For a cat lover, the thought of a feline fending for itself is hard to bear. A cat without shelter in cold or wet weather, without a reliable source of food or vet care – the reality is that a cat without humans to look after it will have a hard life and, potentially, a premature death.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a stray and a cat that is simply lost. If you have lost your cat, pet insurance should help cover the cost of advertising for its safe return.
But how can you help a cat who genuinely seems to be without an owner?
What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?
The key difference between stray and feral cats is socialisation.
A feral cat is an animal who has never lived alongside humans for long enough to become socialised and domestic – they are not used to being in human homes or living around people.
Feral cats behave like wild animals, even though their genetic makeup is the same as our beloved pets.
Feral cats don’t see humans as providers of food and shelter, as domesticated cats do – they see us as a threat.
They avoid contact with people and may hide from humans and behave in a fearful or aggressive way if confronted.
They will keep their distance from humans, even if they’re encouraged to come close and usually stay away from heavily populated areas.
You will often see a tell-tale snip on the ear of a feral cat. This shows the cat has previously been captured for neutering, then returned to the open.
The ‘tipped’ ear means the cat will not go through the distress of being recaptured needlessly.
Most feral cats are not microchipped and they usually find themselves permanent or long-term places to live.
They may live alone or in colonies with other feral cats. Feral cats may be the offspring or descendants of domesticated cats, but they have not lived with humans themselves.
How to spot a stray
On the other hand, a stray cat is one who is used to living alongside humans but has, for whatever reason, become distanced from its owners.
A stray may be shy and wary but will approach humans eventually, with caution.
Stray cats are usually alone and will actively seek areas where humans live, because that’s what they associate with comfort and food.
They often try to get into people’s gardens and houses, will not have tipped ears and often look a bit confused and disoriented whereas a feral cat appears self-possessed.
Some cats are not true strays – they are just cheeky.
Cats love to roam and if they find a friendly home with a ready supply of food and comfort, they might decide to stick around and either leave their former owner or move between houses!
See below for how to work out if a cat is really a stray or just a bit greedy.
Why abandoned cats become strays
Unfortunately, many cats are abandoned by their owners each year. According to the RSPCA, 19,235 cats were dumped on England’s streets in 2018, or around two an hour or 370 a week.
Cats may be dumped in a box or bag or simply left behind when owners move to a new property.
Some owners may find the responsibility of caring for a cat too much, having made a quick decision to buy one without properly thinking through what it entails.
Alternatively, an unplanned litter may be more than an owner can cope with and the unwanted kittens are dumped.
Finances may be a factor for other families looking to offload cats – the average moggy costs a minimum of £12,000 in its lifetime, or an average of £17,000.
This includes buying the pet, paying for food, essential kit such as beds, bowls and toys, pet insurance premiums and vet bills. For pedigree breeds, the cost could be as high as £24,000.
These costs show why quality pet insurance is always advisable, to cover unexpected costs such as losing a pet or vet bills.
Most owners would not dream of leaving their cherished pets to fend for themselves, but financial hardship can certainly be the result of a cat falling sick and running up care costs.