Facts about the animal kingdom

What is a Feral Cat?

Josie F. Turner
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. May 22, 2024
What is a Feral Cat?

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Have you ever encountered a wary cat lurking on the edges of your neighborhood, seemingly wild and untamed? These are likely feral cats, descendants of domesticated cats who have adapted to a life in the wild. Unlike cuddly house cats, feral cats exhibit distinct characteristics and behaviors that are the result of their lifestyle. Unlike their domestic counterparts, feral cats have forged their own path, adapting to the challenges of survival in outdoor environments without reliance on human companionship.

In this Animalwised article, we'll explore what feral cats are, their specific traits, how they differ from domestic cats, and even the possibility of offering them a loving home.

You may also be interested in: Differences Between Feral and Wild Cats
  1. What are feral cats?
  2. What is the difference between a feral cat and a domesticated cat?
  3. What is the difference between a feral cat and a stray cat?
  4. What is the difference between a feral cat and a barn cat?
  5. Can a feral cat be domesticated?
  6. How to calm a feral cat?

What are feral cats?

Feral cats are domesticated cats (Felis catus) that have reverted to living in the wild for multiple generations. Unlike stray cats, which may have once been pets but still retain some level of human interaction, feral cats are fearful of humans and avoid contact at all costs. In other words, they are not socialized to humans and exhibit wild behaviors focused on survival.

It is important to note that feral cats are not domesticated cats that have recently become wild. They are the descendants of domesticated cats that have lived in the wild for multiple generations. Over time, these cats have adapted to a wild lifestyle, losing their socialization with humans and exhibiting strong hunting instincts for survival.

Feral cats become feral through a combination of factors including abandonment, lack of socialization, reliance on survival instincts, formation of feral colonies, adaptation to the environment and loss of dependency on humans.

Because of these factors, feral cat communities evolve over time. Traits that aid survival in the wild, like strong hunting instincts and disease resistance, get passed on more often. This "survival of the fittest" leads to a gradual genetic shift in the feral population. Over generations, this can result in physical changes (leaner bodies, thicker fur) and behavioral ones (increased wariness, stronger hunting skills) that distinguish feral cats from their domesticated relatives.

Even though feral and domestic cats exhibit significant differences in behavior and appearance, they are still the same species, Felis catus.

Discover some fun facts about cats in our next piece.

What is a Feral Cat? - What are feral cats?

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

The biggest indicator lies in their behavior. Feral cats will avoid humans at all costs, often displaying defensive behaviors like hissing, swatting, or scratching if approached. In contrast, domestic cats may be curious or wary but are less likely to show aggression. They might even approach humans for food or attention. In this sense, Socialization, especially among kittens, is another telling factor. Feral kittens are very skittish and unlikely to approach humans, while domestic kittens may be curious or playful, particularly if they have been exposed to human interaction from a young age.

When it comes to activity levels, feral cats are typically more active at dawn and dusk, which are prime hunting times. On the other hand, the activity level of domestic cats can vary depending on the individual cat.

Appearance also provides clues. Feral cats may have matted or unkempt fur, appear thinner due to inconsistent food sources, and might have injuries or scars from fights. Domestic cats usually have well-groomed fur, maintain a healthy weight, and generally lack visible injuries unless they have recently been adopted.

Looking at their eyes can also help. Feral cats often have bright, alert eyes with pupils that dilate widely in low light. Domestic cats' eyes are more relaxed, with pupils that adjust to different light levels.

Considering the location where the cat is found can offer additional insights. Feral cats are more likely to be found in outdoor areas with access to shelter and food sources, such as abandoned buildings or parks. Domestic cats are generally found near houses or human settlements.

Feral cats often form colonies with other feral cats, typically consisting of females related by blood and their offspring. These colonies can range in size from a few cats to dozens, providing a social structure that aids in their survival. In contrast, domestic cats are more likely to live solitary lives or within human households.

It's important to remember that these are general guidelines. Some feral cats may be bolder than others, and some stray cats might be quite timid.

Learn more about what cats eat in our next article, contrasting the hunting strategies of feral cats with the dietary needs of domesticated breeds.

What is a Feral Cat? - What is the difference between a feral cat and a domesticated cat?

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

While both live outside and often without direct human care, their backgrounds and socialization levels differ significantly.

Feral cats are typically the descendants of domesticated cats that have lived in the wild for multiple generations. Over time, they have adapted to a wild lifestyle and have had little to no human interaction, making them unsocialized to humans. They are essentially wild animals, having been born and raised without human contact.

Stray cats are domestic cats that have been lost or abandoned. Unlike feral cats, strays have had human interaction and are generally socialized to people. They remember their human connections and may seek out human companionship and assistance. This means they may still seek out human interaction and have the potential to be re-adapted to living indoors.

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

As mentioned, feral cats are the descendants of domesticated cats that have lived in the wild for multiple generations. In contrast, barn cats are domesticated cats that are specifically kept to control pests in agricultural settings such as farms, barns, or stables. They may be former stray or feral cats that have been socialized to some extent, or domestic cats accustomed to outdoor living.

While barn cats may be wary of humans, they are more tolerant of human presence compared to feral cats. They may exhibit hunting behaviors to control pests, but may also rely on human-provided food and shelter.

When it comes to habitat, barn cats live primarily in agricultural settings where they have access to shelter in barns or outbuildings and opportunities to hunt rodents and other pests.

What is a Feral Cat? - What is the difference between a feral cat and a barn cat?

Can a feral cat be domesticated?

The possibility of domesticating a feral cat hinges on various factors, primarily its age and level of socialization with humans.

  • Kittens: kittens under 8 weeks old have a much higher chance of being successfully socialized and adopted into loving homes. This is because they are still in a critical socialization window where they can learn to trust humans.

  • Young adults (up to 1 year): feral cats in this age range might be cautiously curious about humans and could potentially be socialized with a lot of patience and expertise.

  • Adult cats (over 1 year): the chances of successfully domesticating an adult feral cat become significantly lower. They are deeply ingrained with their wild instincts and may be too fearful of humans to adapt to a home environment.

Additional considerations include temperament, as some feral cats, even kittens, may have a naturally more timid or aggressive disposition, making socialization more challenging. Experience with humans also plays a role, as feral cats who have had minimal negative interactions with humans might be more open to socialization efforts. Furthermore, experienced shelters or rescues often have staff trained in handling feral cats and assessing their potential for adoption.

The process of domesticating a feral cat requires a dedicated approach with distinct stages:

Trap and observation

The first step involves humanely trapping the cat. This allows for a thorough health check and assessment of its temperament. Highly fearful behavior suggests a lower chance of domestication, while cautious curiosity indicates more potential. This initial evaluation helps determine the cat's suitability for domestication.

It is crucial for a vet to perform a health check, including vaccinations, and assess temperament.

Shelter and care

Once trapped, the cat is provided with a safe and comfortable haven. This includes a clean shelter, readily available food and water, and a litter box. This comfortable environment helps the cat feel secure and reduces stress levels, which is crucial for building trust.

Gradual socialization

The final stage involves slowly introducing the cat to positive human interaction. This is a gradual process that can take weeks or even months. Caregivers approach the cat in a controlled manner, using gentle handling and positive reinforcement techniques. Patience and understanding are key during this phase as the cat adjusts to human presence.

Learn more about the challenges indoor cats face, especially those with a feral past, in our next article.

What is a Feral Cat? - Can a feral cat be domesticated?

How to calm a feral cat?

After the visit to the veterinary center, if the professional has given you approval and guidelines to follow to be able to welcome it into your home, the best way to calm a feral cat is to leave it in an isolated place , in a single room in the house. , preferably without noise or other animals. You should avoid touching the cat , as it may attack out of extreme fear, injuring the person trying to care for it.

Offer him food and water by moving away from him so that he feels safer and accepts the food. Try talking to him for a few seconds, softly, so that he begins to get used to your voice. Never force contact , let the animal feel safe first. Leaving it without the presence of people and other animals in the initial phase can be very important to avoid trauma and generate phobias. The use of anxiolytics and antidepressants should be guided by a veterinarian, who will know if it is really necessary.

In this article we answer: " Can you give diazepam to cats? ".

Kittens learn after birth to choose a preferred nipple to suck on, through trial and error, in addition to learning to avoid and escape from unpleasant situations. Cats are capable of learning through observation and association, in which the individual uses the information acquired through one problem to solve another. The factors that motivate the kitten's learning can define the ability and behavior of the adult cat.

A puppy born to a mother who is afraid of people may be afraid because it inherited this characteristic from its mother, because it learned to be afraid of humans by observing its mother's behavior, because it was not exposed enough to human contact during the period. of socialization or even by the sum of all these factors. The experiences and stimuli in the animal's childhood influence the behavior and health of adult cats, which may or may not become animals capable of coexisting with other species.

Cat socialization is divided into four periods: neonatal period, transition period, primary socialization period, and late socialization period. The experiences of these phases can cause permanent consequences in the cat, since the period of primary socialization is critical, influencing the mental and emotional behavior of the adult in the long term. The period of primary socialization, which goes from the third week of life to the eighth, is the phase in which social games and the first bonds with animals of the same and different species occur, being the most important period of life. of the cat. After this phase, it is more difficult to accustom a cat to other species, as they develop fear, phobia and aggression.

So is it possible to tame a wild cat? It will be a difficult task, but not impossible . If the animal is weak, sick or malnourished, approaching it will be easier. The first challenge will be to capture it and take it home, which must be protected with screens and protective nets to avoid accidents. During the first days it is advisable to leave the cat somewhere closed, such as a room, with food, water and a place to hide (a cardboard box can help a lot at this stage). When he feels safe in his environment, little by little he will seek to have more contact with the person who feeds him. It is important to talk to the cat so that it adapts to your voice and feels safe. The use of synthetic pheromones can help in the task, in addition to a lot of patience, perseverance and affection. You can find them available on platforms such as Amazon: Buy feline pheromones .

In this video we help you treat fear in cats, including feral ones:

If you want to read similar articles to What is a Feral Cat?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

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  • Florentino, FDS (2022). Cognitive behavioral therapy for feline anxiety disorder: a case report.
  • CED Manual, Capture, sterilization and return of free-living felines. Animal Protection. Available at https://mvabrigosbrasil.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Manual-de-CED_FINAL_abril.22.pdf. Access on 09/20/2023.
  • DANTAS, LMDS (2010). Social behavior of domestic cats and their relationship with a veterinary medical clinic and animal welfare. Niterói: Faculdade de Veterinária, Universidade Federal Fluminense .
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What is a Feral Cat?