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What is a Feral Cat? Definition and Characteristics

Learn the difference between stray cats and abandoned cats, and how to help both.

Meet Lefty: The Story of a once Stray Cat

Where’s the rest of my left ear? Admit it, you were thinking it… I get it all the time. Well, my name is Lefty and I was living on the streets. A community volunteer found me at a stray cat colony and assumed I was feral! They took me to the clinic to have me neutered so that I wouldn’t be part of the problem of unwanted kittens. After my TNR (trap, neuter, return), someone took a chance on me and figured out that I wasn’t feral at all – I was just an abandoned cat that still had lots of love for humans. My ear tip is my badge of courage for surviving life on the streets. If you see others that look like me (TNR cats all have their ears tipped) in your community you will know that we are part of a solution to the cat over-population problem.

Lefty’s outcome has been incredibly positive. He was in the care of Animal Services and has since been adopted into a wonderful forever home. Not all ear tipped cats can be expected to have the same story. For one, Lefty wasn’t feral whereas most ear tipped cats are. A stray cat is one that has not been reunited with its owner and has been roaming the streets aimlessly. For that reason they maintain some degree of wild behaviour and because they didn’t have contact with humans during the early part of their development they remain fearful of human contact and often cannot easily adjust to life as a domestic house living cat. Stray cats are often the result of owner neglect that allowed them to roam freely and had litters of kittens that then go on to become reproducing street cats in their own right. Once a stray cat has had a TNR they have the tip of their left ear removed so that community caretakers can easily identify them. This avoids spayed and neutered stray cats being re-trapped and undergoing unnecessary anesthetic and surgery.

In addition to feral cats, stray cats are those that have been abandoned by their owners and are living on the streets. They are typically less cautious of humans and can usually be adopted into a forever home if one is available and adjust well to domestic life. There is also usually a group of cats with homes that wander the neighborhood as outdoor cats. These are usually being cared for and are hopefully spayed or neutered, but you may not know for sure. These categories, feral, stray, and outdoor, are known collectively as community cats.

Community cats are often cared for by one or more individuals in the community who leave them food. Sometimes a special location is established where individuals will drop off cat food at regular intervals, typically once a day. In the winter, cat shelters can be placed in this area to provide community cats with a warm refuge when the temperatures become extreme. Once community cats are regularly fed at the location, a TNR operation can be implemented, which is the most significant step in reducing the number of street cats.