Do Feral Cats Look Different?

Do Feral Cats Look Different

Knowing the difference between ferals and strays is extremely important before interacting with any outdoor cat you might encounter in your neighborhood. 

But do feral cats look different? How can you distinguish between a feral and a stray cat?

At first glance, both feral and stray cats might appear similar. Look closely, though, and you will find subtle differences in both their appearance and their behavioral tendencies. Read on to find out what these differences are, so that you will know the kindest course of action to help a homeless cat.

Feral cat versus stray cat

So, you have recently spotted a beautiful-looking cat in your backyard and are wondering if it is a stray or a feral.

Before you decide to help a homeless cat, it is important to determine which of the above categories it falls into. While both cats might look alike on the outside, there are subtle signs that set the two apart.

A feral cat is basically a community cat that has never been socialized with humans. Because they are not used to human interaction, ferals tend to hide or run away when you try to approach them. These cats are also not very friendly – if you corner them or approach them too quickly, they might become hostile. Feral cats are highly independent creatures; their superb hunting skills are usually sufficient to help them survive without begging for food from humans.

Stray cats, on the other hand, are those that have previously experienced human contact. They might have been household cats in the past but are lost or abandoned by their previous owners. Hence, their personalities and behavior are very different from those of ferals. Depending on the situation, a stray cat can be friendly or scared, so you should be cautious before approaching any homeless cat. However, unlike ferals, stray cats can be tamed and are more suited to adoption into homes. 

Do feral cats look different?

A common question asked by cat lovers is whether feral cats look different from strays. Well, if you have keen eyesight, you might notice a slight difference in their appearance. So, yes – feral cats do look a little different when compared with strays.

The first thing you might notice about feral cats is that they look surprisingly healthy and well-kept. Unlike strays, ferals know how to take good care of themselves despite the harsh environment they live in. The evidence can be seen in their clean and healthy fur, bright eyes, and strong, sharp teeth. 

The cat’s overall appearance might also be influenced by its breed. But, regardless of the breed, all ferals will likely appear similar when it comes to cleanliness and overall health.

That said, there might be instances in which a feral has injuries or scars on its body, but this is not uncommon for community cats. Ferals, particularly the males, are often exposed to cat fights as they roam around in search of food or a potential mate. Nevertheless, their overall health is considered normal and comparable to that of a typical household cat.

How can you tell if a cat is feral?

Knowing whether a cat is feral or stray will help you determine the best way to interact with any cat you meet around your neighborhood. So, before you approach a homeless cat, here are a few common feral traits to look out for:

1. Physical characteristics

Contrary to what many people might think, feral cats generally appear well-groomed and healthy, as evidenced by their thick, rough coats and muscular physique. Ferals are very proficient at hunting – their senses are sharp and their bodies are agile and finely coordinated, making them well-adapted to life in the wild. 

You might also notice a clipped ear on a feral; this is a sign that the cat has been neutered and vaccinated through a TNR (trap-neuter-return) program.

2. Health

Feral cats are excellent at finding their required nourishment outdoors, so it should not be a surprise that these cats appear well-fed and have well-kept coats. 

Unlike most household cats, the typical diet of a feral includes live prey such as birds and rodents, which are considerably healthier than most commercial cat foods. Feral cats might not have the cleanest drinking water, but water sources like pools, ponds, and puddles are usually enough to keep them sustained.

Local feral clinics also help these community cats receive proper health care, such as vaccinations and spaying or neutering surgery. If a feral has been through these programs, it is even more likely to be in great shape and have a healthy weight.

3. Behavior

A feral cat’s demeanor is probably the most distinctive trait that sets it apart from a stray or household cat. 

Feral cats are highly independent creatures – they do not live by the same rules as domesticated cats. Their life experiences outdoors are quite different, so they might naturally be aggressive or fearful around humans.  

Additionally, you will find most feral cats living in colonies and roaming in groups. It is believed that community cats stay in packs for safety and ease of finding food or shelter. Ferals also prefer to hunt during the night to avoid humans and other animals.

A feral cat can easily be identified through its negative body language – the body is crouched, the tail is pointing down, and the eyes rapidly scan the surroundings while avoiding eye contact with any human. Ferals also do not purr or meow around humans.

How can you tell if a cat is stray?

Stray cats can also be identified through their physical appearance and behavioral tendencies. If you notice a new cat roaming around your backyard, check out these traits to confirm whether or not it is a stray:

1. Physical characteristics

Stray cats used to be household cats that were provided with warm shelter and plenty of food. As such, most of these cats have grown to be dependent on humans. Unfortunately, their previous lifestyle makes them inexperienced hunters, so it is more difficult for them to survive in the wild.

Thus, stray cats might look skinny and generally unhealthy. Their coats might be heavily matted, their eyes may be crusty, and their ears and noses dirty. 

2. Life of stray cats

As mentioned, stray cats are not well-equipped to live in the wild. Aside from their lack of hunting skills, strays are also not good at finding food and water sources since they are used to having their meals served in bowls.

Because it is hard for stray cats to sustain themselves outdoors, they might appear malnourished. Most stray cats will suffer from health issues such as furr loss, weight loss, and unhealthy paws.

3. Behavior

Most stray cats have been socialized with humans before they became lost in the streets. Hence, instead of hiding or running away, a stray cat might approach you and beg for food or attention. Stray cats will also meow, purr, or even cry around humans. It might seem heartbreaking, but a stray cat will more likely long for the love and human companionship it once had.

If they continue to live in the harsh outdoor world for too long, they might become feral too, and adopt the behavior of a feral cat.

Are feral cats bigger in size?

Because most feral cats have managed to thrive outdoors, they are likely to be bigger and heavier than a stray or a domesticated outdoor cat. Keep in mind, though, that the breed of the cat might also influence its size. Some feral cats can also grow bigger than the standard size of their breed, thanks to the nourishment they get from hunting live prey.


Feral cats do look different when compared with stray cats, or even with typical household cats. Just look at their appearance and observe their behavior. Unlike most strays, ferals generally appear well-kept and healthy, thanks to their hunting and food-finding expertise. However, they are also likely to be unfriendly and aggressive, so be extra cautious before approaching any strange cat outdoors!

Image: / fotocelia