Feral Cats vs Stray Cats

Feral Cats

Feral cats are cats who have been born into the wild. Stray cats are cats who wandered off, or got lost, or who have been dumped by their owners. Stray cats are born into some sort of a domestic setting and have enjoyed some measure of contact with humans.

As there are no indigenous wild cats in Ireland, the country’s feral population are the descendants of domestic cats who for various reasons ended up having to live wild. Feral cats will live in either one of two ways: solitary, or in a colony. Feral colonies serve as a mutually beneficial support group for all the cats. The colony is usually a matriarchal establishment with one or more dominant females , a sub group of females and a group of tomcats who are attached to the colony. Colonies form around food sources, eg. rubbish dumps or a good hunting area. The greater the available food resources are, the bigger the colony is. Feral colonies have quite a complex internal relationship with shared nursing/babysitting duties being conducted by several females, thus allowing nursing mothers to hunt. Kittenless females will often begin lactating in order to facilitate the shared nursing duties. Tomcats attached to the colony will provide protection for kittens and have been observed intervening in fights between kittens when things get out of hand. Feral Tomcats will also defend kittens and other colony cats from humans. This practice of defending members of a colony has been observed by individuals engaged in TNR work. A solitary roaming cat can become a member of a colony once a series of feline rituals have been observed: spraying, nose touching, head butts and so on. However, a roaming group of cats will be fought off by the colony’s toms. Feral cats that live in a colony can live up to 10 years.

Feral colony

Solitary ferals lead a far more harsh existence away from the solidarity of a colony. Solitary ferals live, on average, for between one, to two, years. Hunger, illness, and disease, as well as human interference, account for this high death toll. There are no academic studies available yet, to explain why some cats prefer solitude to colony life. There are several possible reasons, some cats just prefer to be alone because it is their nature. Other cats may have been driven from a colony. Yet others may have been older kittens who wandered off from their colony and got lost.

Feral surveying his environment while eating

Both colony and solitary ferals share similar characteristics:

  • Fear of humans
  • Avoidance of humans
  • Living in secret places on the periphery of human habitation.
  • Eating in short, fast bursts, then stopping to scan their immediate environment for signs of danger
  • Acting with aggression if cornered or surprised by humans
  • Able to hunt and kill their own food, eg, rodents and other small animals

Feral cats usually run away when released and might not be seen for a couple of days

Stray Cats

A stray cat is a cat who has been born into a domestic setting and who has grown up amongst humans.

As the name implies, a stray cat is one that has been dumped by its human caretaker or who has gotten lost while out exploring.  Sometimes a cat will stray because it has been chased outside of its range by a dog or human thus losing all familiar ‘landmark’ scents. A domestic that strays is in an extremely vulnerable state. Stray cats are used to, and love, humans, whom they see as the chief provider of food, shelter and assistance. Stray cats may not know how to hunt as they have never had to. They will automatically approach any human they come across as they expect food and shelter from them. A hungry stray cat when given food will devote its entire concentration to the food bowl unlike its feral counterpart, who stops eating to inspect his surroundings for signs of danger.  Stray cats will not understand how to seek proper shelter from the elements and will search outhouses and other forms of human habitation in the hope of gaining access. The stray will have a ‘pleading’ demeanour when approaching humans. Ferals run the opposite direction no matter how badly they might need help.

Stray cat still wearing a collar, but in terrible condition

A cat that strays from its home will undergo a personality change. To put it in human terms the cat will ‘harden up’ to the situation it finds itself in. The stray will move through several stages from friendly cat through to a more wary individual to, finally, a feral state in which all friendliness towards human has vanished. This transition from domestic cat to feral will be due entirely to humans and their indifference towards the plight of such unfortunate creatures. The stray cat will often display bewilderment during the initial stages as it tries to comprehend the sudden change in its fortunes. This confusion will, in turn, change to an increased wariness, and eventually downright fear of humans. Many strays do not make it to the feral stage but will die because of their inability to adapt to the more hostile environment.

Stray cat found in a garden running towards humans

Stray Characteristics:

  • Friendliness: A stray cat will approach humans seeking help or food or will be approachable
  • A stray cat will have a physical ‘attitude’ of friendliness, eg. tail in an upright position, meowing
  • A stray cat will seek to move indoors seeking shelter
  • A stray cat might respond to human, verbal entreaties, eg. “Here. Puss,Puss”
  • A stray cat will eat in front of a human and will totally concentrate on the food provided
  • A stray cat, if not long strayed, will possess a softer coat than its feral counterpart
  • A stray cat will exhibit curiosity towards humans

The above points are just generalisations about the differences between stray and feral cats. Generally speaking, ferals will exhibit fear and hatred of humans whereas strays will approach, or be approachable by, humans. Cats are like humans: some humans are friendly, some humans are not; this is regardless of background. Likewise, the same will be observed in cats: some feral cats might be approachable whilst a stray, or even a domestic, cat might hiss, and run away.

A friendly feral staying around for a rub upon release

There will be a stage in the downward spiral of a stray cat from the role of domestic to feral when the animal could be described as being in a half and half situation. The cat retains some elements of its former domesticity while also possessing certain feral  traits. If a cat has been the recipient of food, shelter, and kindness, from a human, it will retain some memories of this while simultaneously being wary of humans. A domestic cat that loses the security of its home undergoes a series of ‘psychic’ shocks as it struggles to adjust to its new status. In the place of regular feeds, vet care and a warm, comfortable bed, it must now fight for everything. Human that the cat once regarded as protectors and providers can become those who seek to hurt or even kill it. Food has to be scavenged or hunted down. Failure to do so will result in constant hunger and malnutrition  that leads to a lowering of the animal’s resistance to sickness and disease. Shelter must be found and domestic  cats will not possess the same acuity in seeking suitable shelter.What must also be taken into account is a certain emotional disturbance within the cat as it tries to comprehend a situation  that is actually incomprehensible to it. There can be nothing  sadder than the bewildered look of an ex-domestic cat as it tries to make a reconnection with humans whom it once regarded as family.

Advice for trapping

If you trap a feral cat there are a number of vital steps that must be observed to avoid injury to the animal or the human trapper.

Feral cat after hurting himself from banging against the trap

A feral cat will react with fear and panic when trapped, no matter how well intentioned the trappers may be. It will attempt to claw or bite its way back out of the trap and may attack any human that come close to it. Remember the feral cat doesn’t like human contact and in particular close human contact.

Always ensure the trap is placed on level ground.

Never, never, leave the trap unattended, not even for 5 minutes. A cat in an unattended trap is vulnerable to attack by other animals or may tumble the trap over in its panic to escape.

Immediately cover the trap with a blanket or a towel as soon as the cat is trapped. This will quieten the animal and provide it with some measure of calm.

Upon trapping the cat, immediately transfer the animal to a larger Queen’s cage or Hospital cage (ensure that such cages have plastic coated steel mesh). Again ensure a suitable covering is placed over the cage to calm the cat.

Take care to keep hands and fingers away from cages when transferring feral cats. Similarly when carrying the cages ensure that you hold them away from your body. Cats can extend their limbs out through the cage mesh  and those limbs are well equipped with concave claws that are extremely difficult to extract from flesh.

It is advisable to cover the seats and floor of the vehicle that will be transporting the cats with a tarpaulin. Feral cats give off a very strong scent when fearful or stressed and this scent lingers.

Cats for immediate neutering or spaying must not be fed for at least 8-10 hours before the operation. Cats that are being kept longer than that must be given adequate food, water and bedding. As well as being a simple kindness towards the animal, these measures act as a spur to calming the animal and aiding its recovery.

Any holding area where cats are kept prior to, or after, veterinary attention must provide shelter from the elements as well as being secure from escape or intrusion.

Keep the locations of trappings secret or be deliberately vague about where the site is. Publicity can bring unwelcome attention upon the cats.

A trapped cat should be covered immediately

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