Feral cats 101

Feral cat FAQ page photo

What is a "feral cat" exactly? How are feral cats different from stray animals? And what is the best way to help unowned cats in your community? Here are a few of the questions about feral cats that Animal Humane Society is asked on a regular basis.

Feral cat FAQ

What is a feral cat?

A cat born and raised in the wild, or who has been abandoned or lost and reverted to wild ways in order to survive, is considered a feral cat. Feral cats often live in groups called colonies, and take refuge wherever they can find food—rodents, other small animals, and food scraps. They will seek out abandoned buildings, deserted cars, even dig holes in the ground to keep warm in winter months and cool during the summer heat. Feral cats are not accustomed to contact with people and are too fearful or wild to be handled.

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

A feral cat is primarily wild-raised or has adapted to feral life, while a stray cat is a domesticated pet who is lost or abandoned. Stray pet cats are usually tame and accustomed to contact with people. They will frequently seek out human contact and exhibit behaviors such as meowing or purring. In contrast, feral cats are notably quiet and keep their distance from people. Stray cats will also often try to make a home near humans—in car garages, front porches or backyards.

General differences in appearance and behavior include:

Stray cat

  • May approach you
  • May approach food right away
  • May be vocal
  • May look disheveled
  • May be seen at all hours of the day

Feral cat

  • Will not approach you
  • Will wait until you move away before approaching food
  • Will be silent
  • Will appear groomed
  • Usually nocturnal
What is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?

Trap, Neuter, and Return (TNR) is a comprehensive effort within specific communities to humanely trap, sterilize and return these free-roaming cats to the community, which significantly reduces the number of kittens born in these areas. Feral cats who have been through a Trap-Neuter-Release program will usually have an eartip, which is a universal symbol used to identify sterilized and vaccinated free-roaming cats. The eartip is painlessly performed surgically while the cat is sedated for spay/neuter. Other TNR programs may use ear notches or use the right ear instead of the left. See the next question for information about participating in TNR in your area.

Should I care for feral cats?

Feral cats are generally self-sufficient, independent creatures who rarely need human intervention. But we can work together to ensure that as many as possible are sterilized to prevent overpopulation. Through Animal Humane Society's Community Cats program, any community member can borrow live traps from AHS and live trap feral cats for Trap-Neuter-Return.

To borrow a trap, please visit your nearest AHS location (please note that our trap supply is limited and that traps are available on a first-come, first-served basis). Once you have trapped the cats, call our Pet Helpline at 952-HELP-PET to set up a walk-in appointment for you to bring the cats to AHS. Finders are asked to release cats back to their trapping location after they have recovered from surgery.

Questions? Contact our community cats coordinator at 763-432-4892 or communitycats@animalhumanesociety.org.

How I can care for feral cats in the winter?

While it’s hard to imagine living outdoors during our winters, we know cats have adapted and manage to survive year round. Similar programs have been successfully implemented in all types of climates across the U.S. and Canada. After participating in a TNR program, community members may choose to provide support to sterilized feral cats by offering food, ice-free water in heated water dishes, and access to simple shelters to support them throughout the coldest months. You can help homeless cats within the community by creating outdoor protective shelters made from Rubbermaid totes. See tutorial here.

Do feral cats affect the bird population?

Although feral cats often hunt to survive, studies have shown that the only humane, effective, and sustainable approach to reducing their population is through organized efforts to sterilize and return cats to their environment. When feral cats are simply removed, their absence creates a vacuum effect that invites other unsterilized ferals to replace them and continue breeding. Trapping, neutering, and returning feral cats is the best way to reduce the impact on birds and wildlife by gradually decreasing the cat population over time.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline