What Is Feral Cat?
A “feral” is a cat who is not socialized and exhibits some degree of wild behavior. Ferals tend to be fearful of people and keep their distance unless it is someone they have come to know and trust. This often makes them difficult to handle and place in adoptive homes. They may be lost or abandoned pets who once had a home but over time have reverted to a wild state or they may be the offspring of former pets, sometimes many generations removed. In contrast, a “stray” is a former pet who, though now without a home, is still socialized. When re-introduced to a domestic setting, a stray will usually quickly display his tame nature.
In recent years, cats who live outside typical household situations and are not considered anyone’s pet, have come to be referred to as “free-roaming cats” or “community cats.” These terms are useful because they focus on the circumstances in which the cats live rather than on individual characteristics like feral vs. stray. In the case of “community cats,” the term also implies there is a collective responsibility for their care.
Most free-roaming or community cats form groups called “colonies.” Most of the cats will tend to be feral, although the mixture of ferals and strays can vary widely. The cats in a colony share the same territory and a common food source. Often they are related, but not always. Colonies can form anywhere there is adequate food and shelter. In urban or suburban areas, they can be found in alleyways, vacant lots, abandoned buildings, warehouses, factories, parks, shopping centers and backyards, to name a few. In rural settings, colonies are often found in barns as well as the back streets of small towns. The vast majority of ferals in these colonies are not completely wild because they rely on people for their food source, whether it’s a dumpster behind a restaurant or a kind neighbor who comes by once a day. Relatively few subsist by hunting alone.
“Feral” is not a biological trait, but a behavioral one. As a result, the same cat can be feral at one point in her life and tame at another. A socialized pet cat, abandoned and left to fend for herself outdoors, may become feral. Likewise, a feral cat, given enough time and attention, may grow tame. Because “feral” describes behavior and socialization, it is not an all or nothing characteristic, but is present in different degrees in different cats. Just how wild a cat is will depend on a combination of four factors:
Age is the most influential factor. Kittens six weeks of age or younger are usually not yet developed enough to be highly feral and can be easily socialized, sometimes with the first touch of a hand. Seven to eight week old kittens may take a few days or more to socialize, but are still young enough in most cases to tame relatively quickly. Beyond eight weeks, the feral imprint grows increasingly stronger with each passing day, requiring longer and more intensive socialization to reverse. By the age of four months, many kittens, even if they are eventually tamed, will exhibit some feral behavior for the rest of their lives, such as a profound attachment to one person and a fear of others. Beyond five to six months, in most instances a cat born feral will rarely become fully socialized.
Number of Generations that are Feral
Cats grow wilder with each succeeding feral generation. A colony cat who herself once lived as a pet in a home will tend to be less feral than her offspring while, as another example, a tenth generation feral cat will tend to be wilder than a second generation.
AMOUNT OF HUMAN CONTACT
The amount of contact a cat has with people on a regular basis is another important factor. A cat who lives in a community garden and has visitors coming every day to talk and play with him will be less feral than a cat who lives in the woods and rarely encounters people.
Feral cats are individuals and their unique personalities must be taken into account. On occasion, a cat will be friendly towards people despite being beyond kitten age, born of a feral mother and living in a reclusive environment. But the naturally occurring “gregarious feral” is very much the exception, at least prior to spay/neuter. Many caretakers do report that after neutering, some of their feral wards gradually grow friendlier and more approachable, sometimes to the point of becoming adoptable.
Assessing whether a cat is feral and, if so, to what extent, can be helpful in determining the best situation for the feline. If the cat is friendly and can be handled, then adoption is likely the best option if there are foster or permanent homes available. If the cat is feral to a significant degree, then allowing him to live in his own territory with his colony mates could be the most compassionate choice.