It isn’t uncommon for people to use different terms with very different definitions in an interchangeable manner in casual conversation. For example, there are tame cheetahs, but there are no domesticated cheetahs. This is because a tame animal is an animal that has been trained to become tolerant of human presence, whereas a domesticated animal is an animal that has been shaped by human-guided breeding over the course of generations and generations for the purpose of making the animal a better provider of various resources. Besides this, another excellent example is how people will sometimes use the term “feral” when they mean “stray” and vice versa, which is problematic when the two terms mean very different things.
In short, a stray animal is an animal that was a pet at some point in time but has been forced to fend for itself for some reason. Perhaps it became lost or perhaps its owner abandoned it on the streets, but whatever the case, such are its circumstances. Meanwhile, a feral animal is an animal that lives outdoors with either no human contact or very little human contact, meaning that they are much less comfortable in a human’s presence than their stray counterparts. There are those who recognize a third category called semi-feral, which would be animals that have had enough contact with humans to make them more comfortable than their feral counterparts but not so much so that they have become comparable to their stray counterparts.
It is important to note that cats can cross between these categories. For example, a stray cat can become feral because of a lack of contact with humans. Likewise, a feral cat can turn semi-feral with positive human contact, though they will always retain some skittishness that won’t be found in cats that have received the proper socialization at a young age. Regardless, understanding the differences between feral cats and stray cats is critical because those differences should inform interested individuals’ responses to the cats that they encounter.
How Can You Distinguish Between Feral Cats and Stray Cats?
There are some visual cues for distinguishing between feral cats and stray cats. For example, stray cats tend to be much worse at surviving on their own when compared to their feral counterparts because they were never taught the relevant skills. As a result, stray cats tend to be thinner animals with grungier coats. Unfortunately, visual cues are far from being perfect, meaning that there is no real simple and straightforward method for figuring out whether a particular cat is a feral or a stray. Instead, interested individuals are going to need to put serious effort into the process, which is going to take a fair amount of time as well.
Often, said process involves feeding the cat at regular times. Each time, the interested individual should put the food a little bit closer to their home, thus making the cat more comfortable with them as well as their home. Eventually, a stray cat can become so comfortable that they can be convinced to step inside, whereas a feral cat will retain its much more skittish nature. On top of this, it can be worthwhile to look at other behaviors to check for clues. For example, stray cats tend to have softer paws than feral cats, though this will eventually change as it spends more and more time outdoors on their own. Similarly, stray cats are willing to wander at odd times as well as out in open spaces because their feral counterparts tend to stay in their own territories in the outskirts where they are safer. Ultimately, distinguishing between feral cats and stray cats is very much a matter of personal judgment, meaning that interested individuals will need to bring all of their mental capabilities to the task for the best results.
As for why it is so important, well, it is possible to turn a stray cat into a pet. In contrast, attempting to do the same for feral cats tends to be a very bad idea because they are never going to lose their skittishness. As a result, knowing which is which is important for people who are still unsure about what they are going to do when it comes to a particular cat that they have become acquainted with.