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Felinexpress.com home > Strays and Ferals > Stray Cat or Feral?

Stray Cat or Feral Cat - How can you tell?

It is estimated that there are over 60 million feral cats in the United States alone. With that large number of cats living on the streets trying to survive, chances are, you have feral cats and strays in your neighborhood even if you don’t “see” them.

They are out there, and most of the time, they used to be someone’s pet.

Perhaps the person let the cat out because the cat yowled in the middle of the night, or scratched the furniture, or jumped on the table in the middle of dinner. Maybe the cat peed on their bed.  There are dozens of reasons why people decide to just let a cat out to run or roam; because after all, it’s “just a cat.”

Once outside, and left on its own, the cat will be scared and hungry. Though the cat may go to ground (hide) for a few days, if the owner refuses to let it back inside and doesn't provide food and water,  the cat will have no choice but to run off.

Cats are social creatures. They maintain their own hierarchy.  Eventually, one cat meets up with another one, and after the posturing,  the mock battles and the real battles, the two will come together and set off in search of others.

This is why, when you hear feral caretakers talk about cats, they call them cat colonies. Cats will group together. There is safety in numbers, and unaltered cats will breed, they will inbreed and they will continue to follow nature’s calling until someone with enough knowledge can step in and break the cycle; by doing what is known as TNR- Trap-Neuter and Release.

So now there’s a cat outside. You see the cat slinking away in the bushes. Generally a person who cares about animals, their first response is to put out a bowl of food and some water. That is the acceptable response …right? 

Well, not entirely right. If you put out food and that is all you are going to do, then you are not helping this cat. You will be creating a problem unless you decide to commit to the whole process of TNR-

You need to determine if this cat is a:

  • Feral cat
  • stray with feral tendencies
  • Someone’s lost pet
  • Or just a neglected cat owned by people who just don’t care.

Feral cats and strays are a problem, or so many people think. Some people have misconceptions about these animals; that they are diseased, that they kill all of the birds in the area, that they are a problem.

The problem is not the cats. The problem lies in the people. The one person, that if you could trace back a stray cat’s paw prints, you would find that someone, at one point just opened up their front door, and let their intact cat outside.

So this cat lurking outside, if you do set out food, you need to do so with the full intention of following through with this cat, whatever that takes. This would mean actively searching for the owner, spaying or neutering and re-releasing the cat in your area, or keeping the cat with you in your home.

First you need to determine if the cat needs rescuing. Take a good look at this cat. If the cat’s coat is dirty, matted or unkempt, then the cat is a runaway, a feral cat or a stray or someone’s neglected pet.

Does the cat come up to you hesitantly? Do not make eye contact with him if he does. Direct eye contact is an invitation to do battle. If you make eye contact accidentally, then simply blink your eyes slowly several times and back away with your head bowed.

Another tip to determining if this cat has been owned are the claws. If they are missing, the cat has been declawed and the cat needs to immediately be taken inside. Without his claws, he is vulnerable to predators, for his only recourse is to bite them in defense.

If this cat is a full feral cat, he will not let you get close enough to see its coat or his claws. If he is a feral cat and you are willing to do what it takes to help him, then you have committed yourself to rescuing a critter that has not been handled by humans and will not want your help.

Place food outside for the cat, then step back out of view to watch what happens. When the cat comes up to eat you have several options. You can stay hidden so the cat feels safe. You can take a chance and quietly make an appearance but in a kneeling position. You want to be as non-threatening as possible.

At feeding times, do not approach the food bowl or the cat, just stay nearby on your knees, so the cat can become used to you being there. I keep a heavy pair of kneepads available for bad weather. This protects my knees (to a point) from the rain and mud.

In good weather, I have an air mattress that I set down near the food bowls. I weight the mattress down with a heavy rock and leave it there until the cat is eating near it without worrying about the strange object. Then, I use this mattress, lying on my stomach while the cat is eating. 

This is a gradual process because the minute you arrive on the scene, a feral or a stray will flee. You need to move slow, move into the position gradually. Not over hours, but over days.

You have to have patience to work with these cats. Understand that you are a predator to them. You may be anxious to have a nice, soft purring lap kitty, but many times this journey to bonding is long and arduous. The journey is made in baby steps not in leaps and bounds, unless this cat is someone’s beloved house cat that got out. If that is the case, the process is much easier on all concerned.

If the cat runs away at your presence then you back away into the house and let the cat eat. Leave the food down only 20 minutes, than remove it. Also be sure to provide fresh water for this cat. Begin to feed this cat on a scheduled time frame, at least 4 times a day, taking the food up when twenty minutes is over. Set up a feeding schedule and stick to it. Cats have amazing inner clocks and you want this cat to set his clock by your predicted movements.

If you keep the food down all the time (known as free feeding) you will end up feeding any wild predators that come around; skunks, opossums, squirrels, mice, raccoons, birds and over time, more cats.

The cat will adjust to your schedule and start appearing at food time. Free-feeding is fine for some people, just be sure that you know that you could end up with feeding more than just one cat. That alone, can become expensive even if you are just buying commercial –grade generic cat food.

Mary Anne Miller is a freelance writer, website content provider and member of The Cat Writers’ Association. Her expertise lies in feral cat socialization, bottle babies and animal abuse issues.

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