Let’s get basic:
- What’s a feral cat?
- Are cats really domesticated?
- Are feral cats dangerous?
- How are feral cats different from indoor cats?
- Do feral cats cause disease or carry rabies?
- Can feral cats be tamed?
Let’s look at some common misconceptions that people have about feral cats.
If you’re confused by something, please don’t hesitate to write a comment or email me asking questions! You help make me a better writer, educator, and advocate!
PS: If you don’t want to read the whole article and just want quick answers, skip to the bottom of the page for a quick summary list and FAQ section!
The Definition of Feral
Feral is a term that means “existing in a wild state.” This term is used with domestic animals that are now wild animals. Simple right? Feral cats are wild cats existing in nature. They rely on human settlements for food and shelter, but they are still wild animals.
Feral animals are usually the offspring of tame domesticated animals that have never been socialized to humans. Not all outdoor cats are feral. Not all scared cats are feral. Some might be considered semi-feral.
There are more feral animals than most people realize in the wild. The list includes:
- There are feral pigeons living among wild pigeons (or rock doves) in cities.
- Horses (what Americans call Mustangs or others call ‘wild horses’) and Donkeys
- Dromedary camels
- Water buffalo
- Honey bees
Feral pigeons were the ones that really surprised me. I hadn’t realized that pigeons in cities are a mix of wild and feral domestic pigeons. Domestic pigeons are more varied in color and often have a mixture of other colors. Like cats! Wild pigeons are a uniform grey color with a black band around the neck. If a pigeon is any other color or combination of colors, it is a feral domestic pigeon.
Sheep are rarely seen in a feral state as they are severely vulnerable to predation and injury. Except for one particular breed, the Soay sheep.
The word feral does not refer to escaped zoo animals like lions or tigers, as they are not domesticated nor do they come from domestic bloodlines.
Yes, plants can be feral too!
Are Cats Really Domesticated?
There is some debate on whether cats are truly domesticated or not. As they have only been living with humans a relatively short period of time compared to dogs and cattle. And they don’t display a lot of the signs of domestication that other species do. Things like floppy ears and coat variations and blunter teeth, etc. are only present in domestic animals and is known as domestication syndrome.
These domestic traits were first thought to have been specifically bred by humans, but after an experiment with foxes bred for temperament only, not appearance, scientists believe that it is a side effect of domestication, not a purposeful one. Wild foxes were selectively bred for temperament (i.e. the less aggressive foxes were bred with less aggressive foxes) which ended up producing foxes with different coat patterns and other characteristics. They call it domestication syndrome in plants, too. If you’re interested in the science and evolution of domestication, you can read that here.
The first actual sign of domestication syndrome in cats was the blotched tabby. The first actual intentional breeding by humans was less than a 1,000 years ago. Cats have lived among us for thousands of years and they did so on their own, catching mice and rats that human settlements attracted. Humans welcomed them. But their domestication is a relatively new development.
For this reason, it’s relatively easy for cats to revert back to the ‘wild’. They are not much different from the wild cats they descended from. So without human contact and socialization, they revert back to the state that cats have lived in for thousands of years even while living alongside humans.
Cats are believed to have domesticated themselves around 9,200 thousand years ago. No one knows for sure exactly. Dogs are believed to be domesticated 15,000 to 40,000 years ago. Humans have also been selectively breeding dogs for nearly as long, which is why you see such a wide variety of dog breeds.
So are cats really domesticated? Who knows! But for the sake of argument, let’s say cats are domesticated because they’ve been selectively bred the past thousand years and are starting to show traits of domestication finally. Thus when they go back to the ‘wild’ they are considered feral.
Keep in mind, however, that they are the exact same cat as your pet cat and their offspring can be easily tamed if socialized at a young age. It gets harder the older they are. (There is a window of opportunity to socialize kittens. That window – and thus success rate – starts closing after 12 weeks old.) But there is no difference between an unsocialized cat and your pet, Fluffy, except lack of human contact.
How Do You Tell if a Cat is Feral?
It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between truly feral cats with no human socialization and a very scared stray (or friendly outdoor) cat without prolonged contact. So how can you tell the difference? The following behaviors should help!
(Not all cats are exactly alike, so keep in mind this is a guideline not a concrete set of rules.)
- Avoid humans (may be rarely seen and will run if approached)
- Won’t eat in front of you
- Won’t meow or make any vocalizations at you
- Will cower or slink low to the ground in an attempt to hide from humans
- Never seen during the day
- Cannot be touched, even by the caregiver. (Petting is alien to them)
- Once trapped, feral cats will cower in the back of the cage (perhaps growling or with ears back)
- Remain unsocial and tense, not relaxed
- Will meow at humans
- Will approach humans, usually with the tail high in the air
- Will be visible in the day
- Can be eventually touched and accepts petting without confusion
- Once trapped, strays are more likely to approach the front of the cage. May even rub against the side of the cage.
- Will relax over time
If you end up taming an adult cat, it likely wasn’t feral in the first place. I’ve done it, but after months and months, she still jumps and turns around to find out what my hand is doing when I pet her. She likely was only semi-feral though, socialized to be around her caretaker, but not handled much.
Not all outdoor cats are feral. Some are semi-feral, some are strays (lost or abandoned pets), some are community cats socialized well but have always been outdoors, and then there are the ferals. The ferals are the ones you won’t see very often.
Are Feral Cats Dangerous?
Feral cats are not dangerous to humans. True feral cats will actively avoid humans to the point of being nearly invisible, except for perhaps their caretaker. Feral cats will not let you approach them. They will run from you immediately.
You’re not likely to get attacked by a raccoon when you take out the trash, right? Feral cats are similar in size and are in no way about to attack a human being so much bigger than they are. Cats are both predator and prey, so have evolved both predator and prey behavior in the wild.
Attacking a human being is akin to a Chihuahua attacking a Great Dane. They aren’t going to attack humans.
The only time a feral cat could become a danger to you is if you corner or trap one, and then decide to stick your hand in there. It’ll be purely defensive, but they’re going to be scared and acting aggressively in an effort to make you, the predator, back off.
Feral Cats and Rabies
Feral cats are more likely to be in contact with animals carrying rabies such as raccoons, bats, skunks, foxes and coyotes in the United States than dogs, but are less likely to interact with people. The US has a lower rate of ownerless free-roaming unvaccinated dogs which is why human rabies is actually rare here. Only 23 cases of human rabies were reported in the last decade according to the CDC and 8 of those cases were because of infection out of the country.
The most common cause of human rabies in the US is bats. The most common cause of rabies in dogs and livestock is raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Cows are more likely to get rabies than other livestock.
In developing countries where rabies is still prevalent, free-roaming dogs are the most serious threat to people. Cats often contract rabies from dogs in these countries, but according to the World Health Organization (WHO) 99% of human cases come from dogs.
All mammals can be infected with rabies. When working with feral cats, it is better to avoid being bitten in the first place, as the virus is transmitted via saliva. If you do get bitten, seek immediate medical attention. If not given a rabies vaccination soon after being infected, rabies is almost always fatal.
But the risk of rabies from feral cats is very, very small. You’re more likely to be infected by a bat or by traveling abroad than by taking care of ferals. But the risk is still there, so avoid petting scared and trapped cats.
There are two ways to determine if an animal has transmitted rabies to a victim. Euthanizing the animal and performing a necropsy (autopsy in animals) is one way. Quarantine for 10 days is an option available when the animal is a domestic pet, like a dog or cat, is the other.
If you do get bit, seek medical treatment immediately. Your doctor can help determine if you need a rabies vaccination series immediately or not. If you do not want to see a doctor, trap the cat and keep him or her quarantined for 10 days. Rabies is only contagious when it starts affecting the brain. If the cat is still alive and showing no signs of illness after 10 days, you’re good. If he falls ill or dies, seek immediate treatment. Rabies shots are not fun, but it’s better than dying from rabies.
If you cannot find the cat to keep an eye on him or her for 10 days, seek immediate medical treatment.
This is another reason why Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is useful in stopping the spread of rabies as all community cats trapped are given rabies vaccinations. If the cat who bit you has already been TNR’d, it is unlikely you’ve been exposed to rabies. Animals that have been vaccinated at some point in their lives very, very rarely contract the virus. Vaccines can fail though, so still, be vigilant!
I’ve never been bitten, even handling traps. Get your entire colony vaccinated for rabies, it’s important. Be sure to get your pets vaccinated too!
Do Feral Cats Cause Disease?
Not any more often than pets do, honestly. Unless you’re planning on headed out to play in feral cat poo, you’re probably fine. Feral cats are more likely to have parasites than indoor-only cats that are taken to a vet regularly but not much more likely. A lot of people’s pets come down with the usual parasites: roundworm and hookworm and heartworm and coccidia and giardia, too. Especially in shelters, rescues and foster situations where multiple cats might interact.
Owning an animal comes with a small risk of zoonotic disease. I find it asinine that people use this argument to propose destroying feral cats. Raccoons are a very common source of rabies. They aren’t being eradicated. Dogs are the most common cause of human rabies in the world. We aren’t proposing destroying millions of feral dogs, right? Just because they MIGHT infect us.
Use common sense. Wash your hands after handling cats, after cleaning litter boxes, and after gardening. That said, according to a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association, owned cats are the cause of most fecal matter in gardens, not feral cats. If you come down with a bug and go to the doctor, be sure to mention you care for cats. It will help with diagnostics or rule out anything.
Plus, as I said, feral cats avoid humans. They aren’t likely to let you touch them. Your pet cat or dog is more likely to give you something.
Are Feral Cats Healthy or Happy?
Feral cats have the same instances of disease that pet cats do, according to a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Another study concluded that feral cats and pet cats have the same level of health in regard to parasites.
Do cats do better with access to veterinary care? Of course. But feral cats aren’t any sicker than pet cats are. The problems arise when kittens are born in the wild as the majority of kittens will die from parasites and predation, sadly. Only half of feral kittens survive to adulthood.
If anyone observes unowned and free-roaming cats outdoors, they are very happy. Especially if they’ve been fixed and no longer concerned with mating and fighting for mates. But these cats are basically wildlife now.
It’s not re-abandoning them by returning feral cats to their outdoor home as most cats outside have never HAD a home. They grew up out there and forcing that cat into a strange indoor environment is stressful and does not usually lead to a happy cat. You wouldn’t do this to a raccoon or a coyote right? Even if they would be safer? Feral cats are wild animals, too.
Cats only became indoor pets because of the invention of cat litter in 1947! Cats have been indoor-only for less than 100 years! Is it any wonder there are so many cats still outside? This is also why people are still letting their cats out. It is also why proper stimulation is a must-have for any indoor-only cat. Cats have yet to fully acclimate to indoor-only life.
Are raccoons unhappy outside? Are the mice in your shed unhappy?
Yes, they would be safer inside, away from any possibility of danger, but so would your kids. You still have to put your offspring on the bus. If people lived in bubbles, they wouldn’t be catching the flu or AIDS or getting malaria or dying in a plane accident. We don’t live in bubbles, though, and outdoor cats don’t either. Indoor cats do live in isolation, which does equate less exposure to unhealthy microbes and fewer accidents and injuries.
They’re happy outside. They are at more risk of accident or other causes of death, but they’re happy and healthy. Their lifespan is slightly reduced because of high kitten mortality rate in feral cats and the higher accident and predation, but it is not rare at all to have colony cats passing away at 15 or 17.
Feral animals are simply wild versions of domesticated animals and they live like wild animals. We release rehabilitated wildlife back to nature all the time. There are risks that they could be eaten the next day, right? It’s nature.
It’s not a happy conclusion, but it’s a natural one. It hurts us caretakers each time one of our cats goes missing or passes, even if that cat was feral and never came close.
If a feral kitten can be socialized and homed inside, absolutely get them inside and pampered as pets. Older, friendly strays? They’re usually MISERABLE when lost without a family. Get them homes. Friendly community cats that want to be indoors? Find them a home. But feral cats? They can be brought inside, but they aren’t going to tame easily, if at all, and they aren’t going to be happy with it.
This is a different debate, however. Happy vs. Healthy. I’ll go over that one in a later post.
How to Help Reduce the Feral Cat Problem
If you want to help feral cats, visit my Save a Cat post for quick tips on what to do to help your neighborhood feline and his friends!
Tips on Helping Reduce the Feral Cat Problem:
- Get your pets fixed! (Yes, especially the cats, but dogs need it too!)
- Encourage your neighbors, friends, family members, coworkers, whoever, to do the same. Fix those pet cats!
- Report people abandoning their cats and unwanted kittens outside to the proper authorities. It’s illegal to abandon your pet in all states! (Check out animal cruelty laws by state.)
- If you feed a cat colony, you need to get them fixed.
- Socialize feral kittens for adoption
- Get homes for the friendly strays in your colony!
- Keep managing your cat colony in case of a new (and unfixed) addition to the feline family
- Volunteer at shelters, feral cat groups, foster!
- Advocate for spaying and neutering or Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)
This last option is one that is growing in popularity around the United States: Trap Neuter Return (TNR). This is a program in which feral cats are trapped, neutered and vaccinated, and then returned to their outdoor homes to live out the rest of their lives, usually under a dedicated colony caretaker.
The TNR Controversy
There are people who oppose Trap Neuter Return (TNR) policies and suggest feral cats should be rounded up and taken to shelters. Which is basically saying they should be killed. Before the implementation of TNR in various communities, the feral cats brought into shelters had a euthanasia rate of 100%. Feral cats brought into local shelters also increased the total number of cats euthanized to over 95% in some areas. Coming into a shelter was a death sentence for any cat, stray or feral.
Proponents even propose ludicrous ideas of cat sanctuaries, as if that were a viable alternative. There are 70 million (or more) feral cats in the United States by some estimates. The current shelters in the US don’t have space for the pet cats people abandon. Where do they propose the funding for feral sanctuaries come from? There would need to be a cat sanctuary in every community across the entire country and each sanctuary would need to be home to thousands of cats.
Anyone who understands cats will understand this is not going to be a great alternative. The stress alone would cause health problems. Overcrowding will cause diseases and upper respiratory infections. The cost alone would enormous. TNR isn’t a free-roaming cat movement where caretakers WANT cats outside. TNR is a movement against cat deaths. If we could safely and effectively create millions of cat sanctuaries, this would already be done.
Why are they against TNR? Because of studies that blame cats for declining bird and animal species. I’ve read the studies and I find it interesting that they are so flawed and yet quoted all the time. Cats are opportunistic eaters and will hunt or scavenge for meat, definitely. They are obligate carnivores which means they absolutely must eat meat. Most of their prey, IF they hunt, is rodents, however. Birds are rarer, but it happens. Cats well-fed at home or by a caretaker, will hunt less than a cat who is hunting for food.
In island ecosystems, I will agree that feral cats are decimating the small mammals and ground-dwelling birds as is suggested in New Zealand and other islands. But in other areas, like the US? I call BS. So does Alley Cat Allies and Stray Pet Advocacy and their view of the Cat Predation Studies.
Anti-TNR people just don’t want to admit they’re calling for the deaths of millions of animals that America thinks of as pets. Sanctuaries won’t work. But if it could work, cat lovers would be all for it ages ago.
Feral cats are simply a scapegoat, at this point. No one can do anything directly about the destruction of the birds’ habitat by humans. They can’t reduce pollution that kills birds. They can’t ban skyscrapers and high-rise buildings that kill birds. In fact, rodents kill more birds than cats do.
Those people who are against TNR don’t actually understand it. They think we want to ‘abandon’ them outside, as they call it. Feral cats are wild animals and the kindest solution is to bring them back to their outdoor homes. We socialize and adopt kittens out (already fixed, of course), so that is less cats in the colony. We find homes for friendly strays and community cats, which is also less cats in the colony.
The only cats returned to their outdoor homes are those that cannot be adopted. We’re trying to save cats lives, not promote an outdoor cat movement. We keep our OWN pets indoors (unless you’re like me and adopted a barn cat or two, instead). For feral cats, being returned outside gives them a chance to live happy, healthy lives however long it will be. Going to a shelter is a death sentence.
Also consider that killing feral cats has been the norm for decades, if not centuries, and this has not helped the problem at all. It’s time for something new.
National Geographic has a nice article that is plenty of unbiased that presents both sides to the equation. Decide for yourself.
Kitten Socialization is Part of TNR Efforts Too!
You can help socialize feral kittens for adoption into homes if you like playing with kittens. At 5 or 6 weeks old, they can be tamed overnight.
I tamed one in seconds before, simply because the little girl was separated from mama and her litter in the middle of a bad thunderstorm. She hissed at me just the day before. So tiny. So cute. But scared and alone. When I leaned my fingers towards her, she sniffed them. When I pet her cheek and she realized I wasn’t going to hurt her, she bonded, BOOM. Seconds. She followed me out into the rain, crying. Let me pick her up. Didn’t hiss or bite.
She was 4 or 5 weeks and was completely feral before that. No socialization other than living near humans. If they’re young, it’s easy. It took me months with kittens that were around 5 months old, and they still weren’t great with other people. They’re nearly 10 months now, I would guess? Maybe almost a year, and one is not scared of any humans anymore, but he’s not what you’d call friendly to anyone but me.
The older the unsocialized kitten, the harder it is, but it can be done. They deserve to be pampered pets if possible. If not and they’re miserable inside and don’t want to live with humans? Return them to their home after neutering and vaccinations. It’s the kindest thing to do.
Too Long, Didn’t Read Summary
In case you didn’t read this whole article because your attention span is the length of a two-year-olds (don’t worry, we’ve all been there).
- Feral cats are not socialized to humans and are wild animals that are descended from domestic ones
- If a cat won’t approach, is rarely around, won’t eat in front of you or meow at you, he likely is feral.
- Feral cats are not dangerous as they mostly avoid humans
- Ferals are not any more likely to spread disease than your pet cat will, as all animals carry bacteria, prone to rabies and parasites.
- Outdoor cats are not sickly or unhappy, though have a higher injury and death rates because of accidents, cars, and predation
- Reduce feral cats by:
- fixing your pets and advocating for your neighbors, friends, and family to do so.
- Report people for abandoning cats and kittens in the wild
- Participate in Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) of feral cats.
- Socialize, desex, and adopt out the kittens.
- Find homes for friendly cats that are adoptable
- Donate to local spay and neuter clinics or feral cat groups.
- Volunteer to help TNR colonies or TNR nonprofits
- Keep managing your colony for any new additions that need fixed
Do you have a question about feral cats that I didn’t cover in this post? Please leave me a comment with your question and I’ll answer it as soon as possible!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
A feral cat is a wild animal that is a descendant of domestic cats and has little to no human socialization. Feral cats are genetically identical to your pet cats and their kittens can be easily tamed and socialized to humans.
No. Feral cats will avoid humans, not attack them. A feral cat will avoid or run from humans 100% of the time. They are only dangerous if you corner one who has no way to escape, exactly as any other animal would. Escaping from humans is their goal, not confrontation.
Unfortunately, yes. The domestic feline is an invasive species in most areas as they didn’t originally come from many of the areas they now inhabit. Because they have been our outdoor companions for thousands of years and only recently became pets and even more recently became indoor pets, there are millions of outdoor and feral cats living among us around the world. They have traveled the globe with humans on ships in historical times.
According to some studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association, feral cats show the same baseline of health that owned cats do. They are as healthy as any other cat.
Feral kittens are easily tamed and able to be adopted out of rescues and shelters. Between 6 and 12 weeks is the best time to socialize hissy kittens. After that, it becomes more difficult.
If a cat is truly feral, with little to no socialization to humans, it can be done, but it might take years. Even then, they aren’t going to be the same loving companion you see awaiting adoption at your local shelter. They may only trust their caretaker. Their lives were shaped by growing up ‘wild’. They may never enjoy being touched by humans.
A feral cat is a cat born to another feral cat or a stray cat outdoors and never properly socialized to humans. A stray cat was once a pet, either lost or abandoned, so has had socialization. Most community cats fall somewhere in between the two extremes.
No. Feral kittens will meow at their mother. But adult cats don’t meow except with humans. As feral cats aren’t socialized to humans, they will not meow. Feral cats are usually silent, except with other cats or when feeling threatened.
If a feral cat survives kittenhood, she may live 2-16 years in the wild. The low average lifespan of feral cats is likely because 75% of kittens born outdoors to ferals die. Feral cats living in a managed colony easily live 6-10 years on average and often longer. This is the same average lifespan of pet cats with outdoor access.
Technically, yes. If you don’t want a cat you can pet or hides behind the refrigerator.
Feral cats are wild animals that have not been socialized to humans. If you choose to release a feral cat you have trapped into your home, they will hide. If you have years and a lot of patience, you may get the cat to get used to your house and you. Will he climb into your lap for cuddles? Not so much. But you may get lucky and eventually tame them. But don’t count on it.
A stray or socialized community cat can become a beloved house cat and I encourage anyone to adopt them, though. They make the BEST pets.
Yes!! Feral and stray cats will gather together in colonies for food, shelter, and companionship. Part of that companionship is often sleeping together to stay warm in colder weather or simply because they want to!
To get a feral cat to trust you, you need two things: food and time. If you feed a feral cat, they will slowly over time start to trust you. They will come closer to you and may even eat in front of you, eventually. It may take months or years, but as long as you never make the feral cat feel threatened, you may be rewarded with a nose sniff. If a cat is actually feral and not just a scared stray, he may not ever allow touch.
Yes. It is their home. It is all they know. They feel safe in their home territories. They know all the best hiding spots, the best places to find food or catch a mouse, they know all the dangerous areas, and they have their fellow cats for companionship.
Feral cats, like our beloved house cats, are opportunistic feeders. For hunting, they prefer ground-dwelling rodents like mice and other types of prey like lizards and insects. But they will not turn their nose up at birds, either. They will eat already dead animals, they will eat garbage, and they will hunt. That is how they thrive so well. They also like easy meals so often search out humans who feed them, too.
A semi-feral cat is a cat that hasn’t been completely socialized to humans but has had SOME socialization. Either they were a pet when they were young or because they were born outside near humans that were kind and handled him. These cats don’t have quite the instinctive fear ferals have of humans, so they are more visible and possibly more vocal. You likely can’t handle or pet them, though.