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    • 04 Apr, 2019

    Feral or stray – what is the difference?

    Cats are often seen roaming the streets, hanging around in neighbourhoods or dashing off into the hedges, but are they domestic or feral cats?

    A feral cat is an outdoor, wild living cat that avoids human contact and can, by and large, survive without human assistance. These cats have had very little, if any, contact with humans, particularly before eight weeks of age, and so are scared of humans much like foxes.

    By eight weeks of age, it is vital that a kitten has been well socialised with humans or risks becoming feral.

    During the early weeks of a kitten’s life, up until around eight weeks-old, they go through a phase called the ‘socialisation period’. Cats learn what is normal from a very young age. If young kittens have positive contact with people and are handled during this period, they will form a strong bond with humans and enjoy living as pets.

    Photo Credit: Rowan Williams

    Feral cats are offspring of feral, stray or abandoned domestic cats that have missed out on these early positive experiences with people. They have never learnt positive associations with people and so will avoid contact as much as possible. Feral cats are not stray cats, which were raised as pets but have since been lost or abandoned. They often live difficult lives, dodging humans, scavenging for food and water, catching infections and facing multiple pregnancy cycles.

    How to spot a feral cat

    Whilst the term ‘feral cat’ brings to mind images of hissing, spitting, wild looking cats, they are very indistinguishable from domestic cats. It’s their behaviour that tends to be the give-away. A stray or abandoned cat will often not shy away from people, whereas a feral cat is fearful of people and so tends to keep a distance. A feral cat will not allow itself to be touched or handled by a person. They can never be tame, and will suffer a great deal if forced to live inside. If a cat is feral, the most compassionate option is to keep it feral – trying to tame a feral and bring it indoors will only cause undue stress and harm to the cat’s health and mental well-being.

    Cat colonies

    Feral cats often live in colonies, within close proximity to food sources and shelter. Some colonies can become ‘semi-feral’ if someone is putting out food, and the cats will sometimes become accustomed to the presence of the feeder. They will, however, remain fearful of humans, keep their distance and remain untamed.

    Most of these colonies originate from stray cats that have not been neutered. However, if the colony is controlled (neutered), healthy and stable, it will deter other feral cats from moving in and will also keep vermin levels down.

    Mayhew’s Trap, Neuter, Return Programme

    Unneutered females are able to reproduce from as early as four months old, and can have multiple litters per year. Without population control, the feral cat population will keep growing at alarming rates.

    Our Animal Welfare Officers run a Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) program in London, with the purpose of helping maintain healthy and managed feral cat numbers through population control and health monitoring.

    Feral cats are humanely caught on location, brought back to Mayhew to be neutered the same day wherever possible, and then returned to their territory the next day to keep stress levels to an absolute minimum. The cats are also given a health check, and are tested for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV). Neutering prevents population numbers from growing, and keeps the spread of disease to a minimum by reducing fighting and mating behaviours.

    Photo credit: Tamara Yoxall

    Cats are returned to their territories if the area is safe and suitable. Relocation is extremely stressful for feral cats, as they become dependent on their own environment. Relocation may temporarily reduce the numbers of cats in the community, but it creates a ‘vacuum effect’. Any cats left behind will continue to breed and new cats will move into the newly emptied territory.

    We are only able to control feral cat populations with your help, so if you are concerned that you have feral cats living nearby or know of a colony, please contact us immediately.


    Become a Feral AdvoCAT

    Due to the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic, feral cats are in need of our help now more than ever. We’ve launched our Feral AdvoCAT campaign to encourage our community to help look out for London’s feral cats.

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