Feral Cat vs. Stray Cat: What's the Difference?

Learn the tell-tale signs that distinguish a wild cat from a stray

Cat walking across grass outside; feral cat vs stray cat

by Nada Stankova Photography / Getty Images

If you’ve spotted a strange cat in your neighborhood, you may be wondering if it’s a feral cat versus a stray cat. How can you tell the difference between the two, especially if your contact is limited or only from a difference? There are telltale signs that make it evident whether you’re dealing with a feral cat or a stray cat, but you’ll need to be observant and perceptive.

It’s important to know the difference between a feral cat versus a stray cat since the behavior can vary widely between the two. If you have your own feline friend with access to the outdoors, understanding whether you have a feral cat or simply a stray cat on the prowl is an important piece of information to keeping your kitty safe and healthy. 

Feral Cat vs. Stray Cat

It’s important to first establish what defines a feral cat versus stray cat. The two share a common denominator in that they are living outdoors with no consistent human care, but there is an important distinction.

A feral cat has had little or no interaction with humans. Typically, feral cats are born in a feral litter or to stray cats.

A stray cat at one time lived with or around humans it regularly interacted with. It may have been a house cat at one time or an outdoor cat with an owner. Due to becoming lost or abandoned, the cat has lost its connection to its owner and is considered a stray.

Both feral and stray kitties are considered domesticated cats, not wild animals. However, the personality and behavior of a feral cat may be very different from a stray cat.

How to Identify a Feral vs. Stray Cat

There are both physical characteristics and behavioral tendencies that can help you to distinguish a feral cat from a stray cat. If a new cat is on the prowl in your neighborhood, check out the following identifiers as a first step to determine if it's a stray cat or a feral cat.

Physical Characteristics

Feral cats may have a ‘tipped ear,’ meaning that the pointy part has been clipped. This is done in routine trap-neuter-return procedures to indicate that a cat has been sterilized.

Stray cats may look especially skinny and unkept. Often inexperienced hunters, they may have a more difficult time scavenging for food. Additionally, they’re frequently rejected by feral cat colonies and may be involved in frequent altercations.

Feral cats, on the other hand, are experts in the way of the wild. They generally look healthy, thanks to their aptitude to outdoor living and expert hunting skills.

Tabby cat with tipped ear; feral cat vs stray cat
An ear with the tip removed is a telltale sign of a feral cat. MHLRS / Getty Images

Behavior

Feral cats will typically never approach a human. They exhibit tremendous caution and avoid contact at all costs. Even eye contact from a feral cat is rare.

Stray cats are known to exhibit more open behavior towards humans, including making eye contact and even approaching a human. In some cases, they’ve been known to rub against a stranger’s leg. Humans are a familiar sight—and a known source of food to a stray cat.

Feral cats typically move in stealth mode with their body crouched low to the ground, tail down, and eyes rapidly scanning the surroundings.

Stray cats are more likely to carry their tail upright—in cat body language, this indicates an openness to be approached. They also often move in a more upright stance.

Be Safe Interacting With Feral and Stray Cats

The bottom line when dealing with any animal that is unfamiliar to you is to be cautious. This is the case whether you’re dealing with a feral or stray cat.

Be alert to the body language of the cat and respond to clues that the animal is becoming overly stressed and fearful, or even hostile. As domesticated cats, both feral and stray cats are likely to respond in similar ways when feeling fear. Be alert for:

  • Hissing
  • Narrowed eyes
  • Ears held back
  • An erect, bristled tail
  • Hair standing on end along the back

The Bottom Line

The most important distinguishing factor of feral cats versus stray cats involves the cat’s perspective of humans. Feral cats lack human socialization and for all practical purposes are considered wild. It is very, very difficult to acclimate an adult feral cat to life as a house cat, though you may have success with feeding a feral cat and meeting its basic needs in that way.

At the same time, as domesticated cats, feral cats do share plenty of similarities to cats kept as pets. However, you should always be cautious when approaching an unfamiliar animal, whether it’s a feral cat or a stray cat.