What Are Feral Cats?

By Dr. Robert Wallace

December 19, 2020 5 min read

DR. WALLACE: I'm 16 years old, and my job at our house is to take out the trash. There's a neighborhood cat that constantly knocks over our trash cans, and I end up being the one who always has to clean the mess up.

It's disgusting and gross! I've asked around our neighborhood to see who owns this cat so that they can hopefully keep it inside more often and maybe feed it more, too! That way, this big, disgusting cat won't always be snooping around our trash cans to get a free meal. I have a small pet dog that lives inside, so this big cat has no fear snooping through our trash bins.

After two weeks of asking around, nobody has claimed to own that cat, and nobody has even remembered seeing it. I've come to realize this cat might be homeless, so I'd like to help it and maybe even give it a home at our house. However, my dad said maybe it's a feral cat, which wouldn't work out for any of us, including the cat. What's a feral cat? — Curious about Cats, via email

CURIOUS ABOUT CATS: Your question is one I do receive from time to time, and many teens are unaware of the differences between the usual domesticated cats that some families keep as pets and feral cats that live in the world on their own. To begin with, pet and stray cats are socialized to people, but feral cats are not socialized to people.

Feral cats are socialized to other feral cats, and they bond with one another, but they do not have that same relationship with people.

A great organization, Alley Cat Allies, provides assistance, resources and rescue for many types of cats. Visit their website (https://www.alleycat.org) to learn a lot more about cats. All pets, and even many wild animals, have felt an impact due to COVID-19. The pandemic has impacted humans, which, in turn, has created a domino effect through the animal world. Here are some very interesting facts about the differences between domesticated cats and feral cats, as outlined by Alley Cat Allies:


— A stray cat is a cat that 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, a stray cat can also become a pet cat once again. Stray cats that are reintroduced to a home after living outdoors may require a period of time to reacclimate; they may be frightened and wary after spending time outside away from people.

— Here is another definition from "Stray Cat Handbook" that may help: "A stray cat is a domestic cat that has been abandoned or has 'strayed' from home and become 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.

— In general, it's not recommended to try to socialize a feral kitten over 4 months of age. However, there is a gray area in which the personality of the individual cat comes into play. Between 4 and 8 months of age, if the kitten is showing meaningful signs of social behavior, you may decide to place the kitten in a foster home for socialization and eventual adoption. But if the kitten does not show progressing signs of socialization within a week or so, it is best she is returned to her feline family outdoors.

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.

— Feral cats are returned to their outdoor home after being trapped and neutered. Socialized cats and kittens can be adopted into homes.

Dr. Robert Wallace welcomes questions from readers. Although he is unable to reply to all of them individually, he will answer as many as possible in this column. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Dr. Robert Wallace and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: susannp4 at Pixabay

Like it? Share it!

  • 0

'Tween 12 & 20
About Dr. Robert Wallace
Read More | RSS | Subscribe