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Find out more about feral cats and how they differ from stray cats in our guide.

What are feral cats?

The word 'feral' means members of a domesticated species that have reverted to living as wild animals. While they are often mistaken for stray cats, ferals have little or no contact with humans and cannot be tamed.

You can find out more about the difference between ferals and strays in our visual guide below.

Stray cat

Stray cats are socialised domestic cats who don't - or don't appear - to have an owner. Be wary; even if they 'stray' they might be a neighbourhood cat who's worked out that if they look hungry they can bag themselves a second meal!

Stray cats

  • more friendly - if they're a little shy they will often approach cautiously given time and encouragement
  • alone
  • no ear tip - won't have their 'tipped', even if neutered
  • appear near houses - most likely to be found in people's gardens and trying to get into their home
  • microchipped - if they are a missing pet, they may have a microchip
  • appeared recently - they also might look lost or disorientated
Find out what to do with a stray cat

Feral cat

Feral cats are the same species of cat as our pet cats, but are not socialised to humans or the domestic environment. This means they behave like wild animals.

Feral cats are likely to be

  • not friendly - unsocialised to humans, feral cats find people threatening and can be hard to spot. They won't come close, even with encouragement
  • living alone or with others - sometimes, they might live in a colony with other feral cats
  • ear tip - they may have their left ear 'tipped' to show they have been neutered and returned
  • away from houses - they'll avoid human contact and often have a hiding spot away from populated areas
  • not microchipped - most feral cats don't have a microchip
  • permanent - they are more likely to have set up a permanent home or shelter

What makes a cat feral?

Cats learn what is normal at a very young age, during what is known as a 'socialisation period.' Between the ages of two to six weeks, kittens can learn to enjoy human contact, forming a bond and becoming great pets.

Feral cats are usually the offspring of stray, feral or abandoned cats and have missed out on this early experience, making them likely to be wary of humans.

Find out more about kitten socialisation

How can I care for a feral cat?

Despite their wild nature, feral cats still need a level of care. With many ferals living in colonies, the cat population can grow quickly. Neutering and returning the cats to their colony stops continual breeding.

While most ferals are resourceful when it comes to finding food, it is good to keep an eye on them during the winter. If you suspect a feral cat is sick or injured, they can be trapped and taken to the vet.

Can Cats Protection help with a feral colony?

Feral cats, or those born wild, are equally protected in law as domestic cats and are more susceptible to disease. Simply removing feral cats isn't a long-term solution - a new colony will often move in.

The best option is to neuter all of the feral cats within as short a time frame as possible, reducing the size of the colony and therefore keeping vermin levels down. Cats Protection offers Trap, Neuter and Return schemes (TNR) for feral cats, which can help to limit disease.

If you'd like more information on feral neutering, please phone our helpline on 03000 12 12 12, choosing option 2 (lines open from 9.30am-1pm).

Find out more about neutering

Why do feral cats have their ears tipped?

Trapping a feral cat to get them to the vets for neutering can be a stressful process – for the cat and the trapper. As feral cats are particularly scared of humans and don’t like being confined in small spaces, it can take a lot of time and effort.

To make sure an already neutered feral cat isn’t unnecessarily trapped, they will have their ear ‘tipped’ or 'notched'. This is where between a half centimetre and one centimetre of the tip of the left ear is removed while the cat is under anaesthetic. This serves as a permanent visual mark and can be seen from a distance.

Ear tipping doesn’t harm the cat as it is surgically removed by a veterinary professional while the cat is under anaesthetic. It heals quickly and has no lasting effects.

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