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Definition of Feral Cat

The definition of a feral cat might be a little more complicated than I first thought. It warrants a short discussion. The great Wikipedia (Google thinks it is great) says that a feral cat is a domestic cat that has returned to the wild or is the offspring of that cat. Not a bad definition, but a bit elastic.

Think about the domestic cat that is in the process of becoming wild. At what point is that cat considered wild or stray or in between? How do you accurately assess a cat as being wild or domestic? If you approach a stray domestic cat he or she may react with defensive aggression while a feral cat may even react less defensively. It is hard to assess a cat's character through behavior if you are a stranger to the cat. It's a bit grey, isn't it? And if that cat has offspring whilst she is not yet fully wild are the offspring feral kittens?

A fully domesticated cat allowed outside might give birth outside and the kittens might become feral. But under these circumstances the kittens don't fit neatly into the Wikipedia definition.

Margaret R. Slater in The Welfare of Cats (a really useful book incidentally) says there are a number of terms used to describe feral cats. Apparently in one study on feral and stray cats the researchers differentiated between strays and ferals by saying that stray cats were those taken from "dumps, residential or industrial areas" and feral cats were "remote from those locations". That sounds incorrect to me.

Sometimes people refer to feral cats as barn cats or alley cats. These cats could be anything from outdoor/indoor domestic cats to full blown feral cats.

Strays are sometimes described as cats that are reliant on people for food and shelter while ferals are independent of people.

These definitions describe cats that "have escaped" domestication as Margaret Slater says. I think Margaret Slater has a better handle on how to define the feral cat. She bases her definition on "the status of an individual cat at a particular point in time".

A feral cat is one that cannot be handled and is not socialized. The cat is therefore not suitable as a cat companion in someone's home at that time. That definition gets over the grey areas mentioned above, it seems to me. Feral cats can sometimes be socialised or tamed with patience. Taming is slightly different to socialisation, I believe.

So feral cats are unsocialized cats. Socialisation is the process that takes place usually in the first 7 weeks of life, during which the kitten interacts with other domestic animals and people so that he or she is confident with them and can get along with them; an essential part of being a domestic cat.

Socialisation depends on the individual cat and I think care has to be exercised in assessing whether a cat is socialised or not; or even well socialised. Stress in cats will mislead an assessment. Cats in shelters are often stressed.


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