How to tell the difference between a house cat vs stray cat vs feral cat

I was recently asked the question how to distinguish between house cat, stray cat and feral cat. I thought it would make a great blog entry.

The similarity between house cats, stray cats and feral cats is that they all come from the same species and they are all domesticated cats. The similarities end there. The biggest difference between the 3 types of cats is in their relationship and interactions with humans. House cats are fully integrated with their humans and have daily interactions. Stray cats have had past interactions with humans while feral cats have had no or very little interactions with humans.

House cats can be living both indoors and outdoors. Yet they are completely socialized to humans. They interact and usually enjoy interactions with people. They can still be skittish around strangers, but they can and do seek out human interactions. House cats are socialized with humans at a very young age. As kittens they get used to being held, picked up and petted. They learn to enjoy human companionship.

A stray cat was at one time socialized with humans. The cat has lost its home and now lives on its own. The longer the cat is left on its own, the less it seeks out human interactions. As time goes by, the stray cat can often become feral due to lack of human interaction. A stray cat may walk and move like a house cat with its tail up or it may act more feral like and crouch or stay low to the ground. A stray cat will often make eye contact with you. A stray cat might be communicative and meow. It may also look unkept, dirty and matted due to the change in the its environment (generally, a stray cat will actually look more unkept than a feral cat). Stray cats will often be seen at all times of the day not just dawn and dusk. Stray cats can often once again be socialized and learn to enjoy human contact yet it can be a very slow process. The stray cat has a chance to be adopted once it has been socialized again. To read about a successful resocialization of a stray/feral cat, read the story of Orange Kitty and Marvin.

A feral cat is one that has never had human contact or the contact has diminished over time. The cat will be fearful of humans. Feral cats will not seek out human interaction, but they can be social with other members of their cat colony. You will not find a feral cat sitting on your patio looking into your home. Feral cats will not make eye contact with you and their body language often suggests fear. They may run or walk low to the ground constantly looking over their shoulder. When sitting they may wrap their tail around their body in protection mode. Feral cats are often silent except for hissing if they are approached by humans. They appear clean and healthy since they have always lived outside and adjusted to the environment. They are usually only seen at dawn and dusk when they come out to feed or hunt. Some feral cats are noticed by their tipped ear.Shadow Aug 2012In this picture, Shadow’s left ear has been tipped.  This is a universal sign that a cat is feral has been spayed or neutered. In general, feral cats cannot be trapped or caught and brought inside to be socialized and adopted. It is possible to socialize a feral cat, but the process is extremely slow. I know many people (including myself) who have worked tirelessly to socialize feral cats. They can be rescued by the right person, yet generally speaking it is very difficult to socialize a feral cat.

From my work with feral cats, I realize there are many exceptions to the norm. Many people claim a feral cat cannot be socialized past the age of 6-10 weeks. This is a peak time for kitten socialization, yet many people have proven that with time, patience and effort, feral cats can be socialized to a degree past this critical age. The socialized feral cat may learn to live inside a home and have many different levels of interactions with humans. If you reach any level of relationship with a feral cat, it is also a most rewarding experience.

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