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How to Tell If a Cat is Feral or a Stray: The Key Differences

Lindsey Lawson

By Lindsey Lawson

a stray cat sitting at the sidewalk

The terms stray and feral are commonly heard in the animal community. These terms are used to help distinguish homeless cats based on how they interact with humans. While it may be easy to group feral cats and strays into one category, they are very different. We are here to help explain the difference between feral cats and stray cats and how to tell if a cat is feral or a stray.

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Feral vs. Stray

Telling the difference between a feral cat and a stray cat is very important. This knowledge will assist you in your overall interaction with an unknown cat and hand help you decide how to handle each unique situation.

grey and red tabby cats at an abandon site
Image Credit: GeriArt, Pixabay

Feral Cats

Feral cats are categorized as outdoor cats that have had little to no physical contact with humans and are entirely unsocialized with people. While some feral cats may have had interactions with humans at some point in the past, that interaction did not allow them to develop any comfortability with people and made no impact on having positive interactions with humans.

Feral cats are typically unable to be adopted out into homes. They are simply too wild to gain the ability to function as a family pet unless human intervention happens during young kittenhood. It is important to keep in mind that this is not the fault of the cat, but a direct result of there being too many domesticated pets and not enough homes.

Feral cats are considered nuisances in urban environments. They came to be due to the lack of responsible ownership among cat owners. Lack of spaying and neutering and pets being abandoned or lost has resulted in many cats that are born in the streets and never had the ability to interact and socialize with people. They are essentially wild versions of our domesticated cats that are having to survive on their own.

Stray Cats

Stray cats differ from feral cats because they have either lived indoors at one point or were previously socialized with humans. Stray cats have either been abandoned or lost and no longer have a home or regular contact with humans.

Because these cats have been able to gain a level of comfortability with humans and have had the opportunity to share their lives alongside them, they are accustomed to human contact and generally will enjoy human interaction. These cats are suitable to be adopted out into new, loving homes since they have that familiarity with people that allows them the ability to readjust to life as a housecat.

Kittens can become well-socialized by regularly interacting with humans at an early age. If they were lucky enough to experience human interaction by being talked to and played with from an early age, this can have a long-lasting effect on how they react to people.

How to Tell the Difference

Now that we have gone over what defines a feral cat and a stray cat, we will give you an idea of how to tell the difference between the two.

Feral Cats Overview

a feral cat lying under a car
Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay


Feral cats and stray cats may be hard to distinguish by appearance alone, depending on how long a stray has been left to fend for itself. When being homeless, these cats can look more rugged than an indoor house cat. Most feral tomcats will have a rugged look that comes with their more rugged lifestyle. A lot of times they have unkempt fur and may display scars, missing parts of the ear, and other wounds that are indicative of fighting.

Body Language

Feral will display a body language that is entirely different from that of a stray. Feral cats may crawl and crouch low to the ground as a means of defense to protect their body from the perceived threat of a human. Feral cats are very unlikely to make eye contact and will slink away at any given time to avoid interaction. Their body language will be very tense, and you will be able to tell very clearly how uncomfortable and fearful they are.


Feral cats will display aggression and lash out at people if they were to feel threatened or cornered. If they have been trapped in a cage, they will likely stay in the back of the cage and retreat to the farthest corner to protect themselves. If they become overly frightened, they rattle the cage or even climb in a desperate escape attempt. They are so fearful of humans that they can even harm themselves when trapped in an attempt to escape.

a rugged feral cat ready to attack
Image Credit: ivabalk, Pixabay


Feral cats will not meow or purr. They are in no way seeking any type of attention from humans. Feral cats will typically hiss or growl when approached or cornered.

Daily Schedule

Feral cats are most likely to be nocturnal. These cats are wild and like to avoid human interaction at all costs. It’s not unnatural for cats to be nocturnal, as most wild cats are. However, domestication has had an impact on the daily schedule of our house cats. Feral cats remain nocturnal to avoid the loud, busy, human-filled daytime. A lot of feral cats will live in a colony of other feral cats that have the same schedule.


Feral cats will not be responsive to humans and will avoid human interaction at all costs. Some feral cats could feel more comfortable with certain people that provide them regular feedings. Even in these circumstances where some level of comfort is there, they will still not allow any type of physical interaction and may even become uncomfortable with verbal interaction.

Stray Cat Overview

a stray cat lying on a sidewalk
Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay


There is a chance a stray cat may be a bit cleaner looking than a feral, but this does depend on how long they have been left to survive on the streets. The more time they spend on the street, the rougher they may look. Appearance is not so much an indicator of stray versus feral status as behavior and some other factors.

Body Language

Stray cats will not have the fearful, self-protective body language of a feral cat. A stray cat’s body language will be very similar to that of a house cat (unless they are under severe stress.) They will likely walk fully erect with them with their tail up and will make eye contact with you. These are all signs of comfortability with humans rather than fear.


Stray cats will behave similarly to housecats. Unless they are in a very tense and stressful situation that is making them uncomfortable, you will likely be able to touch and pet them. They may even approach you in search of attention. A lot of stray cats will seek out humans and display signs of affection and a desire for attention and interaction.

When in a high-stress situation, such as capture, they may be hard to distinguish from a feral cat at first. Strays will eventually calm down after they realize you mean them no harm. Feral cats are unable to realize you are not a threat. A stray cat will typically allow you to touch them once they have calmed.

If caged and stressed, they will relax over time and may show interest in toys or food and even be responsible for kind tones of voice.

a stray cat walking on sand seeking attention
Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay


If a stray cat approaches you, they will likely do so with friendly meows and lots of purring. If you have trapped a stray cat, they may be nervous and fearful enough to growl or hiss but they will relax eventually.

Daily Schedule

Most strays will be active during the daytime. This is due to their experience with humans and their desire for social interaction. They are much more likely to run into a sought-after human companion if they are out and about during the day. A lot of strays have lived as house cats and have developed that schedule.


Most stray cats will approach people, houses, and may end up lingering around porches in a desperate attempt to get love and attention. After all, these cats are accustomed to a more pampered housecat life and it’s only natural for these friendly prior housecats to seek companionship. Stray cats are known for making their way into the hearts of many by rubbing up against our legs, purring, and bringing out a person’s desire to take them home.

Why Does It Matter to Know the Difference Between the Two?

Understanding the difference between feral cats and stray cats will help you determine the best way to interact with them, care for them, and help them.

Stray and feral cats can be difficult to tell apart when they are in stressful situations and are trapped and frightened. It is important to give them time to relax in these types of circumstances. especially when they are trapped or frightened.

Feral cats cannot become pets and are generally unadoptable unless they are taken in as very young kittens. Some push for euthanasia of trapped feral cats, while others strive for catch and release programs where they are spayed or neutered to prevent more overpopulation.

Stray cats can typically readjust to living as house cats and tend to make good candidates for adoption into new, loving homes. Knowing the difference between the two can save lives and potentially lead to a much better life for a homeless cat.


Regardless of whether a cat is feral or a stray, they find their way to homelessness due to a lack of responsible ownership. There are simply too many cats than there are loving homes. There are some significant, telltale differences between feral cats and stray cats, and knowing the difference between the two can help you properly interact with them and provide them the help and protection they need.

Featured Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay

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