article written by Patty of Catcalls
Photographs & captions by Chriss Haight Pagani
Many shelters will be celebrating National Feral Cat Day through spay/neuter opportunities, awareness programs, and other types of fundraisers. An important note here is that feral cats ARE domestic cats just like stray and pet cats are. The difference lies in how each of these relates to humans. A stray cat was once a social animal, abandoned or perhaps lost, and can be resocialized and adopted. Even a feral kitten, if caught young enough, can be socialized and made into a good pet. But a true feral cat will never interact well with people and is, therefore, to be left in the wild. It, like all wild cats, has a place in the world as a created species and has a right to share space in nature along with the big cats.
Socialized cats are cats that are friendly toward people. Kittens who are held, played with, fed, and in the presence of humans will grow up to be social. If these interactions do not occur while the cat is in it's kitten phase, it becomes almost impossible to penetrate the fear and anxiety the cat will have developed. A stray cat has the potential of rebonding with humans since it was raised in that environment, but the feral cat will only bond with the members of it's own cat community and remain wary of people. It is highly unlikely that he will ever be relaxed in a home environment and will always prefer the outdoor life.
It is not easy to tell a feral from a stray. In our eyes, they all look the same. Yet for those immersed in cat rescue and adoption, it is helpful to know if these 'neighborhood strays' are really strays that can be returned to a loving home or ferals that should be trapped, neutered, and released back into their colony. Here are a few helpful hints. Try to do your observing while the cat is in it's own environment and not after you have trapped it. He will not be acting normal after being captured. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather helps. If several of these characteristics are present, you may well have a stray that has been living with ferals.
1. Any cat that approaches you that you can pet is probably not a feral.
2. A cat that approaches houses, cars, and porches is more likely to be a stray. Ferals will usually stay clear of such things and prefer to hide.
3. Strays tend to be alone. Ferals are more likely to be in a colony.
4. Strays may look at you, blink, or make eye contact. They may have their tail up which is a friendly gesture. Ferals tend to crawl, crouch, stay low to the ground, and protect their body with their tail. They generally avoid eye contact.
5. Strays will be more vocal. A meow or purr to your questions is possible. Ferals are quiet and prefer silence.
6. Strays will go out during the day; ferals prefer night.
7. A stray may appear very disheveled and unkempt. A feral will be much better groomed, like a cat in the wild would be. Males may have a bigger head, thicker neck, and a few scars from fights since only about 2% of ferals are neutered. High testosterone levels may produce a spiked hair look, 'stud' tail- hair loss, greasiness, or bumps at the base of the tail due to hormones.
If you have trapped the cat, the confined behavior displayed also varies between strays and ferals. A feral is basically untouchable. He will remain tense and unsocial, ignore people, toys, and maybe even food. He is likely to stay at the back of the cage and may even rattle, shake, or climb the cage if frightened. He will not respond to any household sounds and be much more likely to be aggressive and lash out with ears back and eyes dilated. A stray, on the other hand, may be approachable and allow you to touch him. He may come to the front fo the cage, even rubbing up against it. Over time he will relax and may play with toys. The sound of cat food cans or bags may arouse interest. Hissing or growling is likely if frightened.
"LowJack was very shy but potentially
adoptable early in his life.
Like too many kitties, though, he didn't find a home
and ended up remaining with the feral colony."
Once you have determined what kind of cat you have, follow up with appropriate action.
For scared stray cats, everything possible should be done to maximize their chances of adoption into a home. For calm stray cats, it will be easier to find them a good adoptive home. For feral kittens, get them on a good socialization schedule to prepare them for adoption. For feral cats, return them to their colony home outdoors as soon as possible. Of course, your local shelter is the place to get help from.
By educating ourselves and others about the characteristics of a feral cat, perhaps we can begin to change some of the negative attitudes and cruel treatment that often accompanies their kind. Perhaps we can help find homes for the non-ferals, trap and release the ferals back into their natural environment, and change the mindset that they are useless, good-for-nothing menaces. Trapping, neutering, releasing, and perhaps even relocating colonies are all helpful life-giving ways of allowing the feral cat to co-exist on his own little piece of the planet.
Check to see what your local shelter has planned for National Feral Cat Day... And if there are kitties roaming your neighborhood, get a notebook, take your list, get your binoculars, and start your own cat watch !