Feral Cats Stray Cats

When people refer to feral cats, they often use the term interchangeably with ‘stray’.  However, there is an important distinction between the two.  A stray cat is one that once had a home of some sort and has lost it.  Stray cats may be shy of people as life in the alleys can be difficult.  However, their domestic origins are still close enough that, having gained their trust, a stray cat will befriend a caring human being.

Feral, however, refers to an animal that, once domesticated, has returned to its wild state.  Feral cats are generally the offspring and subsequent generations of domestic cats that were not spayed or neutered and became strays.  Feral kittens have little or no contact with human beings during their early formative months, and beyond just being distrustful or shy of humans, have reverted to a wild state. 

Cats are the one of the latest domesticated species, historically, and are quickest to return to their wild instincts.  While dogs and horses may also become feral, they are have been made more dependant on human care in both breeding out their less desireable wild instincts and in breeding in traits that were useful to humans.  The primary purpose for domesticating cats was as a rodent control measure, which required very little tampering with their natural form and instincts.  As a result, cats can quickly adapt to life without people. 

When you see a cat in a back alley or on the street, chances are they are a stray and not feral.  Feral cats, like other urban wildlife, are primarily active at night, and will avoid contact with people.  A feral cat will not approach a human being, and, if cornered, will exhibit the nastiest behaviour it is capable of in order to scare that person off.  This will appear more like a wild animal such as a coyote, skunk, badger or other small urban wildlife than anything resembling the snit of a lap cat. 

Feral cats will cause injury should you attempt to touch or catch them.  A stray cat may lash out from fear, but can be redomesticated.  While there are a few anecdotal success stories about domesticating feral cats, in most cases, unless they are caught and exposed to humans well before sexual maturity (usually around 6 months), the chances of taming them into a family pet are very slim.