Feral, stray, and pet cats are all members of the same species; they are all domestic cats. But stray cats and feral cats are also different from each other in a significant way. Particularly in their relationship to and interactions with people.

Whether you are a shelter worker, veterinarian, feral cat advocate, or you share your neighborhood with feral cats. Knowing how to tell the difference can help inform how best to interact with a cat. Or what, if any, intervention would be in each cat’s best interest.

What is socialization?

We use the term “socialized” to mean friendly cats. Friendly meaning, towards people or cats who enjoy companionship with us in our homes.

Kittens become socialized by interacting with people—being held, spoken to, and played with—from an early age. If a kitten does not become accustomed to people holding her and petting her within this crucial window, she will grow up apprehensive of humans and not be suited to or happy living in homes.

What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?

What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?

Pet and stray cats are socialized to people. Feral cats are not socialized to people. While they are socialized to their colony members and bonded to each other, they do not have that same relationship with people.


  • A stray cat is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in her life but has left or lost her domestic home, as well as most human contact and dependence.
  • Over time, a stray cat can become feral as her contact with humans dwindles.
  • Under the right circumstances, however, a stray cat can also become a pet cat once again. Stray cats re-introduced to a home after living outdoors may require time to acclimate; they may be frightened and wary after spending time outside away from people.
  • Another definition that may help: – “A stray cat is a domestic cat that has been abandoned or has ‘strayed’ from home and becomes lost. Stray [cats] were once pets, and they can usually be successfully rescued and placed in homes.”


  • A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with humans, or her contact with humans has diminished over time. She is fearful of people and survives on her own outdoors. A feral cat is not likely to ever become a lap cat or enjoy living indoors.
  • Kittens born to feral cats can be socialized at an early age and adopted into homes.

Why does it matter?

  • Stray cats can readjust to living with people and can be adopted as companions.
  • Adult feral cats are not socialized to people, which means they cannot be adopted. As a result, they are likely to be killed if picked up by animal control or brought to shelters, so it is in their best interest to continue living outdoors.
  • Stray and feral cats can be difficult to tell apart, especially when they are trapped or frightened. Scared stray cats often need time to relax and show their level of socialization. Learn more.
  • Trap-Neuter-Return considers each cat’s level (or degree) of socialization to determine the best environment for them. Feral cats are returned to their outdoor home after being trapped and neutered. Socialized cats and kittens can be adopted into homes.

How do I tell the difference when the cats are outdoors?

Since it is difficult to determine each cat’s socialization during a stressful event such as trapping, it’s a good idea to observe cats on their own outdoors using the guidelines below. Remember that these guidelines are not hard and fast rules and that just one of these traits is probably not enough to conclude.

Bottom line:

If a cat you don’t know approaches you or if you can touch her, she is most likely not feral. Not all stray cats will do this, though, especially at first—each cat will act differently in various situations. More monitoring using these guidelines may be necessary to determine if the cat is socialized.

Alley Cat:

Allies recognizes that a cat’s socialization and behavior level is not always black and white, particularly for feral cats who recognize their caregiver. They may show signs of familiarity, such as tailing up or hanging out on a caregiver’s porch. Still, these behaviors are usually limited to the cat’s interaction with the caregiver and only develop after building a relationship over time. Always remember: this does not mean that the cat is a good candidate for living indoors.

How do I tell feral and stray cats apart once I have trapped them?

When in a frightening or stressful environment—such as a trap or a shelter—a friendly stray cat may act like a feral cat, avoiding people and possibly even showing aggression to avoid being touched. “A lot of cats seem feral in traps but are just afraid,” explains Alley Cat Allies Feral Friend Genevieve Van de Merghel. Who can blame them? The cat is in a new and unfamiliar place.

Here are some ways to distinguish a feral cat from a scared stray cat when they are frightened, confined, or in a new place.

Credits; allycat.org