dawn White is an award-winning writer/blogger and the author of Lola: Diary of a Rescued Cat.  Dawn has been writing in the pet industry for over seven years and has been a contributing writer for the Jackson Galaxy Project’s Cat Pawsitive Pro Program, BlogPaws, and Chewy.com.

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    Would you like to comment?

    1. I knew these facts yet I am heartbroken again reading them. Cats face so much cruelty.

    2. Years ago, when a cat showed up in the office parking lot, I didn't know the difference between stray and feral, and there were few rescues who would work with us.
      Therefore, I learned by doing things myself, and managed to get George to a family who cared for him, despite his lack of socialization.
      Then, when I discovered cats in my own backyard, I had some info under my belt, and now am happy to care for my outside-cat clowder, even if it's at one cat right now.
      Good post, thanks.

    3. I am an eternal optimist and I am hopeful that my 3 newbies, although they fit the feral description, will adjust to our household and get used to humans. XO

    4. These are important distinctions to make!
      We feed a few ferals, including the mom of our indoor socialized Kittens. They are unfriendly but will blink at us sometimes. Our indoor cat Franklin was somehow TNRed and ear-tipped by mistake. He walked right up to a friend in her house, and used her cat's litterbox.

    5. Until about 30 or so years ago the houses at the end of the lane belonged to the Navy. When they were posted elsewhere a lot of them used to go off and leave their cats behind. Most of them found their homes down with us. After it was sold off as private housing all the new homeowners took much better care of their pets. I haven't seen a feral or stray in years around here.

    6. Thanks for explaining this difference between a stray and a feral cat. Most people don't know that there is a difference.

    7. We trapped, adopted and socialized two ferals and Simon and Seal are so sweet. It can be done, it just takes patience.

    8. Great post, and great explaination ! Many people don't know that difference. Purrs

    9. I've long debated whether Bear was feral or stray. I'm relatively sure he was born to feral cats - but maybe didn't quite fit the lifestyle. I earned his trust pretty quickly (setting food out only once before he let me touch him the second time) - but he was well-groomed and scared of anyone but me.

    10. L & L

      me mackerull junior butter feeld was born and trapped feral but butter lover boomer o cat; me uncle and namesake waz stray...

      we R a like...yet knot

      eye haz been heer in Tt now three yeerz next month and eye still haz sum izzuez....but....me life off de streetz iz grate !! ;) ♥♥

    11. Thanks so much, Dawn. This is really important information! We have had cats come in who presented as feral, and then "turned." Few and far between, though.

    12. That's great information, Lola and Lexy. We don't have ferals around where we live now, but Granny remembers when she young and living in the City of Rotterdam, there were a lot of ferals living in the courtyard. They were lucky to have a fish shop quite nearn so they had a lot of fish every day. Granny and her kitty loved to watch them every day from the window, but I'm not sure if the kitty was watching the kitties or the delicious fishies😹Pawkisses for a Happy Week ahead to all of you🐾😽💞

    13. i remember there was a time when i did not know the difference between a feral and stray--so important for people to know the difference! hope you had a great 4th of July

    14. Very informative post and cute belly!

      Purrs xx
      Athena and Marie

    15. Important to know for sure! In the city I used to live in we had large colonies of feral cats, but once in awhile strays would show up at feeding stations too. Thankfully, we had people volunteering who could tell the difference between a stray and a feral, so many of the strays were able to be adopted out into loving new homes.

    16. I love that you created this informative helpful post. I also did not know the difference between feral and stray cats until I worked as a volunteer at my local non profit. This is very helpful for not only our safety but the cats well being too. It's really sad to see so many cats on the streets that could benefit from a loving home.

    17. Fantastic post, eye opener to understanding the difference my heart breaks when I see cats alone outdoors and only wish we could do more for them.

    18. A group of us were at a commuity/feral cat day a couple of years ago. The NZSPCA man there said "You never see the ferals. They are wild, they are afraid of people and they do not come hear people. Most cats you see are strays and dumped cats".

      I had not realised this but feral truly is what the dictionary says "a wild or untamed state'. People need to stop calling community and stray cats feral. They are not.

    19. This is great information! A local rescue that I volunteer with occasionally adopted out 2 feral cats that came into their care for medical needs as barn cats recently. They got A LOT of heat from people that didn't understand the difference between stray and feral. These cats were not socialized and would not have been happy living indoors. They were the last 2 of a colony and needed to be kept together as they had been together their whole lives. By placing them with a farmer as barn cats, they had a safe, warm place that they could stay without trying to force them to accept humans in their lives. It really was the best case scenario for them.

    20. So important to do what's best for the cat, even if it may be hard for us to leave them outside. Thanks for the education!

    21. Excellent post. I don't think I knew the difference between a feral and a stray cat. When I have seen cats in my neighborhood (which is rare), they must be strays because they will approach and talk. Thank you for sharing this information.


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