Definition of Feral Cat

Feral cat Jaffa Tel Aviv Israel
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Feral cat Jaffa Tel Aviv Israel

I thought I would dedicate a page to a discussion on the definition of the phrase “feral cat”. A wide variety of phrases and words are used to describe feral cats. Examples are: free-roaming cats, barn cats, stray cats etc. Scientific studies on feral cats have to contend with this variety of definitions. There is a difference between them. There would seen to be a spectrum of type of feral cat in terms of degree of wildness. Some of them are borderline domestic. Because there is no absolute definition of “feral cat”, different scientists may have used different interpretations which makes it difficult to compare their studies. It can also complicate trapping and euthanising operations.

In one study, stray cats were defined as cats that were taken from dumps and residential or industrial areas, while feral cats were defined as cats that were remote from these locations. I would have thought that this was an inaccurate way of going about things.

Other scientists have defined feral cats with reference to their non-reliance on humans for food and shelter. Well, feral cats certainly are often not completely independent of humans and neither are they dependent. If a feral cat is highly dependent upon regular feeding from a certain source and the cat is relatively friendly it could be argued that the cat is no longer feral.

Sometimes feral cats can be defined as domestic cats that have gone wild or a cat that reproduces in the wild. One scientist, M.R.Slater defined “feral cat” in what he calls a pragmatic way “based on the status of an individual cat had a particular point in time”.

A feral cat is one that cannot be handled and is not suitable for placement in a typical pet home, that is, the cat that is un-socialised.

“Socialisation” has been defined as the process by which an animal develops social behaviour that is appropriate towards other cats and animals in the human household together with people. This is because the word “socialise” refers not only to whether a cat develops appropriate social behaviour towards animals of the same species but animals that he or she lives with of different species.

What is the difference between being domesticated, being tame for being socialised? “Tame” in the context of a cat means that the cat is not frightened of people nor dangerous to people. Such a cat is also domesticated. A domesticated cat feels comfortable at home. I have already defined the word socialisation. There is clearly a very large overlap between these three terms.

In the context of discussing cats, people often use the word “tame” to refer to a wild cat that has been tamed but is not domesticated. In other words the wild cat is safe and relaxed around people but not suited to living in the home.

Source: Myself and The Welfare of Cats ISBN 978-1-4020-6143-1

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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46 Responses

  1. Leah says:

    Charlie Bacon with Alfie 🙂

  2. Leah says:

    Even ferals can become beautiful house cats. My friend rang me one day and said guess what I have here? she said listen…I could hear little baby mews… she had found a tiny Black kitten outside her back door where she worked after she heard his cries, it was a cold rainy day. The kitten was about 5 weeks old, tiny. She said he spat at her when she opened the door 🙂 he must have strayed from a feral colony and where she worked in the inner city there were probably plenty of those.

    I took him to the vets and had him treated for cat flu but even so he had plenty of cattitude! We named him Charlie Bacon and he was a funny little man used to drape himself around the back of my husbands neck.

    My friend bought her little cousin round to see him as she had just lost her budgie, precious. We thought she might take him but she was a little scared of his feral streak also she was only 8 and still upset about losing precious.

    A few days later I got a phone call…. ‘do you still have Charlie Bacon?’ ‘yes he’s here’

    He went to live with her and he’s now about 6 and a beautiful silky much loved Black cat. He is now a ‘Thomas’. He is loved so much by his young mum, she even declared recently that she wasn’t going on holiday unless she could find a suitable cattery for Thomas. I’ll see if I have a photo 🙂

  3. Dee (Florida) says:

    Thanks, Valerie.

    But, that gorgeous Yellow was Dw’s love although I feel that she was my love too.
    We learn to know each others’ cats and love them as if they were with us.

    Those semi-ferals…
    They love the nighttime.
    Do they allow closeness?
    You’re a good mom if they sleep in your bed during the day.

    What are their names?

    • valerie (surrey) says:

      It took a long time for Rula to be close but he makes no sound at all. I think they were badly treated and Lulu was thrown out of her home mid December and they told me to take her nasty people down the road. She was so tiny weighing 2.9 kg’s then after feeding her up she went to 3.5.also Rula was 4.3 and went up to 5kg’s. I really think he is a Siberian but no way of knowing the people have gone now so they are just my babies and I can’t find out any more so that’s life!!

      • Dee (Florida) says:

        Oh, Valerie.

        I can’t hate those sort of people enough who just toss cats aside like rubbish.

        So, the black/white (name?) that was your granddaughter’s is 9 y/o.
        How old are Rula and Lulu now?

        I’m sorry to be such a stickler for detail.
        It has nothing to do with you or any regulars here.
        I’m just used to asking for names and approximate ages because it gives me a good idea about how the caretakers may feel about their cat(s). Someone with a “no name” cat really bothers me.

        Do you have photos? Or, are you like me – camera illiterate?

        I, now, have a camera as of Monday, but the gifters had to rush out before they could show me how to use it. I’ll try to figure it out when I get the chance. Otherwise, I’m sure they’ll be back soon.

  4. valerie (surrey) says:

    Lovely cat Dee my 2 young ones will always be semi-feral they still go out hunting at night and often bring mice in. Can’t lock them in or he scratches the carpet near the back door but it is quite safe for them here no main roads and they know their way around.they like to sleep on my bed all day though lol and do show me affection!!

    • Dee (Florida) says:

      Forgive me, Valerie.
      But, are you talking about Rula and the dark torti?
      Or, do you have others?

      • valerie (surrey) says:

        Yes I’m talking about Rula my big fluffy orange and the little tortie , called Lulu she is a really good hunter lol !!

        • valerie (surrey) says:

          I have 1 other who was my granddaughter’s who moved into a flat no pets.had her from about 1 year old and she is now 9 and very fit but defo domesticated no hunting for her she only goes in the back garden when its warm. she’s a little black and white and she gave Rula a hard time at first but they do get used to each other!!

  5. Sylvia Ann says:

    Dee — Since you kindly asked, I dashed off an e-mail a few days ago explaining what was wrong, but the thing got wafted off into the swirling mists –whatever.

    In nutshell, when you try to open the Yahoo e-mail screen, two messages pop up: ‘Cannot Find Server,’ and ‘Cannot Display This Page.’ While the technician who’s come out here three times in a row, now, has become a tad waspish around the edges, somehow or other he gets into the e-mail after rapping away for a few minutes and opening a dozen binomial screens – none of which keystrokes I have the force of intellect to duplicate. As for driving up to the library every few days to retrieve my stuff, it doesn’t matter all that much in the Grand Scheme. But thanks anyhow – you’re a dear!
    DW: Yes — moving is far worse on a cat than on a human because they don’t understand what’s going on. McWee was horrified by the 110-mile commute and by this strange house, and our equally strange third-of-an-acre with its nocturnal aromas of deer, cougars, opossums, a mink and who knows what else traipsing around out there (he wanted to get outside all the same, though I had to keep him on a leash). Moving is no fun under the best of circumstances, but moving with your fur-kids is a foretaste of hell.

    Your feral was gorgeous, as was your photo of her. And yes – you’re probably right. Cats have a memory, and someone, in a cat’s distant past, may have done something that scarred them for life. Though Weeza didn’t want any contact, she knew she was Momma’s girl, and loved to lie on her pillow, near my feet, next to the woodstove on wintery nights. But she too had been spayed long ago by someone or other, who let her run loose afterwards or abandoned her, because she never trusted people after that incident. Come to think, she might have been a TNR!? Whatever her history, she was a wildling to the end. Apparently, your golden girl was the same. But how lucky she was to have found you.
    Howdy Ruth!

    Still laugh at your e-mails.

    Am sitting here waiting for the rain to return in a couple of hours so I can get out and transplant the acorn squash and a bag of potatoes. Dasn’t venture out in the yard while it’s still sunny, as the Steaming Zipper is lurking on the other side of the fence – pseudo-coughing, hacking, and engaging in other what he considers ever-so-subtle modes of meta-communication. Cannot believe he and I are the only two spooks in this wilderness, much less my good fortune in the arrangement. Have been blessed from birth…

    Sidney Vicious sits on the porch twice a day now, looking for victuals. Can’t keep up with much more of this, Ruthie. I’d take him to a no-kill shelter if I could be DEAD CERTAIN he’d get a half-decent home. But how to do this when there’s no way of knowing whom he’d end up with?

  6. Sylvia Ann says:

    Aaagh! That’s ‘pix of him and her,’ right? Then again, my boy & girl weren’t objects of a transitive verb. Need to dig out the grammar book, but haven’t the strength at 1:00 a.m.

  7. Sylvia Ann says:

    Rudolph – Next time you see her, please tell that nice Mrs. Munshi hello from rainy Washington state.
    Dee – An impressive categorization! You’re clearly an expert with years of experience in caring for a variety of cats.

    My little Louisa – the best of girls – never let me touch her in all the years she was with me.(Her story is somewhere in the PoC Catacombs; wrote about her years ago.)

    In 2005, a feral cat expert trapped her in a cage for a hefty fee (as in very hefty) and, two days after moving here (I had to leave her behind, as the moving men were loading the van),I drove back to Seattle and fetched her home. It took her over six weeks to come down out of the cupboard in the laundry room and begin to explore the house, as she’d never been indoors before, presumably. I’d fed her for four-five years prior to selling and moving here, but she refused to ever come into the house in Seattle, even in the rain and snow.

    Where I live now, she inadvertently slipped outside three or four times over the years – to my near-massive-stroke consternation – but always came in when I called her. Though my noli me tangere girl came when called, she never allowed me to lay a finger on her. She loved a pat of organic butter every day, the size of a pea, and adored my boy, who attacked her numerous times when both he and she were outdoor cats in Seattle. But after she became accustomed to living indoors, he finally decided he liked her a bit. Pix of he and she are in my ‘against the grain’ Elegy to a Cat. She was put to sleep nearly four years ago, as she became ill with cancer. A major loss. She is still missed…my little girl with her shy, reserved ways.
    Ruthie – are you still intact? Enjoyed your e-mails which I answered today, if you could read my typo-bespattered inanities. Will try to get back to the library next Tues. xxx

    • Dee (Florida) says:

      Sylvia –
      What can be done to get your computer right?
      Please explain.

    • Dee (Florida) says:

      Louisa reminds me so much of a beautiful yellow feral that a dear friend of mine cared for.

      • DW says:

        Sweet Dee. You are certainly the house expert here. I was amazed reading about Louisa, oh my! I am very glad I didn’t have to move and make that kind of decision. I don’t think I could have. Yes, four plus some years, feeding, caring for and trying to coax a beautiful friend to trust me enough to stroke her gorgeous fur. It never happened, but she was my cat. We had a beautiful friendship. But I believe the trauma she felt being trapped and neutered as a young cat, long before I met her, kept her distrust of humans strong. No touching was the rule. She will forever be in my heart.

    • Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

      Howdy Sylvia yes thanks I read your emails and somehow my sanity survived lol and I will reply to you for Tuesday xx

  8. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    I can’t add anything to what our feral expert Dee has already written, I know by my time as volunteer feral officer for Cats Protection that she is spot on with all she says.

  9. Cat lady of “Joggers Park” in Bandra in Mumbai (Thursday 22-5-2014) :- Came across Mrs Munshi who regularly feeds this stray cat in “Joggers Park” with cat food. The cat follows her like a dog and anticipates her arrival, something which amazed me .She has been feeding this cat regularly since the last 6 months.Remember that this was a common stray cat in a common garden of Mumbai interacting with numerous people daily. How does this cat recognize Mrs Munshi ? Proves the fact that cats are intelligent pets but undisciplined unlike dogs who obey their human masters commands.This is definitely a “Feral Cat” that is accustomed to human company but likes living the outdoors life.
    I have posted the photo of Mrs Munshi petting the cat.

    • Sweet picture Rudolph. Love it. I can smell the garden 😉 This cat proves the point that there are a variety of types of feral cat some of which are quite domesticated in some ways. You could argue that this cat is a full-time outdoor cat that this semi-domesticated. Lovely lady who likes cats. The cat is a calico cat. She looks quite slender and small.

      As you know, I always like to see photographs of cats from Asia because they add a fresh dimension to the website.

    • Dee (Florida) says:

      A beautiful calico and a very beautiful lady.
      It’s so refreshing to see that someone can feed a cat in the open and nobody wants to stone her.

    • Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

      I love that photo 🙂

    • Leah says:

      Lovely photo and a lovely lady I love her bright Blue sari 🙂

  10. Ru says:

    She loved animals and had both cats and dogs but one at a time. 😉

  11. Ru says:

    My Aunt slowly got a feral cat to come closer and closer to her house with food. When the cat got real close to the house she left her door open one day and put the food dish in the house. The cat came in and ate then went back out but one day it went into the house and stayed there. It became her indoor cat. She brought it to the Vet to be checked out and spayed. She had that cat until it was old and it was a sweet gentle cat.

    • Dee (Florida) says:

      Perfect, Ru.
      You have a remarkable aunt.

    • Michael Broad says:

      A sweet story of patience and gentleness that made the life of a cat much better. Domestic cats should be with people not feral living a harsh life.

  12. Dee (Florida) says:

    I always get so much enjoyment when I read how “experts” define the feral cat.
    After all, they’re so “in the know”…

    All my opinions…

    Ferals can’t be summed up in one convenient definition.
    There are varying degrees.
    All ferals have the potential to be domesticated to an extent. The biggest obstacles are time and the willingness to do the work.

    I developed my own tier system long ago, and it’s workable for me.
    My system includes true/complete ferals, ferals, semi-ferals, strays in the wild, and domesticated.
    The definitions are simple and, with luck and work, many will descend a tier or two or, rarely, descend some of the way to domestication. A true feral or feral will never become completely domesticated even when they drop in rank to semi-feral. They will always retain that roaming and nocturnal behavior.

    A TRUE FERAL is completely unapproachable. Except for the dominant male of the colony, the remainder will retreat until a caretaker steps “out of bounds”.

    A FERAL is unapproachable also, but will remain in the open unless threatened.

    A SEMI-FERAL will allow a certain amount of close distance but can be easily spooked. These are very workable and the ones that I most bring home and work hardest with.

    The STRAYS IN THE WILD are those that were domesticated at one time but have been out long enough that they have become skittish. They’re a piece of cake to turn back around.

    The DOMESTICATED speaks for itself.

    • Michael Broad says:

      Love it. This is much better! Based purely upon lots of first hand experience which is the best type of knowledge to define something.

      Thanks Dee. I’ll probably add your comment to the article because sometimes people don’t read comments and this is too good not to be read.

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