Feral cats are a mysterious bunch. Are they friendly? Can they be tamed? Do they secretly yearn to be turned into house pets?
Here's a guide that will answer all your burning questions about feral cats.
Is there a difference between feral and stray cats?
There isn't a biological difference between stray cats, feral cats and house cats. Behaviorally, however, there's a big difference.
The key difference between stray cats and feral cats is that feral cats have had little to no socialization with humans in the first few months of their lives. A stray cat, on the other hand, is a cat that once had a home, but doesn't any longer. Essentially, a stray cat is a former house cat.
How to tell if a cat is feral
There are a few key signs to look for when determining whether a cat is feral.
Socialization to humans: Because feral cats had little to no socialization with humans during their formative months, they generally will not approach humans and may hide or run away instead. By contrast, a stray cat is more likely to approach people, houses and cars.
Socialization to cats: Feral cats may belong to a "colony," whereas stray cats tend to live solo.
Body language and vocalization: Feral cats will tend to stay low to the ground, crouch, and protect their bodies with their tail. In general, they're likely to appear more fearful and hesitant when a human is nearby. They're also unlikely to make eye contact, meow or purr at humans. Stray cats, on the other hand, are likely to behave more like a house cat, making eye contact and meowing at humans who approach them.
Feral cat behavior
Feral cats are likely to be fearful of humans, having had little to no contact with them in their early lives. Stray cats may approach you, or at least are less likely to run away in fear, but feral cats will generally do their best to avoid human contact.
Feral cats also tend to live in colonies and may fight over mates, if they are not spayed or neutered. They also may be more territorial than stray cats. Stray cats, by contrast, usually live alone, and are more likely to be spayed or neutered, and less likely to get into fights with other cats.
Can feral cats be turned into house pets?
It's possible for young feral kittens to become house pets, with proper socialization to humans. However, adult feral cats cannot be turned into pets. Not having been exposed to humans as a kitten means that a feral cat will always lack the skills to live in a home. Plus, the experience would be stressful to the cat, as well as to any other pets you already have.
A stray cat, on the other hand, can be turned into a house pet. Because stray cats have lived in homes before, they usually know how to live with humans and enjoy the experience.
If you find an adult feral cat, do not try to turn it into a pet. Don't take them to a shelter either; they have a high risk of being euthanized. Instead, call a Trap-Neuter-Return program in your area. TNR programs trap feral cats, spay or neuter them, vaccinate them and return them to their colony or territory. These programs help reduce cat overpopulation, curb aggressive behaviors like fighting and lessen a cat's chances of contracting or spreading diseases.
Common misconceptions about feral cats
Feral cats get a bad rap. Many people think they're pests; that they're aggressive; and that they're prone to attacking humans.
In reality, feral cats simply want to stay away from humans. For this reason, feral cats are unlikely to pester people or act aggressively toward them in any way — they'd rather be far away from us!
Stray cats are far more likely to pester humans, beg for food or use yards as bathrooms. Since stray cats are used to humans, they're much more likely to turn to them for resources. Feral cats, on the other hand, have always lived on their own and want nothing to do with people.
Many people also assume that feral cats pose a health risk to themselves and to household pets — more on that in the next paragraph.
Health concerns with feral cats.
Contrary to popular belief, it's extremely unlikely for a human to contract a disease from a cat, especially a feral one, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Feral cats are unlikely to even get near a human. In the state of California, which has a significant feral cat population, there are no cases of rabies being transmitted from cat to human.
People also worry about feral cats transmitting diseases to their house cats. Fortunately, Trap-Neuter-Return programs are successfully helping to reduce this risk. In addition, keeping your cat indoors will prevent them from picking up any diseases that could be spread by outdoor cats.
You can help your local feral cats by reporting them to a Trap-Neuter-Return program in your area and donating money to the program. Remember that feral cats are simply trying to live their lives and avoid humans at all costs, which I think we can all agree is highly relatable.