If you’re anything like me, then you also have this insatiable desire to greet and approach every kitty you see on the street. Some of them happen to be extremely friendly, while others not so much.
A few years ago, though, someone told me that I have to be cautious about which cat I approach since some strays can be dangerous.
“Oh, pawlease! Like cats can be anything but adorable and friendly! And besides, I’m a pro cat whisperer. I know they’re not dangerous and will never hurt me.”
But, that concerned advice stirred up curiosity in me and I decided to explore the mysterious world of feral cats. What are they even? And how can I tell if a cat is feral or not?
What is the difference between a stray and a feral cat?
Long ago, when I was not so educated in the feline department, I used to use the terms feral and stray interchangeably, as though they were synonyms. But I quickly learned that they are not so similar after all and that they stand for completely different things.
Stray cats are cats that used to live with humans and were part of a home but were unfortunately abandoned, or they ran away themselves. We also use this term to describe cats that have never been someone’s pet, but have had enough human interaction and are fairly affectionate and friendly.
Feral cats, on the other hand, are felines that have little to no social skills and tendencies to interact with humans. They have either been abandoned by humans at a very early age, or they have never actually interacted with them and have completely grown up in the wild.
Both cats can be found on the streets, but the major difference is in their demeanor and the way they live (or rather survive) on their own.
Feral cats are not necessarily dangerous, although they can be the main carriers of some feline diseases, like rabies, cutaneous larva migrans, Toxoplasma gondii, and others, so it’s best to keep your distance.
If you want to help them, contact the closest animal shelter. They will know how to take care of them. The best option for these kitties is to safely and humanely enroll them in the “trap, neuter, release” program.
6 tell-tail signs a cat is feral
If you’re unsure whether you’ll be able to differentiate a feral feline from a stray, here are 6 telltale signs that can help you be certain you’ve come face to face with a feral fluff.
1. She doesn’t meow to you and makes no attempt to approach you
If you see a cat on the street and address her with the good-old “Pspsps!” to which she meows back at you, she’s definitely not a feral. An added bonus is if she decides to approach you and let you pet her.
Feral cats don’t usually meow as this vocalization is reserved for felines who are used to human interaction. Meowing is reserved for domesticated and indoor kitties, and for strays who love to say hello to people passing by.
2. She is genuinely afraid of you and sees you as a threat
Sometimes, both strays and ferals will fear your presence. They will see you as a threat and will be genuinely afraid of you. They may hiss and be generally distressed.
However, the difference between a stray and a feral is in the way they act after your first interaction. A stray feline will usually relax after a couple of minutes and willingly decide to approach you.
But a feral cat will hold onto her hostile attitude and might even become aggressive and attack you if you try to approach her.
3. She is hypervigilant
A feral cat’s body language will always let you know that she’s alert. Her ears will be down, her eyes wide open, she’ll have an arched back and a twitching tail. She will be hypervigilant and in a constant state of “fight or flight.”
4. Her coat is clean but seems rougher
Many people believe that an ugly, dirty, and unkempt feline is always feral. If they see her on their doorstep, they almost always shoo her away, throwing objects in her direction.
However, it’s far more likely that that kind of cat is actually a stray. That’s because neglecting her appearance and failing to groom herself is a very natural response of a kitty in distress, or a kitty who was recently been abandoned by her humans.
Since feral cats are used to living without human touch, they will hardly ever fail to groom themselves. Their coat might be rougher and coarser than that of indoor kitties, but they will always be well-groomed.
A good way to tell you’ve encountered a male feral is by observing him: if he has a spiky coat, a thick neck, and a broad head, he’s definitely feral. He may also have a little cut on his ear, which can be a sign he was a part of the “trap, neuter, vaccinate” program.
5. She only ever makes an appearance during nighttime
A feral feline will mostly prefer nocturnal outings. She will hardly ever make an appearance during the day. So, if you see a kitty in the middle of the day that looks like she’s not someone’s indoor fluffball, then you have probably encountered a stray.
6. She appears to be a part of a feline gang
Wild cats are not lone wolves. They tend to stick to their pack where they usually have some rules and hierarchy that they greatly respect.
Cats in general are social creatures, and they like to live in groups. For indoor kitties, their group, pack, or gang if you will, consists of their humans and other pets (if any).
As for ferals, their group is made up of other ferals in their surroundings, or sometimes even strays that they have accepted after some time.
Usually, the oldest feral is the leader. They all live together, groom each other, take care of each other’s kittens, and share hunting territory (but don’t hunt together). They respect their little community and protect it at all costs.