Feral Cat Behavior: How To Identify And Help Feral Cats

feral cat behaviorMany people confuse feral cats with stray or free-roaming cats, but feral cats belong in a category all their own. While feral cats don’t pose any serious risks to human beings, they can pass on deadly diseases and parasites to pet cats and often require human assistance to save them from overpopulation and subsequent starvation.

Following is a detailed account of feral cat behavior, with information on what to do when you encounter them and steps you can take if you feel compelled to lend a helping hand. You should also check out this Happy Cat DIY Course on cat adoption and ownership tips.

What Are Feral Cats?

Feral cats are essentially wild cats. They differ from strays, which are cats that were once pets but that have since been abandoned, as well as free-roaming cats, which are usually pets allowed to roam outside (they may also be ownerless cats who have a generous caretaker (common in cities) who provides them with food but not shelter).

But feral cats are wild. They can live on their own, hunt on their own, and often find a group of cats to live with, called a colony. Feral cats must be treated as wild animals, especially because a colony can, through several generations, foster cats that never, ever come in contact with human beings.

The Defining Characteristic: Feral Colonies

As unlikely as it might be, if you ever stumble across a colony of cats, it is certain that they are feral. This is the defining characteristics of feral cats. Living in colony allows them to protect territory, especially territory that has a reliable food source such as a restaurant, barn or rat-infested building.

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How Feral Cats React To Being Approached

If you want to be a good samaritan and befriend a feral cat, there are a few things you should know:

  • For starters, a feral cat is not likely to return the favor; they will not only not approach you, they will likely run for cover at the sight of you.
  • If you manage to corner a feral cat, they will cower, crouch, wrap themselves with their tails and in general try to hide and protect themselves. This is opposed to a stray or free-roaming cat, that will stay upright, walk, keep its tail erect (a good sign) and possibly even approach you.
  • Feral cats don’t like to make eye-contact. A pet cat normally makes eye contact very easily, but a wild animal will not be so inclined.
  • Also note that feral cats, because they have not developed emotions towards humans, will not purr or meow. A stray is likely to be quite vocal, but a feral cat, like a wild cat, only purrs in the company of other cats/kittens.

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Physical Appearance

The physical appearances of cats can be somewhat deceiving. For example, a stray cat is not likely to be as well-groomed as you might expect. If the stray is accustomed to living indoors, the outdoors will be rough on the cat and it will likely look dirty, un-groomed, matted, etc. In other words, a stray cat can look the way you would expect a feral cat to look.

Feral Surprise: Believe it or not, many female feral cats are very well groomed, just like many wild cats are. However, there are some characteristic traits of older and/or male feral cats:

  • Male feral cats that are well-fed tend to be large and muscular, as they develop these muscles fighting rival feral cats.
  • Older males also tend to be heavily scarred, especially around the face, ears and hind legs.
  • Almost all feral cats are not spayed or neutered. This causes both sexes to have high hormone levels. This can cause males and females to develop large bumps and hairless areas near their tails. Males are also likely to have a spiky coat because of high testosterone (think male lions) and greasiness.
  • Finally, if you happen to stumble across one of the 2% of feral cats that are neutered, the cat will undoubtedly have an ea tip.

Late Risers

Feral cats and colonies are predominantly nocturnal. A cat out at night is more likely to be a feral cat than anything else (although it should be noted that cats in general are comfortable in the dark and often prefer it). A feral colony usually sleeps during the day and begins to become active around four or five in the evening. They also tend to hunt in groups of two or more, so if you see several cats emerge from a crevasse in a building late in the evening, you might be looking at a feral hunting party.

They hunt in the early mornings, as well, and like to play and be active before the day starts and they have to sleep. Interestingly, feral cats like to bury food they catch in the morning to eat later in the day, another tell-tale sign of feral-cat behavior.

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How To Help

Unless you manage to capture a feral kitten (and I mean a real kitten, 4-8 weeks old), there is almost no way to domesticate a feral adult cat. A feral cat will probably not have a better life inside a home, as the cat will be scared of the setting, and of you, for its entire life. While you can certainly try to give a feral cat a home, if the cate shows any of these tendencies for an extended period of time, do the right thing:

  • Take the cat to a TNR (trap-neuter-return) program and have them safely neutered and vaccinated. The programs help bring the cat back to health and release them back into the wild, the only place they are comfortable living.

If you happen to find a feral cat that has been hit by a car or injured in another way, you should immediately take it to a veterinarian. If the cat requires immediate care or you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg to help it, check out this First Aid For Pets course to learn what actions to take for a range of traumas and diseases.