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How Can You Tell If a Cat Is Feral?

Updated on May 21, 2018
Amber Killinger profile image

I'm a cat lover to the max! I have helped rescue and re-home over 100 cats. My family cats fill my heart with joy every day.

Outdoor domestic cat
Outdoor domestic cat | Source

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.

What is feral?

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.

Cat in a cage
Cat in a cage | Source

Are Cats in Shelters Feral?

Many cats in shelters are mis-classified 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 sometimes "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

Case Study: Tommy Cat. Feral, or no?

Tommy, domestic or feral cat?
Tommy, domestic or feral cat? | Source

I found Tommy in an office building parking lot in really bad shape. If I didn't hang out too close to the cat food that I put out, he'd come over and eat some. Every day I'd edge a little closer while he ate. Eventually he let me get close enough to pet him.

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.

What About Tommy?

In the case of Tommy cat, he was not feral. Tommy was initially skittish and wouldn't let me near him. He would meow to me when I brought food. which gave me hope that I might be able to make friends with him. After many weeks of bringing food and hanging out nearby while he ate, he eventually let me get close enough to trap him to treat his mange.

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?

See results

© 2011 Amber Killinger


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