Feral vs. Stray Cat: Here’s How to Tell the Difference

Before you approach that cat who suddenly showed up in your yard, read this first.

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Not every cat living outside is lost or abandoned. Feral cats, who have never been pets and live like raccoons and possums and other wild animals, roam the alleyways of cities and the fields of the countryside. Such cats can benefit from human care, particularly spaying and neutering, and they’ll appreciate feeding—but you definitely shouldn’t try to rescue them. They don’t want to become pets or live in houses. They don’t need to be rescued.

How to tell the difference

Distinguishing a stray house cat from a feral cat isn’t always easy, though there are some clear indicators. A cat that has been “ear-tipped,” for example, is almost certainly feral. Look for one ear, usually the left, that’s cleanly squared-off rather than pointy. This mark indicates that a feral cat has been trapped before and spayed or neutered. It prevents those who work with feral cat colonies from retrapping cats unnecessarily.

A cat that’s friendly and comfortable around people, on the other hand, is definitely domesticated. “If it comes and rubs on your leg or meows at you, it’s a house cat,” says Jessica Gotthold, CEO of The National Foundation for Animal Rescue.

Some lost or stray domesticated cats, however, won’t be that comfortable with you right away. If they’ve been living outside for a while, they may have become more cautious and fearful of humans, even if they’re still struggling to survive on their own. “Sit outside with them, even if you can’t touch them,” says Doreen Kaminski, a longtime volunteer with Whiskers Pet Rescue in Southbury, Connecticut. “Bring food out, earn their trust.” These before and after pictures of rescue cats will melt your heart. 

Abandoned or lost cats

Some pets are cruelly abandoned to fend for themselves, but there’s just as good a chance that a non-feral cat you find hanging around your yard has an owner somewhere who would like to see her come home. Offer food, if she seems hungry. Take her to a vet, if she’s obviously sick or injured. But use caution: Get someone to help if the cat tries to scratch or bite.

After you have attended to the cat’s essential needs, try to locate the owner, if you can. If someone comes forward claiming the cat, however, be careful. Leave some important information out of your description of the cat, a distinguishing detail such as a missing tooth, extra toes or that odd orange spot. Here’s what to do if your cat goes missing.

Buy your own copy of The Meaning of Meow to learn more about your kitty.

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Pamela Weintraub is a veteran journalist specializing in psychology, life sciences, and culture. She is former editor-in-chief of OMNI, executive editor of Discover, and currently the psychology and health editor of Aeon. She is author or co-author of 16 books, including the award-winning Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic. For the last two years, much of her work’s focus has been on covering animal psychology and the animal mind.