Pet Care

Stray and Feral Cats

long-haired cat sitting on street

Free-roaming cats can be found in big cities, small towns, rural areas and suburban neighborhoods around the globe. Some are permitted outdoors at times but also spend time indoors with their families. Others are fed by their caretakers but live outdoors only. Still others are former pets who were lost or abandoned. Finally, there are cats who have become “feral.” Spending all or most of their lives outdoors on their own, these cats live in a wild or semi-wild state. Many populations of feral cats have had close contact with people for generations but still behave like wild animals.

Despite their independent behavior, it’s important to realize that feral cats still depend on us for their health and safety. It’s our responsibility to manage their populations. It’s also important to realize that feral cats have special needs. If you’ve found a population of feral cats in your area, or if you’ve adopted a cat and you think she might be feral, read on to learn what to do.

What Kind of Cat Is This?

Free-Roaming Pet Cats

Friendly cats who appear well fed and groomed are probably pets whose caretakers allow them outdoors. Some may even wear collars and identification tags. If they look healthy and they’re not bothering you, the best thing to do for these cats is nothing. Don’t befriend them or feed them unless you want them coming around more often! If pet cats already frequent your yard and are becoming a nuisance, please see our article on Keeping Cats out of Your Yard to learn about humanely deterring them.

Stray Cats

Stray cats are cats who were once pets but have been abandoned or lost. Some are still very friendly and will approach you to seek attention. Others may appear feral at first, but once you befriend them, you’ll find that they enjoy human touch and companionship. If you find a stray cat, the best thing to do is catch her and attempt to find her original family. If no one claims the cat and you’d rather not keep her yourself, you can re-home her or give her to a rescue group or shelter so she can be adopted. If it’s possible to do so, opt for re-homing her yourself. Most shelters already have their hands full with unwanted animals who need new homes. Many friendly cats are euthanized each week simply because shelters don’t have the room or resources to care for them. For help with re-homing, please see our article on Re-homing Your Cat.

Feral Cats

When people abandon their domesticated cats, these cats may learn to live on their own and become feral. If these cats aren’t spayed or neutered, they produce feral kittens, who usually live their entire lives without human contact.

Feral cats often live in a group of related cats, called a colony, but if food is scarce they may roam alone. A colony typically occupies and defends a specific territory where food and shelter are available. Feral cat colonies often live near dumpsters or restaurants, beneath porches, in barns or in abandoned buildings. Even though many of these cats don’t enjoy long lives, they breed and overpopulate rapidly. Human intervention and care is crucial to ensure their welfare and prevent more feral cats from being born into this harsh, difficult existence. Taking responsibility for feral cat welfare also ensures our own cats’ health. Unvaccinated feral cats can pass on diseases and parasites when they come into contact with pet cats outdoors.

What Can I Do to Help Stray and Feral Cats?

Helping Stray Cats

Lost or abandoned strays are often hungry, ill or in distress. They may be hard to distinguish from feral cats because lost or scared pets can be so frightened or disoriented that they seem wild. They may hide during the day and, when approached, run away or show signs of aggression, such as hissing, spitting or growling. At the same time, some feral cats can seem deceptively friendly—they may approach or even be petted by someone who regularly feeds them outdoors, but if brought indoors they would avoid human contact and try to escape. 

How do you tell the difference between a frightened lost pet and a feral cat? There is no magic formula, but there are some clues that will help. Ironically, a dirty and disheveled cat is most likely a stray pet and not a feral cat. Recently abandoned cats often have trouble finding food and shelter, or are driven away from food sources by the local feral cats, and stop grooming because they feel stressed. 

Behavior is another indicator. In general, a cat who approaches complete strangers is most likely a stray pet, even if he runs away when you try to pet him. ASPCA researchers have found other behaviors that differentiate stray and feral cats. The research was done in a shelter environment, so if you are doing a TNR project and have the cats contained in traps for a few days, these behaviors would be helpful: rubbing, playing, chirping and a cat with his tail up are things that only stray pets are likely to do when caged. Remember, feral cats may do these things outdoors, around trusted caretakers, so you should only use these indicators for cats in traps, carriers or kennels. A little surprisingly, the researchers saw that some feral cats in cages will meow and blink with eye contact, so those are not reliable clues.

If the cat you want to help seems feral or you are not sure, see our guide below: Helping Feral Cats.

Start by Making Friends with Food

If you decide to help a stray cat, feeding her is the most effective way to strike up a friendship. Leave some strong-smelling food, like canned cat food, in an area where you’ve seen the stray cat. Be sure to deliver the food at the same time each day, in the same spot, so the cat learns when and where to expect a meal. After a few days of food delivery, stick around to see if the stray cat will approach while you’re in sight. Be sure to keep your distance at first so the cat doesn’t have to come too close to you to eat. It may also help to sit on the ground so you look less intimidating. If the cat doesn’t approach, go back to delivering food and leaving the area. After a few more days, try sticking around again. If the cat does approach, continue to keep your distance. Resist the urge to approach and try to pet her. Over the next couple of weeks, sit down closer and closer to the food dish.

Introduce a Large Crate or Trap

When the cat starts to appear reliably in anticipation of the food and seems less worried about your presence, start bringing a large crate or trap with you to the feeding spot. (If you bring a trap, be sure to find a way to keep it open during this stage. If a cat goes partway into the trap and trips the mechanism that closes the door, she may escape—and, because she’s had a scare, she’ll be reluctant to approach a crate or trap again.) Place the food dish a foot or two away from the crate or trap. Over the next week or so, move the dish closer and closer to the crate or trap door. Eventually, put the food just inside the crate or trap, but keep the door open. Gradually move the food farther and farther inside so the cat must enter to eat. Once she’ll go all the way inside, you can move on to the last step. If you’re using a crate, gently close and latch the door when the cat goes all the way in. If you’re using a trap, simply remove whatever you’re using to keep the trap door open on the day you plan to capture the cat.

If this strategy doesn’t work, ask a local cat rescue group or animal shelter for advice. These groups have experience trapping stray cats and may be able to assist you.

What to Do When You’ve Captured the Cat

Once you have the cat in a crate or trap, it’s time to get her some help.

  • Take the cat to a veterinarian or local rescue group to check for a microchip (identification implanted underneath the skin). The vet or group will use a special scanner to look for the chip.
  • Place a “found” advertisement online or in your local newspaper. Many papers offer this service at no charge. You can also put up ads in local shops, pet stores, veterinary offices and restaurants and on telephone poles in the neighborhood where you found the cat.
  • Check with your local animal shelter and with animal control to see if anyone has reported a lost cat fitting your stray cat’s description.
  • If you plan to keep the cat or find a new home for her, take her to a veterinarian for a thorough check-up. She’ll need to be tested for diseases and parasites, such as feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus, heartworms and fleas. If you have other cats, do not allow them to socialize with the newcomer until her health check is complete.
  • If you do not intend to keep the cat, take her to a local animal shelter or rescue group, where she’ll have a chance to get adopted.

Helping Feral Cats

The best thing you can do for the feral cats in your neighborhood is vaccinate them, prevent them from reproducing and then leave them where they are. TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) is a humane and effective program for stabilizing and maintaining healthy feral cat colonies, eliminating their mating behavior, and reducing costs to local governments and residents—all while providing an improved quality of life for the cats themselves.

TNR is a full management plan in which stray and feral cats already living outdoors are humanely trapped, evaluated, vaccinated and sterilized. Kittens and tame cats are adopted into good homes. Healthy adult cats who are unsocialized to humans are returned to their familiar habitat, usually under the lifelong care of volunteers. Cats suffering from illness or injury are humanely euthanized.

TNR is more effective and less expensive than trying to exterminate feral cat colonies. Feral cats settle in certain areas because those areas have one or more attractive features, like proximity to trash dumps or spots where cats can find shelter. So if you trap and euthanize one colony, another will simply move in to take its place. Repeated trapping and euthanasia are far more costly than promoting stable, non-breeding colonies in the same location. Animal control facilities report that it costs between $100 and $125 to pick up, house and then euthanize a feral cat. Sterilizing the same animal costs only $35 to $55 at a typical low-cost clinic. It’s also much less traumatic for a feral cat to be anesthetized, vaccinated and spayed or neutered than it is to be housed in a shelter for the stray-hold period required by law.

How Do I Set Up a TNR Program?

Talk with your local Animal Control, SPCA or Humane Society for information on starting a TNR program in your area. In addition to providing information, these organizations may be able to rent or loan you traps to catch feral cats. You can search the Internet for other resources and groups that help feral cats. (Search “TNR feral cats” or “help feral cats.”=.) Here are a few of our favorite sites:

How Can I Help My Own Feral Cat?

Stray cats who have experienced human contact at one point in their lives often still crave it and do well when adopted into loving homes. Unfortunately, unless you’ve captured a wild-born feral cat as a young kitten, she will very likely never become a friendly cat. If you bring one of these cats into your home, you may find that she’s terrified of you for the rest of her life. She may never be able to recognize that you’re a nice person with good intentions. Instead, she may always see you as a threat, no matter what you do.

Feral cats are essentially wild animals. Many cats who don’t learn to enjoy human company and touch by about 12 weeks of age have a lot of trouble interacting with people as adults. Over a period of months or years, some feral cats get used to one or two familiar people and no longer run away from them. However, most wild-born adult cats never become social butterflies. They almost always remain wary of strangers, and some can’t even learn to relax around their pet parents. If you find a feral cat, bring her home and realize that she fits this description, she’ll likely be happier if you take her back to her wild family—after she’s spayed, vaccinated and ear-tipped, of course.

Adopting a Feral Kitten

It’s possible to tame most feral kittens, especially if they’re captured at a young age (between 4 and 8 weeks). If you’ve just brought home a feral kitten, set up a confinement space for her. Doing so will keep her safe and prevent her from hiding during feeding times. The area should be small and free of things that might hurt your kitten (toxic chemicals, exposed wires she might chew, etc.). Bathrooms or laundry rooms, catteries and large dog crates make convenient, cozy confinement areas.

Please see this helpful video to learn about working with feral kittens:

The video shows how to gradually socialize a feral kitten by associating the presence of people with food and petting.

How Do I Tame a Feral Cat?

If you’re already committed to trying to socialize an adult feral cat, be prepared for a very long, slow transition. You are taming a wild animal! Read on to learn how to survive the first few days or weeks with your newly adopted feral cat.

  • When you bring your cat home, keep her in a quiet room with a comfy bed, water and a litter box. You may need to put garden soil in the box at first. Most outdoor cats are used to eliminating on dirt, not cat litter. Start with soil only, and gradually add more and more litter as your cat gets used to the new texture.
  • Visit your cat in her room. Bring her delicious food and extra treats, like tuna flakes or tiny cubes of chicken, at least twice a day. (The more often you can visit, the better!) Your cat might not eat with you in the room at first, but that’s okay. When she does, you can try gradually moving closer and closer to her while she’s eating.
  • Do not stare directly at your cat or reach for her. In cat language, those are threatening gestures. Instead, play hard-to-get. Ignore your cat. Try reading a book or working on a laptop so she gets used to your quiet, non-threatening presence. Scatter tasty treats on the floor around you, and replenish them as your cat eats. As she becomes more comfortable, try offering treats in your outstretched hand. When your cat will take food from your hand, you can start working toward touching her. As she eats, gradually bring your other hand closer and closer until you can gently stroke her. Be patient. If your cat is truly feral, this will likely take weeks or months.
  • How can you tell when your cat is ready for physical contact? Here’s a good rule to follow: never touch a fearful animal until she’s willing to touch you first. Keep in mind that if you’re working with a wild-caught cat, she may never initiate contact or it may take years for her to do so. Adjusting your expectations will prevent you from putting too much pressure on the new cat—and on yourself.
  • Eventually, when your cat has grown accustomed to you and her quiet room, you can slowly increase her freedom in the house, one room at a time. Be aware, though, that if she’s startled or frightened, she might jam herself into a tight hiding place and get stuck there. It’s best to keep your cat in a safe, quiet place until she seems less flighty.
  • Many feral cats eventually become comfortable enough around humans to play with toys. Using a laser pointer or wand-type toy like the Cat Dancer® is a good way to interact with your cat without getting too close to her. As your cat settles in to her new home, occasionally bring out a toy for her to investigate. She’ll tell you when she’s ready to play by tracking the toy’s movement or lifting a paw to playfully bat at it.

Additional Tips

  • If you have only one feral cat as a pet and are discouraged that you aren’t able to touch her after months or years, consider adopting a second, very friendly cat as a companion (if she likes other cats). This will give you a pet that you can actually touch and provide companionship and a good example to the shy one. As an extra bonus, if you get your second cat from a shelter or the street, you’re saving two lives instead of one!
  • Here’s an eye-opening statistic: for every person born in the U.S., 15 dogs and 45 cats are also born. It’s no wonder that millions of unwanted pets must be euthanized nationwide in animal shelters each year. There aren’t enough homes for them. Overpopulation in cats is significantly worse than it is in dogs. The number of stray and feral cats in our country can only be reduced through responsible cat guardianship. Spay or neuter your own cat so she doesn’t contribute to the homeless pet problem.