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Feral Cat vs Stray Cat: Main Differences (& Socialization Tips)

The term “feral cat” is often thrown around without a fundamental understanding of what “feral” means. Usually, when someone refers to a “feral cat,” they’re actually referring to a stray cat. These terms have different meanings, and it’s essential to keep them separate so we can all better understand what they mean.

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What Is a Feral Cat?

A feral cat has not been socialized with humans or associated with humans so infrequently that they have lost their trust and affection for us. Feral cats have adapted to living outside, alone, and prefer this to a cozy, indoor life.

While a feral cat likely will never become a lap cat who enjoys an indoor life, they may develop a bond with humans who allow them to live on their property and feed them. Additionally, any kittens born to a feral cat can be socialized to humans if they are introduced to human interaction at a young age.

Socializing a feral kitten who is older than four months of age is generally unrecommended by wildlife authorities since the results aren’t guaranteed when the kitten has reached this age without socialization. Therefore, most wildlife authorities prefer the “trap-neuter-release” method when dealing with feral cats.

When using the “trap-neuter-release” method with feral cats, the cat is released back into the community once they’ve healed from their neuter spaying surgery. This prevents them from reproducing and producing more feral cats but doesn’t remove them from the life they prefer.

Wildlife authorities may intervene and take young kittens from a feral mother to socialize and adopt them out into homes where they can live safely indoors.

feral cat on rock
Image Credit: Dimitris Vetsikas, Pixabay

What Is a Stray Cat?

Stray cats have been socialized to live with humans comfortably at some point in their lives but have adapted to living in the wild following a displacement of some kind.

Stray cats lived indoors with humans before being abandoned or accidentally getting loose and running away. While these cats survive outdoors, they may approach humans or “adopt” a new family who embraces them, as their primary socialization was towards an indoor life.

As stray cats continue to live outdoors, they risk becoming feral because their positive socialization with humans will dwindle. While people fawn over pet cats, they tend to view stray cats as nuisance animals, and these negative interactions may push a stray cat away from indoor life.

However, some stray cats can be reacclimated to indoor life. At first, they may be wary or fearful of humans as they’ve spent so much time away from them. But their primary socialization should kick back in once they realize they aren’t in danger.

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What Is Socialization?

A cat socialized to people will be acclimated to and enjoy companionship with humans. Socializing a cat requires you to acclimate the cat to human touch, spaces, and interaction. They won’t be afraid of the sights, smells, and sounds associated with living with people (except maybe the vacuum cleaner!)

Socialization requires interaction with the kitten from an early age to teach the kitten that humans aren’t to be feared. If a kitten isn’t socialized in this critical development window, they may become fearful of humans and will never be accustomed to being touched and interacted with. A feral cat will rarely be happy living in a home with humans because of this lack of socialization.

a woman holding a ragdoll kitten in her arms
Image Credit: Václav Závada, Pixabay

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The 5 Ways How to Socialize Your Kitten (Even Feral Ones!)

Socialization must start at a young age to be successful. Kittens older than four months have spotty success with socialization as they’ve missed their critical development window for socialization. If you have a kitten, here are the steps you need to take to socialize your kitten with humans properly.

1. Help the Kitten Feel Comfortable

Create a safe space for the kitten in your home where they can be alone. When the kitten is alone, they know all the risks and variables of their surroundings, and they’ll be more likely to relax.

This approach is critical if you have other animals. For example, a kitten who has been taken from their colony or mother will feel uncomfortable at first before they learn to trust the other animals in the house, including the people.

Make sure your kitten’s crate is off the floor. Cats feel safer when they’re higher up off the floor and can easily see more of their surroundings. When your kitten can relax, they’ll be able to see that humans aren’t something to be feared.

When you first start interacting with your kitten, move slowly and speak softly. Sudden movements and loud sounds will frighten the kitten and make it harder for them to learn to trust you.

maine coon kitten in a cat tree
Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock
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2. Get the Kitten Used to the Sounds of People

Once the kitten has had a few days to relax and get used to being in your care, try leaving a TV or radio on. This helps the kitten get used to the sounds of people in the vicinity and makes them feel less guarded when hearing you or your family talking nearby.

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3. Socialize with Food

Food is a great way to show goodwill to animals. Every animal understands food, and giving your kitten food while you’re nearby helps them learn to associate people with food and create positive connections to people for the kitten.

white kitten eating food from a white plate
Image Credit: Inga Gedrovicha, Shutterstock
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4. Reward Kittens Who Are Social

Like any other animal, kittens develop positive feelings towards positive interactions and those who drive them. So, if a kitten comes over for a cuddle or wants to play with you, don’t be afraid to reward them to show them you like that!

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5. Socialize with Play

Playing with the kittens helps them learn to trust you. Two hours of daily play can help the kittens learn that people are part of their colony and should be treated as friends!

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Final Thoughts

The difference between a stray and feral cat is most important to wildlife rescuers. When we properly report the state of a cat’s life to them, they can more appropriately intervene to give the cat what they need to thrive.

Unfortunately, socializing a feral cat isn’t possible most of the time. However, we can still do what we can to make their outdoor lives more comfortable after we trap-neuter-release them.

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Featured Image Credit: Gansstock, Shutterstock