You have heard that some cats are feral, and you are wondering what is a feral cat?
You are walking down the street, across an alley, and you see a pair of green eyes looking at you. It is coming closer, so you stop right in the middle, take a deep breath. This is not a horror movie. Instead, out of the darkness comes a cute little kitten. You are tempted to take it home, but you wonder if it is a stray or a feral cat? Is there any difference? What do you do?
Feral Cat Colonies
Even though cats are solitary in nature, feral cats are quite different. They usually live in groups called colonies. A colony can be said to be a population of feral cats. These colonies are usually in a specific location and around a typical food and water source. These colonies can consist of as little as two cats or as many as 15 cats. It usually has three to four generations in the colony.
Feral cat colonies resemble a lion’s pride (remember, a lion is a big cat). Like lions, the colony comprises female cats (called queens) and their offspring. Usually, everything is done together – grooming, protecting the territory, and caring for young ones. The only difference is that in the feral cat colony, hunting is done on an individual level.
Male cats are usually not part of the colony, but they may overlap across several territories as they exist on the border of different colonies. Colonies are marked with odor from anal glands, facial glands, urine, and feces.
What is a Feral Cat?
Before defining what a feral cat is, we want you to note that feral cats, stray cats, and house cats are all of the same species, Felis catus (the domestic cat). So now, what marks the difference?
A feral cat is a cat that lives outdoors in the wild with little to no human interactions. They are the “wild,” unsocialized domestic cats and are usually afraid of humans. Ferals usually arise from unneutered cats who were abandoned, missing, or ran away from abusive owners.
Ferals are sometimes called free-roaming or community cats. Just like domestic cats, they multiply very rapidly.
Feral cats are usually found in urban areas, in alleys and parks or behind shopping areas, or in abandoned buildings. They typically feed from trash cans, are at the mercy of extreme weather, susceptible to infections, are prone to accidents, and live a short, sometimes painful, and miserable life, about two to three years.
The Differences Between a Feral Cat and a Stray Cat
As much as a feral cat and a stray cat are all of the same species, some differences lie between them:
|Feral Cat||Stray Cat|
|Has not been socialized to people in any phase of its life.||Has been socialized to people at some point in its life.|
|Ferals have been born outside and have never gotten touch with any human contact.||Strays have been domesticated to a home/indoor life but got missing or abandoned and have lost touch with human connection.|
|A feral cat will likely belong to a colony.||A stray cat will likely live or move alone.|
|They tend to shy away from humans, their habitats, or their properties.||They tend to approach humans and their habitat or their properties.|
|A feral cat won’t make eye contact.||A stray cat is most likely to make eye contact.|
|They are not microchipped.||Most likely to be microchipped.|
|You are most likely to see them at night or during the early part of the day.||You are most likely to see them during the day.|
|They may crouch, stay low to the ground, protect their body with the tail or appear aggressive when approached by humans.||They may walk and move with their tail up and act friendly when approached by humans.|
|A feral cat will not purr or meow at you.||A stray cat will purr or meow at you.|
|However, they may probably be clean and have a well-kept coat.||They may probably be dirty with a messed-up coat.|
|When trapped, a feral cat may not quieten down, recall and respond to familiar household sounds, get curious around toys or move to the front of the cage.||When trapped, a stray cat may relax and quieten down after a few minutes, recall and respond to familiar household sounds, become curious around toys, and move to the front of the cage.|
|They would usually have their ear-tipped.||They usually do not have their ear-tipped.|
|They usually can not be adopted unless they are less than six weeks old.||They can be resocialized, fostered, and adopted.|
Can Feral Cats Be Tamed?
Can feral cats be tamed, looking at their behavior? It is not advisable to try and tame a wild cat as they have not had any socialization.
If you want to tame a feral cat, you should consult a veterinarian and do that before the cat is six weeks old.
After six weeks, it is challenging to tame, socialize and adopt them as the learning period is over. It is advisable to neuter older ferals, vaccinate them, and return them to their environment while monitoring them. There have been success stories of taming an older feral cat, but these are very rare.
Taking in a Stray Cat
Due to their level of socialization, stray cats are always around where humans concentrate, such as car parks, gardens, backyards, etc.
When you manage to get close to a stray, enough to let you carry it, it is appropriate to send it to the veterinarian to scan for a microchip. This allows you to reunite the stray with its owner. If there is no microchip, you can also put out missing but found posters to get the owners to come for the cat. The veterinarian will also examine the cat to ensure it is healthy and free from any parasites.
Stray cats are easy to re-home and adopt since they have been socialized before. Provide a place of comfort with food and lots of love, and they would open up to you immediately. Then, if no one comes for it, you have a new companion to keep at home.
Feral Cat Behaviors
The word feral is not a biological term but a behavioral term. Thus a cat can exhibit feral behaviors at different points in its life. For example, a cat can be born and live most of its life in human contact but can get missing and starts acting unsocialized after a few weeks outside or, however, feral kittens can be born on the street but would get adopted and live the rest of its life socialized and in human contact.
Like all animals, feral cats have certain behaviors that accompany certain behaviors like mating, feeding, etc. People attribute feral cats to being rowdy and noisy and permanently marking places with their urine.
While this might be true, it is a normal mating behavior in cats. To avoid this unwanted behavior, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Humane Society, and other animal rescue charities neuter these animals to put their hormones in check.
What Does it Mean to Socialize a Cat?
Socialization is introducing a cat to human sights, sounds, smells, and spaces. In summary, socialization can be said to be introducing your cat to get accustomed to human company.
Socialization is not a one-time approach but a process that takes time. It is usually done in the kitten period as this period is the most appropriate for learning. If a kitten is not socialized (i.e., used to being touched, played with, or spoken to), it becomes difficult for them to live happily in homes.
How Feral Can a Cat be?
How feral a cat can be can be looked at from different angles – age, human contact, feral generation, and personality.
The age of a feral cat determines whether or not it can be socialized easily. Usually, kittens less than six weeks are the ideal age for socializing a wild cat. Aside from that, it is difficult, but not impossible.
Also, the amount of human contact received per feral will determine the amount of socialization received. It has been shown that a feral cat who regularly interacts with people usually shows signs of socialization.
When you trace the generation of a cat, and the more feral a generation is in terms of a long ancestry, the more animalistic and wilder they are. Thus, wild behaviors increase with increasing feral generations.
Just like humans, cats are born with different personalities. Thus, a cat who has been feral for a long time might have a friendly personality and approach humans more readily than a cat who has been wild for just a short time yet is wary of humans.
It is essential to know the individual personalities, the age, duration of human contact, and generation before deciding if it would be appropriate to keep them indoors or let them remain with their colonies.
How to Care and Feed Feral and Stray Cats
Feral and stray cats live up to two years maximum without any care. However, if they receive care, they can live as old as eleven years or even sixteen.
Becoming a caretaker is a decision that shouldn’t be taken in a rush. It is a huge responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Remember that the colony will be dependent on you in a way, and your care should be regular.
A caretaker is someone who decides to monitor, feed, provide shelter, and care for feral and stray cats out of their own goodwill. To become one, contact your veterinarian, SPCA, or Humane Society near you for tips on how to start.
Never force a cat to come near you. Let them do it at their own pace and time. Always remember that ferals are fearful of humans because they haven’t been socialized. After a while of feeding daily, those with friendly personalities will start getting closer and might allow you to pet and touch them.
When feeding strays and feral cats, sit on the floor or squat as you give them the food. In this way, they don’t see you as a threat.
How to Know if a Stray or Feral Cat Has Been Sterilized?
If a stray or feral cat has been sterilized/neutered, they would have their ear-tipped. Ear tipping is a universally acceptable and recognized symbol of a cat who has been spayed or neutered (i.e., sterilized). It is usually also done for a vaccinated cat.
Ear tipping is done while the cat is under anesthesia for the sterilization surgery. Thus it is not painful and very clean. The top inch of the ear is removed. The ear tipping does not alter the beauty of the cat.
Ear tipping was chosen because it was difficult to get close to a feral cat to identify whether it had been sterilized or not, and thus, an identification method that could be seen from a distance was needed.
This sterilization process is known as the Trap – Neuter – Return (TNR) program or Trap- Neuter – Vaccinate – Return (TNVR) program if vaccination is done during the process. This is approved by the ASPCA and the Humane Society.
The feral cats are humanely trapped, medically examined, sterilized surgically and/or vaccinated, and are returned to their old environments. Volunteers are tasked to monitor and feed them for a while to track their progress and note any complications (usually nil) that might arise from the TNR.
Feral cats do not just come about. They are made by our decision not to neuter our pets, and when they get missing or move without them, they end up giving birth to lots of kittens who add to the feral community.
Feral cats, even though not socialized, need a lot of love and attention, and we should treat them well when we meet them and not kick, abuse or try to harm them. They are animals too, and they are not wild animals. They are just animals with a wild side.
Akosua is a Veterinary Medical Student at the University of Ghana. She likes writing during her free time and sharing her knowledge about veterinary medicine (she found the perfect combo here 🙂 ). Her passion is to inspire Veterinary professionals and change the perspective of animal love in developing countries through her work and writing.