Strictly speaking, the words “stray” and “feral” have different meanings. A stray cat, while currently homeless, has at some point lived with people, has gotten lost or was abandoned, and can probably happily adapt to having people in its life. Especially if the cat hasn’t been out on the street for too long, it can be approached and handled without much difficulty.
A feral cat, on the other hand, is technically “wild” and untamed. Most feral cats are born and live outside their entire lives, although a small percentage are strays that have morphed into feral cats over time. They don’t eat near people and typically hide during the day and roam around at night; they really do not want interactions with humans.
But at Tufts, “we prefer to use the term ‘free-roaming’” to describe all cats living outdoors, says Emily McCobb, DVM, Director of Shelter and Community Medicine at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Assistant Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy. It’s not just because there’s overlap between the personalities of strays and feral felines. It’s because they all need the same things: to be spayed or neutered, to be vaccinated, and to be brought and kept indoors for their own safety as well as for the safety of wildlife they prey on.
“Be very cautious when approaching a cat you don’t know,” Dr. McCobb advises. “If the cat is friendly and you can get it into a carrier, bring it to a shelter or veterinarian. If it’s not friendly, ask a local shelter for advice on trapping the cat and contacting a local TNR group, which stands for Trap-Neuter-Release.
“Never simply leave food out for free-rooming cats,” Dr. McCobb says. “If you are feeding an outdoor cat, it likely needs additional care, including a wellness exam.” Just making sure the cat is not hungry isn’t enough.