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Seeing a lonely kitty sniffing the streets for food is likely to tug at any pet-lover’s heartstrings. But wait! Is that someone’s pet? Is she a stray cat or a feral cat? How do you handle the situation, and is it even possible to help? In this article, you’ll learn the differences between pet cats, strays, and feral cats. You’ll even learn how to approach and help them, so stay tuned!

Differences Between Pet Cats, Strays, and Feral Cats

All of these furry animals are felines, but understanding the precise differences between cats who are pets and those who are stray or feral is vital before attempting to get close to one. Below is a full guide to the main differences between these types of cats.

Pet Cats

Pet cats are domesticated. They’re used to living with humans, and they’ve probably been socialized fairly well with people or even other animals. Depending on the bond between a pet cat and her owner, she may even be comfortable with belly rubs, wearing a cat harness and going on walks, or even doing a few tricks. It’s common for pet cats to wear a cat collar, mostly for the owner’s comfort in case of any escape attempts. Pet cats may also have microchips, which a vet could use to identify the cat in case they turn up missing. Overall, pet cats are comfortable with humans and have a home.

Stray Cats

Strays have a history of being someone’s pet. These felines were either abandoned or became lost after living with an owner. Due to their past as pets, strays have some level of socialization. You might find them approaching people or other animals in a non-aggressive manner. Strays may be skittish after some time living in the outdoors. They may have had an unpleasant housing experience, making them less trusting of humans. Even so, strays have hope for future ownership. With the right level of care, these lost or abandoned kitties may find a new forever home.

Feral Cats

Strays who’ve been out on the streets or in the wild too long may turn into feral cats. If a stray spends years with no human interaction, she may have a low chance of being social (to humans) again. Feral cats generally have little or even no contact with humans or domesticated animals. The majority of their lives are spent in the wild. Kittens of feral cats are able to be adopted by humans and live happy indoor lives as pets, but feral cats are unlikely to enjoy being lap kitties or living inside. According to feline experts, feral cats can’t be tamed. These hardy cats are able to survive outdoors relatively well. Much of the time, they’re members of feral cat colonies. Their lifespans are, unfortunately, considerably shorter due to the extreme temperatures and exposure to infections that they face.

Take Caution When Approaching Unknown Cats

If you’re not familiar with a cat you see on the street or around your home, be cautious and look for these signs before deciding to approach her. Keep an eye out for the following indicators:

 ● Signs of Distress or Aggression: The warning signs of a distressed cat include hissing and growling sounds, dilated eyes, a puffed-up tail, and swiping. If you see this, do not corner the cat or attempt to capture or hand-feed her.

● Evasion: If the cat is extremely skittish and always disappears to avoid human contact, she’s likely a feral cat.

 ● Cat Collar: Is the cat wearing a collar? If so, she is (or was) someone’s pet. She may be comfortable if you approach her and may even approach you first. Use the information on her collar to contact the owner.

● Friendly With No Collar: A cat who acts friendly and allows a human to pet her, but doesn’t have a collar, still might be someone’s pet. Proceed with caution and continue watching out for signs of aggression.

● Pregnancy or Kittens: Is the cat obviously pregnant, or does she have kittens with her? Or is the cat in question a kitten? If so, it increases the likelihood that she’s feral.

How to Help Stray or Feral Cats

You must approach unknown cats with a healthy degree of caution, but once you identify them, what can you do to help them? Read these tips to learn the ins and outs of taking a cat in yourself, contacting a stray’s owner, or bringing a cat to the local shelter.

Do Not Try to Tame Feral Cats

If you encounter a feral cat or a feral cat colony, do not try to take one home with you. Feral cats are not equipped to live inside with humans. If you’re interested in helping feral cats, contact your local shelter to find out if there is a Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) program nearby. Do not simply trap a feral cat and drop her off at the shelter.

Use the TNR Approach for Feral Cats

If your local animal clinic has a TNR program in place, consider taking part in it to help your local feral cat population. Use a humane box trap with food inside to safely catch a feral cat and deliver the cat to the shelter to be spayed or neutered. Return the cat safely to its original outdoor location. The Humane Society and several other animal protection organizations agree that it’s a good practice to help control the cat population, bettering the lives of feral cats and people near them.

Check a Friendly Cat’s Collar 

Recently lost kitties are more likely to approach you and let you pet them. If they’re wearing a collar, use the chance to snag the owner’s information. Note that the collar tag might have a QR code to scan for it. If the cat has a collar with no tag, contact your local animal rescue organization or vet to check for a microchip.

Rehome Unchipped, No-Collar Strays

If you’re dealing with a friendly stray, but she’s not microchipped and does not have a cat collar, consider finding a new home for her. Contact a local cat rescue organization to find out if they have a foster program.


If you’re dealing with a friendly stray, but she’s not microchipped and does not have a cat collar, consider finding a new home for her. Contact a local cat rescue organization to find out if they have a foster program.

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