Skip to Content
Watch BCTV Now
/ Articles / Community /

Stray cat or feral cat? What is the difference?

Feb 10, 2017 • by Animal Rescue League of Berks County
Controlling Cat Populations

You found a cat in your backyard … or maybe the cat found you.  Now what do you do? 

Your immediate instinct may be to take the cat to a local shelter so it can find it’s forever loving home.   But before you do, it is important that you determine whether the cat is really a socialized stray cat who would like to live in a home, or a feral cat who is accustomed to living outdoors and is happy continuing her life as it is. Every year in the United States, 1.4 million cats are euthanized in shelters, many of which are feral and semi-feral cats who are “not adoptable” because they are unsocialized to humans.  You can help make a difference in these statistics by determining if the cat is stray or feral, and if feral choose to TNR (Trap/Neuter/Return) kitty to where she came from so she can live out her natural life.

So what is the difference?

Stray Cats:

May approach people and may be able to be touched, petted or held.Might act like a housecat with tail up, which is a sign of friendliness.Will look at you, blink or make eye contact.May meow at you or be vocal.Will more than likely mainly be seen during the day or early evening.May appear dirty or dishelved.Will likely be alone.

Feral Cats:

Will hide or run from you, will not approach you.Cannot be touched.May walk or run with body low to the ground, may crouch and protect body with tail.Unlikely to make much eye contact.Will not meow or purr.Most likely mainly nocturnal.Males may have big head and thick neck.  May also have scars on face and ears from fighting.Fur will typically be clean and well kept (depending on conditions of land and surroundings).May have the left ear ear-tipped if already spayed/neutered as part of a TNR program.May belong to a colony and be seen with other cats in your area.

There are of course some “semi-feral” cats who may have been stray at one point, but who have been out on their own for so long that they have reverted to a semi-feral state.  These cats fall in between these two categories and with some patience and time, may be able to become friendly once again and be adoptable.  However a shelter environment is not favorable for these cats and unfortunately their potential for adoption is grim. 

So what do you do now?  If you do determine that the cat is a socialized stray, there are steps you can take BEFORE you surrender it to a shelter.  Start with approaching neighbors to see if the cat has gone missing.  Make up flyers and distribute/hang in your neighborhood.  Post on local Lost and Found webpages.  Call the local newspaper …. most newspapers offer free “Lost” ads.  If no home surfaces for the cat, try finding a home for her yourself.  If you have no luck with any of these actions, and you are not able to keep kitty yourself, then your only option may be a shelter. 

If you determine that kitty is feral, your best option is to TNR (Trap/Neuter and Return) her to where she was found.  This not only prevents kitty from having kittens and adding to your problem, but it prevents males from mating, fighting and spreading infectious diseases.  There are low cost spay/neuter clinics is most areas where you can get these services performed.  Kitty also gets a rabies vaccine, flea treatment and an ear-tip so that anyone who “finds” kitty again will be aware that this has already been done.  If you find that kitty sticks around because she has a food source at your house, you can provide her with a warm place to sleep and hide.  Food and shelter is all that she will require to be happy.

To learn how to trap and for more information on TNR and caring for feral cats, Alley Cat Allies is a wonderful resource.  Visit them on the web at  Fairchild Foundation is also an excellent resource as well for TNR.

Local low-cost spay/neuter clinics:

No Nonsense Neutering – $35.00 per cat (sometimes offers specials)

Temple PA – clinic days every Wednesday & Friday and 1st & 3rd Sundays of each month

Allentown, PA – clinic days every Tuesday & Friday and 2nd & 4th Sundays of each month


Fairchild Foundation – $35.00 per cat (sometimes offers specials)

Birdsboro PA – clinic days 3rd Sunday of each month

We need your support!

Your contribution makes community media possible.

A donation of any size to your nonprofit media organization supports the future of media access in our community - the things you love, and the places you care about, by the people you know.

Live Streaming