There is barely a cat lover out there who does not have a soft spot for homeless cats. However, of the cats we might encounter on the street every day, some are feral while others are strays. Both resemble typical household cats, and you might feel sorry for these kitties who do not have loving homes. But how do you know if a cat is stray or feral? And do feral cats meow?
If you encounter a cat on the street that meows at you, it is likely a stray cat. Ferals do not generally meow or approach people. These cats will be reluctant to be around humans and are less likely to vocalize unless you startle them. If you corner a feral cat and force an interaction, you might end up a bit scratched and bruised – feral cats can be aggressive and tend to lash out if they feel threatened.
Let us take a closer look at why feral cats do not meow, and what you can do to help them.
How do cats communicate?
First of all, we must understand how cats communicate with their peers.
Animals, including cats, communicate in many different ways. In general, they convey messages to each other through body language, the release of chemicals, physical touch, smells, and visual cues.
For cats, the most common form of communication is scent marking. Felines have extremely sensitive olfactory receptors which are exclusively used for communication. Through scent, they can identify other animals or cats that belong to the same colony. During mating season, the female cat announces her reproductive status by leaving her scent, in the form of pheromones, to attract potential tom cats. Cats also rub their scent on objects or other animals to define their territory, bond with other cats, or show aggression.
Body posture is also heavily used by cats to show dominance, aggression, or friendliness. For example, if a cat is friendly, she might approach another cat or animal with her tail up high and ears turned forward. If her belly is exposed, it signifies her trust and confidence in another animal. If she slowly blinks her eyes, she is showing affection and contentment. Cats also show friendliness or playfulness by crouching, swishing their tails from side to side, or wiggling their backsides.
However, if cats tuck their tails, crouch low, flatten their ears, or arch their back, then they are showing fear, anger, and other negative emotions. These body cues are often seen in cat fights, or when the cat is extremely anxious after a sudden loud noise. You might also notice their tail turning bushy and their fur fluffed out to make them look bigger and more intimidating.
But what about vocal communication? How do cats talk to each other, or signal their needs and emotions vocally?
Cats produce a few distinctive sounds to express themselves. In conjunction with their body language, they might exhibit anger, annoyance, or fear through hissing, spitting, and growling. They may chirp or chatter when they see potential prey, or when a mother cat gathers her kittens. Cats also trill or meow to greet each other. And the most common sound, purring, is usually reserved to express contentment, affection, or happiness (or sometimes, annoyance).
However, meowing and purring is more common between mother cats and their kittens, or between cats and humans. Cats, in general, rarely communicate vocally with other cats or animals, as they commonly use non-verbal methods such as body language and scents.
Do feral cats meow?
Feral cats, meanwhile, are fearful and distrusting of humans, and therefore avoid human interactions as part of their survival instinct. They will try not to draw any attention when a human is within their vicinity, preferring to run away or hide.
Many animal experts believe that meowing is exclusively used for cat-to-human communication. If you live with multiple cats, you have probably noticed that even your house cats rarely communicate with each other by meowing. Innate feline vocalizations such as hissing, chirping, chattering, or growling are more common than meowing.
Hence, it makes sense that feral cats do not meow or are rarely heard meowing, since they do not want or need to establish a relationship with humans. Meowing tends to be a learned behavior from kittenhood, when a young cat interacts with her mother, and then later with a human owner. As feral cats do not need to socialize with humans, it should not be so surprising that they do not meow.
However, there are some cases when ferals might meow at people who feed them regularly. Despite this, feral cats remain distrustful of humans – even the volunteers who take good care of them. Most of the time, these cats remain extremely cautious and would rather stay at a distance, so it is almost impossible to go near them or pet them.
What sounds do feral cats make?
Feral cats vocalize in the same way a typical cat would do, except for the meowing. Although they will never show up in front of you and meow, you may hear some yowls and hissing in your neighborhood, especially at night. This happens when ferals are engaged in a catfight or a battle with another animal that makes them feel threatened or angry.
Ferals are highly territorial and protective of their colonies, and it is not so unusual to see them fighting on the street. In most cases, it is best to keep yourself and your pets at a distance from these cats as they will not hesitate to attack or hurt anyone they consider a threat.
How can you tell if a cat is feral?
Sometimes, stray cats can be mistaken for feral cats. So, before you interact with any cat you find on the street, it is important to know the difference between ferals and strays.
The lack of human socialization is the most common aspect that distinguishes a feral cat from a stray cat. Ferals have never been touched or held by a human. So, unless they are adopted at a very early age, you can never tame a feral cat and they will never enjoy living indoors like a typical house cat or even a stray cat would. In most cases, adopting them into your household and treating them like ordinary cats would be cruel. Hence, if you are a cat lover and you have a soft heart for these cats, it is best to help them through a “trap, neuter, and release” approach.
Stray cats, on the other hand, have previous experience of socializing with humans. They might have been house cats that got lost or abandoned, and later became fearful of humans and started behaving like ferals. Although stray cats might lose their tameness after living on the street for a while, they can be re-tamed and safely adopted into a new home.
So, before you approach a homeless cat, make sure to take every precaution to avoid putting yourself at risk of getting bitten or scratched. Stray cats, in most cases, can be safely approached. Start by leaving food at their hang-out place at the same time every day. Follow the cat’s lead; if they start approaching you, it means they are starting to trust you. You can gradually start to pet and befriend them until finally you can take them to your vet. Make sure to have the cat scanned for a microchip before deciding to adopt or rehome them.
On the other hand, if you suspect you are dealing with a feral cat, it is best not to approach them. The most responsible thing you can do is call your local feral clinic for assistance. The role of these clinics is to trap feral cats in the most humane way, to have them spayed or neutered. After recovery, these cats are released back into the wild.
Here are some other signs to help you determine whether a cat is stray or feral:
- Stray cats will likely approach people or homes to ask for food. Feral cats, on the other hand, will never approach people. These cats will likely avoid eye contact, run away, or hide.
- Stray cats tend to move like a regular house cat, especially when they approach people. Feral cats usually crouch and display defensive poses when they encounter people – so pay attention to body language!
- You will most likely find stray cats strolling in your neighborhood during the daytime. Ferals are more nocturnal and prefer to search for food at night.
- Sometimes you might find cats outdoors with one of their ears cut. This means the cat has been spayed or neutered at a feral clinic. However, it does not always mean that the cat is feral. Some stray cats may have been spayed or neutered by a feral clinic because their previous owners were not honest about their cats. Some people abuse free or cheap surgery clinics to save on costs.
- Most stray cats are found alone on the streets. Ferals, on the other hand, usually stay in a colony.
- Stray cats meow, beg or respond to human interaction. Ferals will hardly ever meow or approach a human.
- Stray cats might appear unkempt. Feral cats, surprisingly, tend to look clean and have healthy coats.
Feral cats do not meow because they do not interact with humans. You will rarely hear a feral make a sound unless they feel threatened, in which case you might hear them hiss or yowl. If you encounter a homeless cat on the street that meows at you, it is likely a stray, not a feral.
The best thing you can do to help feral cats is to leave them to live in the wild. Do not try to approach them, as they will likely run away or attack you. Instead, you can call the designated animal clinic in your area to take care of them.
Image: istockphoto.com / Natallia Dzenisenka