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What is a feral cat?

definition feral cat, TNR, feral cat

Living in the shadows

A "feral" cat is unsocialized and tends to be fearful of people and keep a distance. Ferals are most often found living outdoors in groups known as colonies. The cats in a colony share a common food source and territory and may include not only ferals, but also strays - former pet cats who were recently lost or abandoned and are still tame. Most feral colonies originate from unneutered stray cats. Ferals, as well as strays, are increasingly referred to as "community cats" or "free-roaming cats."

While they live outside human homes and exhibit wild behavior, feral cats are not wildlife. The vast majority rely on some form of human-based food source for their sustenance, whether it's a caretaker who feeds daily, a dumpster behind a supermarket or scraps left on fishing docks. Very few subsist on hunting alone.

"Feral" is a behavioral characteristic, not a biological one. As a result, the same cat can be feral and not feral at different points in her life. An outdoor kitten may be born feral, then be taken indoors, socialized and adopted out as a friendly pet. Or an adult cat may be a gregarious pet for years then become lost and, after a few months of living on his own, start to act unsocialized. In addition, feral is not a black or white quality, but different cats will be feral to different degrees.

 Just how feral a cat is will depend primarily on four factors:

  • Age - kittens less than eight weeks old, even though born to a feral mother, can usually be socialized within a matter of days. Beyond that age, socialization becomes a longer and more uncertain process with each passing week. After reaching four months old, a kitten will likely retain some typical feral characteristics for the rest of his life, such as fear of strangers or change. A fully adult feral cat may require years to socialize, if they ever do.
  • Number of feral generations - the more distance, in terms of generations, that separate a cat born outdoors from her original stray, once-socialized ancestor, the wilder that cat will be. In other words, feral behavior will tend to increase with each successive feral generation.
  • Amount of human contact - cats who regularly interact with people are more likely to show at least some signs of socialization than cats who have little or no contact.
  • Individual personality - cats, like all animals, are individuals with their own personalities. Some ferals are naturally friendly and will warm up to people quickly. Many colony caretakers have also observed that some ferals, after being spayed or neutered, begin to behave more like pets.

If a cat is truly feral to a significant degree, then the most compassionate choice may be to allow him to live outdoors with his colony mates. Trying to force him to exist indoors as a pet, or even worse in a cage, may be harmful to his psyche. Trap-Neuter-Return respects a feral cat's inner needs. By neutering the cats and providing food and shelter, a caretaker plays a role most supportive of ferals, giving them the opportunity to live among their own, be free and answer to their own unique natures.