How Can You Tell If A Cat Is Feral?

"Tommy" cat. Feral, or no?

"Tommy" - a cat in an office park that I was feeding for a time. Thought at first he was feral. But when I took him to a vet, found out he was already neutered.
"Tommy" - a cat in an office park that I was feeding for a time. Thought at first he was feral. But when I took him to a vet, found out he was already neutered.

Feral, or not?

When you see a cat outside, at first glance, it's often impossible to know whether or not the cat is feral, or domesticated. If the cat comes up to you, rubbing on your legs, then it's a sure thing the cat is domesticated. But if the cat avoids you, or runs away, it's hard to tell.

So what is "feral" exactly? A feral cat is simply a cat which has not been socialized to people. A feral cat is used to cats. Not people. And because feral cats are not used to people, they are mistrustful and avoid humans as possible.

Feral cats can get used to people to some degree, but generally never become domesticated. For example, if a person is feeding a colony of cats, the cats may get used to that particular person and learn to trust them enough to let the person get closer than usual. Most often though, feral cats rarely let anyone get close to them, and very rarely become trustful enough to allow someone to touch them.

But never say never! There are a very few people who claim to know how to domesticate feral cats. It's not a fast or easy process, but it's possible if you are patient, have the know-how and are willing to do the work.

Many cats in shelters are misclassified as feral because when their cage is approached, their ears go back and they hiss. Is the cat feral? Maybe yes, maybe no. It could just be that the kitty is just scared and mistrustful of strangers. This is often the case.

At shelters, feral cats generally don't have a chance. These cats are deemed "un-adoptable" and are euthanized.

So how can you tell if a cat is feral? There's no sure-fire way. The lists below will help give you an idea.

Domestic Cat

I found this cat in an office park. She had been abandoned. Super-friendly, she meowed at me and approached me, begging for attention. This one was easy to determine as a domesticated cat.
I found this cat in an office park. She had been abandoned. Super-friendly, she meowed at me and approached me, begging for attention. This one was easy to determine as a domesticated cat.

Domestic Cats Found Outside

  • Are socialized to humans
  • Friendly towards humans they know
  • May be used to other cats
  • May or may not let strangers approach them
  • May or may not hiss at strangers
  • Could be in rough shape, if not being fed by someone
  • Will "meow" at (talk to) people, especially if they're hungry

Feral Cats

  • Are not used to humans
  • Are afraid of humans
  • Are used to other cats
  • Will not let strangers approach them
  • If approached by humans, will run away, hiss or spit
  • Could be in rough shape, if not being fed by someone
  • Will not meow at (talk to) humans

So....Feral or Not?

Unfortunately, as you can see from the comparison above, there isn't all that much difference in behavior between a domestic cat that is not friendly with strangers, and a feral cat.

In short, it is difficult for a lay person to really know the difference with just one or two meetings. Unless of course, it's a super-friendly domesticated cat.

If there is a particular outdoor cat you are wondering about, the best way to figure it out is to start spending time around the cat. Sit near the cat's favorite spot when the cat is there. Maybe feed the cat once a day. Over time, if the cat meows at you, or approaches you, it is domestic. If it will never let you near it, over many months of you visiting regularly, there's a good chance it's feral, but not guaranteed.

Options for Feral Cats

So...what do you do if you find a feral cat? Here are some options.

  1. Care for this outdoor kitty, but do so responsibly. Even if a cat is not used to humans, it still is an animal deserving of care. You can provide fresh food and water daily for the cat. If you want to provide a nice "bedding" for the kitty, one of the best options is mulch under some dense bushes. It allows water to drain, keeping the cat off the dirt.
  2. Trap the cat, have it spayed (if female) or neutered (if male), then return the cat back to its home outdoors. Having a feral cat fixed is a humane and responsible way of dealing with the kitty. You are preventing the cat from reproducing, so not increasing the cat population, while still allowing the cat to live out his or her life.
    NOTE: If trapping the cat, you will need an animal trap. I found an affordable Collapsible Large Animal Trap at Harbor Freights that I really like. Although it received mixed reviews, I have had very good luck with this trap.
    NOTE: Check with your local Humane Society to see if they have any vouchers available for spay/neuter of feral cats. Our rescue group gets these regularly just by calling and asking for them (only for FERAL cats).
  3. Call animal control. Although this is an option, I'm not recommending it. If a feral cat is picked up by animal control, it is most certainly a death sentence.

Help for Kitties

Have you ever fed or helped a feral or stray cat?

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© 2011 Amber Killinger

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Comments 6 comments

corbycat profile image

corbycat 5 years ago from earth

i really like you. I want to help cats also feral or not (abandoned). I want to spay them but here in our country it's really difficult to find someone to fix the cat cheaply. It cost a lot to spay or neuter the cats. I feel so helpless looking at these creatures and one of the reason why I want to earn an extra money that somehow I can build and start a group that will help me or have same advocacy like rescuing cats or even dogs. If only the rich people will find compassion on these matters. Helping the poor and saving animals. All i can do for now is pray for them.


Amber Killinger profile image

Amber Killinger 5 years ago Author

Good luck with your endeavor corbycat! That would be really great if you get to the point that you can help out the kitties in your area.


lucydann 5 years ago

Hello, Amber. I adopted a feral girl a year ago. In our complex we have several ferals. She acclimated to me pretty quickly, and started meowing almost right away for food. She got pregnant and took care of her litter like a trooper (all her babies have been adopted out--yay!)and then we got her spayed. She is really an outdoor creature and I don't think she would be happy being indoors. The main problem is the constant exposure to fleas and ear mites. I can pet her now when she's feeding, but to actually hold down a tube of flea medication to her skin---ahhh, nope, ain't happening! Any suggestions? She's very trap/carrier savvy since her trip to the rescue league for the spaying. Thank you, Amber!


Amber Killinger profile image

Amber Killinger 4 years ago Author

If you are able to pet her while she's feeding, you may try "petting" her neck, kind of scratching lightly and moving the fur away from an area, then squirt the flea meds quickly. I've gotten away with this before, although the kitty is not happy afterwards. Or, you could try grabbing and wrapping in a towel. The cats really don't like that, and for me, it's worked for some, but not others. Maybe get someone to help you scruff her and wrap a towel around her legs while you do the meds. Good luck!!


mel 4 years ago

I just moved to where I live a year ago and started feeding the cats around my neighbourhood every night. I gained their trust after a few months of feeding them and was even very lucky to have caught 3 of them (one mother with 2 babies and they are living happily in my home now!)

I bring cat toys and play with some of the ones that are more trusting and they love it! :)

There is one cat that love to take walks with me and have me pet him on the head all the time right after he finishes his meal! Too bad he's quite an old cat and is probably used to outdoor, so I don't think it would be a great idea for me to bring him home... :(

***I just want people to know, like you said, that a lot of the feral cats can actually form a bond with humans to a certain extent and that they do deserve to be treated just like any other animals...***

Governments should spend more money on the Trap,Neuter and Release program instead of having them euthanized....


Moi in North Carolina 2 years ago

I have 3 rescue furrbabies! The last one was a feral who allowed me to bring him in. He would eat, poop & pee (in his own litter box, of course); but, stayed within my closet or under the bed for approx. two years. He has learned to love & to trust me, gives me kitty-kisses EVERY day, grooms my hair, etc... but should I have company?, he's nowhere to be found ... hides immediately.

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