What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?

A stray cat is a domestic cat who has been abandoned or has strayed from her home and become lost. Stray cats may be skittish around people, but because they once had human companionship, they can often be resocialized and rehomed. Stray cats who live outdoors with limited human contact for a long enough period of time can revert to a feral state. 

Feral cats are also domestic cats, but they were born and raised outdoors with little to no human contact. They are not wild animals--they are a domesticated species but are in a more wild state because of their situation. Feral kittens up to 8 to 10 weeks of age can sometimes be socialized and placed in homes. Adult feral cats usually cannot be socialized to humans and are happiest remaining in their outdoor homes. 

For more information, see the Cat Socialization Continuum

What is a community cat?

"Community cat" is an umbrella term that refers to any outdoor, unowned, free-roaming cat. Both feral and stray cats are community cats. 

How can you tell if a cat is stray or feral?

Observe the cat's appearance. A stray cat will likely appear dirty and disheveled, as if unused to dealing with conditions on the street, while a feral cat will have a clean, well-kept coat. Unneutered adult male cats typically have a large head, thick neck, and muscular body and may have scars from fighting. They may also have a spiky coat from high testosterone levels and less time spent grooming, as well as hair loss, greasiness, or bumps at the base of the tail ("stud tail") due to hormones. 

Also observe the cat's behavior. A stray cat is likely to approach you, although usually not close enough for you to touch him. Stray cats are often vocal, sometimes incessantly, and if you put food down, they will likely start to eat right away. Stray cats may be seen at all hours of the day, while feral cats are generally seen only from dusk to day, unless they are very hungry and out foraging for food. Feral cats are not vocal, will not approach humans, and if you put food down, they will wait until you move away from the area before approaching the food.

Cats who live outdoors with human support may be considered "semi-feral." These cats are undersocialized and are fearful of people, but may become less afraid over time, especially with their caregiver. Although semi-feral cats often form bonds with their caregivers, they typically revert to fearful behavior in an indoor environment and are happiest and most comfortable in their outdoor homes.

For more information, see Feral and Stray Cats—An Important Difference.

Why can't feral cats be socialized and adopted into homes?

Feral cats are not socialized to people and are not adoptable as pets. The ideal window for socializing feral kittens is 8 to 9 weeks of age (or younger). Beyond 8 to 9 weeks of age, feral kittens may never socialize completely, or at all. This comprehensive guide by International Cat Care can help with decisions about kittens born to community cats.

Take this online course by the ASPCA to learn how to socialize feral kittens. For a more in-depth program on socializing feral kittens, go to Sustainable Socialization.

We do not recommend attempting to socialize feral cats older than 12 weeks of age. It is dangerous and stressful for both the person and the cat. Feral cats live healthy, happy lives in their outdoor homes, and the best thing you can do to help them is Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return. 

What is the law regarding feral cats?

Feral cats and pet cats are the same species and are protected by state animal anti-cruelty laws. The law in New York State can be found here: Department of Agriculture and Markets Article 26 - Animals.

What happens to feral cats brought to most shelters in the U.S.?

Because feral cats are not socialized to people, they are not adoptable as pets. In most shelters in the U.S., unadoptable animals are killed. Many shelters, realizing that allowing feral cats to enter their doors is a death sentence for the cats, have a "no feral cats accepted" policy and promote Trap-Neuter-Return as the humane approach for the care of feral cats. These shelters also have a policy of returning ear-tipped cats to the place where the cats were initially trapped.  

Why is removing feral cats from their outdoor homes ineffective?

The traditional approach to addressing feral cats (catching and killing) is cruel and is not supported by the public. Trapping and removing cats is expensive, usually impossible, and ultimately ineffective at controlling populations at the community level. In fact, removing cats by any means can increase the population due to the vacuum effect.

What is Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return?

Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return (TNVR) is a community-based program that benefits both the cats and residents. Cats are humanely trapped and then spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies, and ear-tipped to identify them as being sterilized and vaccinated. Once recovered from surgery, the cats are returned to their original territory where they receive ongoing care and monitoring by a caregiver. When possible, friendly adult cats and young kittens are rescued and adopted into homes.

TNVR is the only humane and effective solution to controlling community cat populations and has a long track record of success. It is practiced throughout the United States and the world in every landscape and setting.

What is an ear tip?

The term “ear tip” refers to when a small portion of the tip of a community cat’s ear (usually the left ear) is surgically removed during spay/neuter surgery. This indicates that the cat has been spayed or neutered and vaccinated against rabies as part of a TNVR program. Ear tipping is done while the cat is anesthetized and is not painful for the cat. It is the most effective way to identify neutered community cats from a distance to make sure they are not re-trapped or undergo surgery a second time. Ear tipping also provides immediate visual identification for animal control that a cat is part of a managed colony. It also helps caregivers identify newcomers to a colony who need to be spayed/neutered and vaccinated. 

What is a managed colony and community cat caregiver?

A managed colony is a group of adult community cats that have all been spayed or neutered and vaccinated against rabies. A community cat caregiver is a volunteer who takes on the responsibility for the health and well being of a colony of feral cats. The caregiver provides food, water, shelter from inclement weather, and appropriate medical care, and monitors the colony for new cats and quickly has them sterilized and vaccinated. They also advocate for the cats by educating neighbors and people who work in or near the colony’s territory. Caregivers provide a critical service to their communities, typically at their own expense.