What's the difference between a feral and a stray cat? Watching a cat running around outside without a home might just be enough to melt your heart. But sometimes all the different terms used to describe homeless cats can get a little confusing. If you've ever wondered what's a feral cat versus a stray cat, you're not alone. Some people use the words interchangeably, but there really is a difference. A stray cat is more socialized, while a feral cat is very scared of people. But it's a little more complicated than that.

Feral and stray cats may sometimes hang out in groups or communities.

What Is a Feral Cat?

feral cat is sometimes referred to as a "wild" cat. Many were born in the wild and have never known a human owner.1 They may act very scared of people since they've had little interaction with humans. They tend to hide during the day, roam at night, and may take off running if a person comes near. They can sometimes learn to approach one particular person who feeds and cares for them, but they'll stay skittish around most people.2 Since they've never been socialized, feral cats typically don't adapt to being indoor cats.

However, many people get a lot of joy out of caring for feral cats and watching them play in their yards. If you want to care for the feral cats in your neighborhood, a great place to start is with food, water, and shelter. Heated bowls are a nice choice for colder regions, and waterproof cat homes can provide much-needed shelter. The Ultimate Kitty Bundle can help you get started.

Some of the feral cats you see may be part of trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs where they're spayed or neutered and then released back into the wild.3 Cats from TNR programs will have tipped ears.

What Is a Stray Cat?

A stray cat is also homeless and lives in the wild like a feral cat. These cats typically had a home at some point, so they can be a loving pet again with a little TLC and patience.4 Just how tame they are depends on their personality and when they were last around people. Some might come right up to you in the wild and want pets. Others might take a little time to trust you, especially if they haven't been around people since they were kittens. But they've all been socialized enough at some point that they can be loving pets again.

Can a Stray Cat Become Feral or Vice Versa?

Feral cats can rarely be tamed unless you find one as a kitten and socialize him very early. Stray cats, in contrast, can slowly become wilder the longer they live outdoors. But many stray cats can be socialized again with time.

So how do you tell the difference?5 In general, any homeless cat that approaches you for pets is a stray cat and not a feral cat. Feral cats don't want pets. Stray cats might stand straighter with their tails held high when you're around, while feral cats might crouch close to the ground and keep their tails down. Stray cats are more likely to be seen during the day.

This doesn't mean that every cat that acts skittish and runs off is feral. Stray cats can be skittish too, but feral cats are more likely to avoid all eye contact. Both might hiss if scared, but a feral cat is more likely to puff up and fight back.

Sometimes the only way to tell for sure is with time. A stray cat will warm up to you once she realizes you're not a threat, while a feral cat will likely stay scared no matter how often you feed her. Of course, if you do offer a feral cat food and water, she'll be grateful even if she's too timid to show it.

Helping Homeless Cats

Some animal rescues offer both types for adoption in different scenarios. Stray cats are placed for adoption to become someone's pet cat. Feral cats might be available for adoption as barn cats.6 Feral cats typically can't be socialized, but they're very adept at hunting in the wild. This makes them the perfect mousers. They might not be comfortable cooped up in a home, but they're happy living life as a working cat in a safe environment, helping with pest control.

If you want to help the homeless cats in your area, offering them food and water is a great way to start. Whether they're feral or strays, they'll appreciate outdoor kitty houses, especially in the winter.

If you're looking for a cat to adopt and raise in your home, a stray cat will typically fit in better than a feral cat. A feral cat could feel cooped up indoors, but a stray cat just wants a safe, loving home. If you do see feral cats in your neighborhood, consider contacting your local animal rescue about trap-neuter-release services or barn-adoption programs.

  1. Alley Cat Allies. "Feral and Stray Cats - An Important Difference." AlleyCat.org, https://www.alleycat.org/resources/feral-and-stray-cats-an-important-difference/.
  2. PetMD. "Understanding and Caring for Feral Cats." PetMD.com, https://www.petmd.com/cat/care/evr_ct_misunderstood_feral_cat?page=show.
  3. For All Animals. "Community Cats and Trap-Neuter-Return - FAQs." ForAllAnimals.org, http://www.forallanimals.org/community-cats-and-trap-neuter-return-faqs/.
  4. Alley Cat Allies. "Feral and Stray Cats - An Important Difference." AlleyCat.org, https://www.alleycat.org/resources/feral-and-stray-cats-an-important-difference/.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Austin Pets Alive! "Barn Cat Program." AustinPetsAlive.org, https://www.austinpetsalive.org/programs/barn-cat-program.