Free Ranging Domestic Cats, whether they are pets, stray or feral, are those that roam outdoors freely for periods of time from a few minutes to their entire lives. 

Feral, stray, and pet cats are all members of the same species; they are all domestic cats. But pet or stray cats and feral cats are also different from each other in a very important way—in their relationship to and interactions with people.

Whether you are a cat advocate—or just share your neighborhood with free-ranging cats—knowing how to tell the difference can help inform how best to interact with a cat or what, if any, intervention would be in each cat’s best interest.

What is socialization?
We use the term “socialized” to mean cats who are friendly towards people or cats who enjoy companionship with us in our homes. Kittens becomes socialized by interacting with people—being held, spoken to, and played with—from an early age. If a kitten does not become accustomed to people holding him/her and petting him/her within this crucial window, he/she will grow up apprehensive of humans and will not be suited to happily living in homes.

What is the difference between a stray cat  and a feral cat?

Stray Cats
  • A stray cat is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in his/her life, but has left or lost his/her domestic home, as well as most human contact and dependence.
  • Over time, a stray cat can become feral as his/her contact with humans diminishes..
  • Under the right circumstances, however, a stray cat can also become a pet cat once again , but may require a period of time to re-acclimate; they may be frightened and wary after spending time outside away from people
  • Another definition that may help:–“A stray cat is a domestic cat that has been abandoned or has ‘strayed’ from home and become lost. Stray [cats] were once pets and they can usually be successfully rescued and placed in homes.” – Stray Cat Handbook
Feral Cats
Feral cats are not socialized to people. They are socialized and bonded to their colony members, but do not have that same relationship with people.
  • A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with humans or contact with humans has diminished over time. He/she is fearful of people and survives on his/her own outdoors.  Feral cats are not likely to ever be a lap cat or enjoy living indoors.
  • Kittens born to feral cats can be socialized at an early age and adopted into homes.
Why does it matter?
  • Stray cats can readjust to living with people and can be adopted as companions.
  • Adult feral cats are not socialized to people, and cannot be adopted. As a result, they are likely to be killed if picked up by animal control or brought to shelters, so it is in their best interest to continue living outdoors in their feral colony.
  • Stray and feral cats can be difficult to tell apart, especially when they are trapped or frightened. Scared stray cats often need time to relax and show their level of socialization. 
  • Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return takes into account each cat’s level of socialization to determine the best environment for them. Feral cats are returned to their outdoor colony after being trapped and neutered. Socialized cats and kittens can be fostered and adopted into homes.
How do I tell the difference when the cats are outdoors?
It is difficult to determine each cat’s socialization during a stressful event, such as trapping, so it’s a good idea to observe cats on their own outdoors using the guidelines on the next page. Remember, these guidelines are not hard and fast rules and just one of these traits is probably not enough to draw a conclusion.
Bottom line: If a cat you don’t know approaches you or if you can touch him/her, he/she is most likely not feral. Not all stray cats will approach or allow touch, especially at first—each cat will act differently in a variety of situations. More monitoring using these guidelines may be necessary to determine if the cat is socialized.

                                                                                                                  - Adapted from Alley Cat Allies