Friday, September 23, 2011

I found a....feral? Stray? Does it matter?

A grumpy-looking feral tomcat

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
Mark Twain 


On September 19th, we had three cats brought into the hospital for exam that were “found cats”. Some found cats are strays and some are ferals. How do you know what the difference is?


A feral cat is a cat that was born or grew up in the wild and is unfamiliar with human contact. These cats do not seek out human companionship, and often will hiss, growl or attempt to escape from human advances, no matter how friendly. Feral cats are often un-neutered, or bear scars from fighting or frostbite.

Three stray cats being fed by an elderly woman
These cats are unlikely to be feral.

On the other hand, a stray is a cat that is tame, or only slightly shy when exposed to people. They are often cats who have become lost or who have been abandoned from their homes. Many stray cats are neutered or front declawed. They often make homes near humans – under porches, in garages, or in backyards, and are often reliant upon humans for food. They may come beg at your doorway or seek you out when you are outside.


If you see or trap a cat in your yard, Alley Cat Allies has a great comparison chart with visuals to help you determine if you are encountering a feral cat or a stray.


Both feral and stray cats do have the potential to trust humans and become good companions, but it is much harder to acclimate feral cats to humans. Generally the best time to tame feral cats is when they are kittens younger than 12 weeks of age. After that, it becomes increasingly difficult to tame them, and there are some feral cats that will never become socialized well-enough to bring indoors.

A large number of feral tabby cats
Cats in a feral colony

It is estimated that there are more than 60 million feral cats in the U.S. and additional lost or abandoned stray cats. There are probably feral cats living in your neighborhood that you never see! Since cats are only asocial, not antisocial (they don’t hate living in groups, but they don’t require social groups to survive and can live on their own, if needed), feral and stray cats often form loose social groups called colonies near food sources such as dumpsters or areas where there are large numbers of prey. Feral cats maintain a territory of up to several acres, and their hunting grounds may intersect with various other stray and feral cats. Un-neutered cats within the colony will breed and produce more feral cats – each female has an average of 1.4 litters per year with an average of 3.5 kittens per litter. This is why when a person with good intentions starts feeding a stray or feral cat in their backyard, they soon find that there are quite a large number of cats suddenly coming to eat!


A wild-born cat has an average lifespan of only 4-5 years, but may occasionally live to be up to 8 years of age. An indoor cat that is released into the wild will often survive a much shorter amount of time due to a lack of crucial survival skill development that feral cats learn from their mothers in the wild. In contrast, indoor cats live an average of 12-16 years, but can occasionally live into their mid-twenties with good preventive health care.
If you have a new cat that is visiting your house, it could be a:
  • Feral cat
  • Stray with feral tendencies
  • Lost pet or indoor/outdoor pet
  • Neglected cat owned by people who just don’t care.
A feral gray tabby cat that has been ear-tipped
This feral cat has been ear-tipped.

To keep feral populations down, it is recommended that stray cats be caught and fostered until the owner can be found, or photographed and posted as a lost pet in local neighborhoods and businesses. Feral cats that would not make good pets can be caught, tested for Feline Leukemia and FIV and then neutered so that they cannot reproduce (called a “Trap/Neuter/Release”). Often these cats are ear-tipped so that they are not caught and taken in for surgery on a repeated basis. If the cat you are seeing has a tipped ear (about ¼ of the left ear is removed), it is because someone has neutered and released this cat at some point in its life.
If you are having a problem with feral cats, there are resources online that can help you humanely deter and control feral cats that are causing problems.


Indy Feral Incorporated nuisance prevention tips Indy Feral Inc. is a charitable organization operating in Marion County Indiana that has sterilized 22,329 feral cats since 2002 and found homes for 2,717 friendly cats/kittens removed from colonies. This year alone, they have spayed or neutered 895 cats (January through September 2011). That gives a small picture of just how big the feral cat population is in the U.S.!

Alley Cat Allies brochure on deterring feral cats  Alley Cat Allies is a non-profit organization based out of Bethesda, MD which has resources on becoming a rescuer of feral cats, or manager of a feral colony, including traps and information on raising feral kittens.

Last but not least, the ASPCA has compiled a good resource of feral cat information, including suggestions on how to socialize feral kittens.
And of course, if you have questions about a cat in your area - what to do with it, how to catch it, or other concerns, our staff would be happy to help answer your questions as well!

Oh, and the three we saw on the 19th? All three were strays. None of them were microchipped.

One was kept by the family that found him. We neutered him, treated him for fleas and worms, combed out his mats (he is a Persian mix, but due to the fleas, only had a mohawk of hair down his spine, and no hair on his tail!) and examined some healing wounds on his side.

Another went to Backdoor Friends Purebred Cat Rescue. He was  already neutered and front declawed and a purebred shaded-silver Persian.

The third cat went home with the family that found him while they decided what to do with him because he was FIV positive (deciding between keeping him and taking him to a sanctuary for FIV positive cats). We neutered him, extracted a painful, infected, broken canine tooth and treated him for worms. He subsequently escaped back outside and is a stray again - but this time, someone is out there looking for him, hoping to bring him home.