The difference between stray and feral cats is important because stray cats have or had a human companion and should be reunited with that person provided, of course, the cat wants to be reunited and the person is a satisfactory cat caretaker. Whereas feral cats are essentially wild cats. They have had little or no connection with people.
However, there is a distinct overlap between stray and feral cats, as shown in the diagram. Sadly, I think it fair to state that feral cats have a lower status than stray cats in the minds of people. This is because they are seen as less useful. In fact, they are seen as a nuisance and a burden on society by many people. People may be misguided in this thought. Feral cats are often euthanised at shelters because they are unsocialised whereas, in contrast, there should be attempts to rehome or reunite socialised, stray cats.
Although stray cats are, or were, socialised1 and feral cats are not, it can be tricky telling them apart because (a) of the reasons stated in the chart and (b) under TNR programs or when the cats are interacting with strangers the stray cat might become fearful and start behaving like a feral cat.
One obvious distinguishing feature between the two is the clipped ear of the feral cat that has been through the TNR process. However, as I understand it, the percentage of TNRed feral cats compared to the whole is low.
Here is a table showing some differences between stray and feral cats:
|Less fearful of people and so may approach people.||Will normally hide from people except for a person who is feeding feral cats as part of a TNR program or for humane reasons.|
|Will have a more confident body posture and show more relaxed body language.||Fearful, secretive body language and behavior.|
|Usually solitary and not part of a colony.||Individual cats might be part of a colony.|
|More active in daytime,||More likely to be noctural and active at dawn and dusk like a wild cat.|
|Dirty coat. This is probably because of not being able to cope as a permanent stray cat. Not yet adapted.||Clean coat as settled in his/her environment.|
|Has tips of ears intact.||Ear clipped at tip signifying part of TNR programme.|
|Most domestic cats turned stray are neutered and males have a more delicate appearance to that of an unfixed male feral cat.||Unneutered males have a stocky appearance. Thicker neck and larger head.|
|Females less likely to be pregnant.||An outdoor pregnant cat is more likely to be a feral cat.|
|When trapped, stray cats may (a) behave like ferals but are more likely to be less fearful and may be touched (b) may become friendly and rub inside of cage (c) may be responsive to interactions from person (d) may hiss and show defensive/aggressive behavior.||When trapped a feral cat (a) will be at the back of the cage (b) can’t be touched (c) may bang around the cage and climb cage and hurt himself (d) will be tense (e) may lash out showing defensive/aggressive behavior|
- “Socialised cat” – a cat that was raised around people, other cats and other animals so that he is relaxed in their company and able to fully integrate.