Have You Seen a Feral Cat Lately?

We are getting mixed up between community cats, stray cats, time share cats and feral cats. The people who compile the statistics are bundling together community cats and feral cats. The two are very different but it is probably impossible to separate them because there is a transition from one to the other. Are you sure you saw a genuine feral cat and not a community cat? If I am correct the picture that we have of cat ownership has to be adjusted. What may be happening in many places, particularly the United States is that there are far more true community cats sharing households in an informal way and far less true feral cats. In other words the relationship between human and cat is looser than we think.

Moroccan community cats
Moroccan community cats. photo copyright valleygirl_tka
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Making the Distinction

Feral cat: genuinely returned to the wild. Unsocialised and keeps clear of people. Will take time to socialise.

Community cat: a wandering cat who shares households by being fed by different people and who spends lots of time outside but may stay in various homes and places near homes. Is defensive but can be friendly with people. These cats sometimes adopt a home and become “domestic cats”.

Time Share cat: spends time in more than one household and is fed by more than one household.

Feral or Community Cat?

There is a lot of cat talk about the large numbers of feral cats. I’ll call these cats “feral cats” in this post rather than “community cats” because I want to make a sharp distinction. I live in London, UK. Marc lives in Switzerland. We don’t see feral cats. I have never seen a feral cat in London meaning a cat that has genuinely turned to the wild. I have seen the odd stray cat but they are generally in pretty good shape. They are not “feral” cats though in the true meaning of the word. Despite this I am told there are 500,000 feral cats in London. I really don’t believe this. There are quite a lot of wandering time share cats but these are domestic and not feral. The person who wrote there were half a million feral cats in London is plain wrong. These sorts of statements can stick around and become fact to the detriment of the cat.

I know in the USA people see true feral cats. There are meant to be about 80 million of them. In southern European countries so called feral cats are very visible. I have been to these countries and seen cats in the streets. Rome, Italy is a case in point. But are these really feral cats? I don’t think they are.

They are better described as domesticated cats that live outside sharing food from a variety of sources. They are community cats.

Old-style relationship

In places such as Morocco there are lots of cats that some people would describe as “feral cats”. However, they most definitely are not feral cats. They live in the old-style way. That is not belonging to a single household or person but nomadically sharing their companionship between a number of homes and people. They are domesticated and socialized and true community cats. This is probably the way the domestic cat behaved thousands of years ago.

Adjusting the Numbers

My gut feeling is that the perceptions of Americans towards the feral cat should be adjusted. The number of true feral cats is probably much lower than the figure that is routinely stated. I would suggest that the bulk of cats that are seen in the urban environment and areas adjacent to the urban environment are community cats. Some of these cats might be recently abandoned or have recently become stray cats and are learning the ropes of being a community cat.

As I said the great difficulty in writing about feral cats is that it is almost impossible to point to a cat and say he is feral. Even if you approach a cat and try and be friendly with him it won’t help much in your assessment because initially the cat will be defensive and give the false impression of not being socialized and feral. I am sure a lot of incorrect assessments have been made that way. If you go into someone’s home and meet the owner’s cat he may run away from you as an initial reaction. The cat is known to be domestic. If you approach a cat outside and he runs away you might make the assessment he is feral. That would be incorrect.

I would like to see an investigation into the true number of feral cats. I believe that it would change attitudes and force a reassessment of the relationship between cats and people, and a reassessment of the meaning of the phrase “domestic cat”. If I am correct it means that a lot of the cats euthanised at shelters are community cats. I have a feeling that most of them are.

5 thoughts on “Have You Seen a Feral Cat Lately?”

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  2. I wonder how far out the numbers are. I also wonder how it affects the cats if the number is exaggerated – I think you are right in that its probably not a good thing for them since the way of dealing with them is not good. It will just invoke more dealing with them to over shoot the number. I am totally confused about the estimation in London. Even in outer London I’ve hardly seen a stray cat. So whoever wrote that must have extrapolated from something that was in the first place wrong. I wonder from whose article you got that number and what the purpose behind the article was since we’ve talked about extrapolation being almost by definition a biased thing when used.
    I am also a little confused about the number here in Switzerland because I have not seen a stray cat here either and I have been around the country too – not just where I live.
    When I lived in Canada we fed the stray cats and they were very cautious. Sometimes the little ones would come in the back door and snoop around. They were very sweet – it was very sad. The older ones often did not look well, but they came for the food every day and although you could never touch them or go near them, they were by these definitions not feral, but stray, strays born of strays and even futher down the generations – stay, but they knew humans. What made me sad at the time when I knew so little about all this, was how scared they were of humans, even when we fed them. It made me think that people around where I lived must have been mean to them for them to get like that. Just like the raccoons in cities, they live such a hard life and it’s terribly sad. I remember the baby raccoons were sweet but when they grew older it was like they became very scared and aggressive too if they felt cornered. I knew other people in Toronto who fed the stray cats in their back alleys. The cats always lived in the parallel back alleys to all the roads, where the garages are – I’m sure under houses or in disused garages. I remember one big black cat who lived in my neighbourhood. I was wary of him because he was bigger than my cat and I was worried for my cat. He was out in the deep of winter. I dont know how he survived. Its terribly sad to see all of these things really. I dont know how people can ignore it. I suspect that many people do feed them or help in some small way by letting them in their gardens without chasing them away etc.

  3. I agree with the terminology Michael. I don’t think humans can see the feral cats to count them.

    It doesn’t take much time and caring by a human for a feral cat to graduate to a community cat. When they accept food from humans, even from far away they become community cats. Many community cats don’t want to be domesticated, and don’t even want to be around humans, but they do accept the food and sometimes even shelter, as in the barn cats in the countryside. Here in the wine country many cats are born feral. If they are lucky enough to be born in the spring they have a good chance of survival. The vineyard owners welcome the cats on some level, and that is where the dance starts.

    Friends of mine own a large vineyard. Just yesterday they put the word out to borrow a have-a-heart trap for one of their vineyard cats that they have known about for years, but he is very elusive. He discovered their barn where they feed a few community cats (all having been trapped, neutered and returned) and he has been feeding there as well. My friend could see from a distance that his eyes were swollen and almost shut. Now that he is almost a community cat, we are hoping they can trap him, neuter, heal and return him to the community. He is probably responsible for many a litter out there. It will be good to fix that problem, and welcome him back as a community cat!

    I believe I have over used the words ‘feral cat’ in the last few years. I’ll change that now!


    • Thanks. I really believe that even the so called experts know how many true feral cats there are. It is pretty much pure guesswork. As I say this is important because a lot of so called feral cats actually belong to someone or several people.


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