Feral and stray cats

Tabby and white community cat lying on a fence with trees behind him

If you see a cat outdoors, the cat could be stray, feral, or free-roaming. Those terms are often used interchangeably by the general public when they are referring to outdoor cats.

Best Friends likes to call outdoor cats “community cats” because they are valued members of our community and are often cared for by community residents.

The different types of community cats whom you might see outdoors are described below, along with the different ways to care for cats in your community.

Table of contents

Types of community cats   
How is Best Friends working with feral, stray, and other community cats?   
How you can help: Caring for community cats

Types of community cats

Community cats thrive outdoors. They are lovable in their own way, but they might not always be cuddly types.

Here are some types of cats you might find living outdoors in your community.

What are feral cats?

Many people use the term “feral” when speaking about all cats who live outdoors. However, feral cats are specifically cats who are not used to human contact and are happiest living outdoors either alone or with other cats in a group.

Because true feral cats have had little to no human interaction, they can be fearful of people and will often run and hide if you approach them. It is important to note that the chance of socializing a truly feral cat to people decreases significantly once the cat is over 7 weeks old.

If you encounter a cat who you think lives outdoors in your community and you don’t think the cat is feral, then the cat could be stray or free-roaming.

What are semi-feral cats?

Semi-feral cats might have had some interaction with people. In many cases, these cats can become socialized and even friendly to the people they are familiar with and trust, but generally they will remain fearful of strangers who approach them.

What are stray cats?

Like the term “feral,” “stray” is often used to describe all cats who live outdoors. However, stray cats are generally pet cats who have been lost or potentially could have been abandoned. Many stray cats might be wary of humans if they encounter them outside; however, because stray cats were once pets, they are often more comfortable with human interaction and might even enjoy attention from people.

You should not automatically assume that outdoor cats who are friendly to people are true strays who were abandoned or lost. They might, in fact, be free-roaming cats.

What are free-roaming cats?

Cats who live primarily outdoors are referred to by some as “free-roaming.” These cats might be feral, semi-feral, or stray. However, many free-roaming cats are actually outdoor or indoor/outdoor pet cats.

A large percentage of cat owners allow their pet cats to spend time outside, and if you were to come across those cats you might not be able to tell them apart from other types of community cats. Some free-roaming cats have owner identification, such as a collar or microchip, but others have no identifiable owner information. Cats who seem comfortable in the environment and aren't ill or injured are likely thriving free-roaming cats.

What are colony cats?

Community cats often live together in groups, which some people refer to as “colony cats.” Cats who live in these groups are often fed and cared for by members of the community, and their populations are controlled with trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) — the process in which community cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned to their outdoor homes.

What are working cats (farm cats, barn cats, ship cats, warehouse cats, brewery cats, bodega cats, etc.)?

The best choice for healthy community cats is for them to be returned to their outdoor home. However, when cats can’t be safely returned to their previous outdoor home and are unable to be adopted into a traditional home, they can be placed in other living situations, including barns, farms, ships, warehouses, and breweries. We refer to these community cats as working cats.

Person releasing a black community cat from a humane trap, surrounded by more blanket-covered humane traps

How is Best Friends working with feral, stray, and other community cats?

Though community cats can live long, healthy, happy lives outdoors, well-meaning people often catch them and take them to shelters. But sadly, they’re at risk of being killed. In fact, cats are killed in shelters at more than 2 ½ times the rate of dogs, and many of them are community

That’s why Best Friends saves their lives via community cat programs, including trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) programs, which involve providing spay/neuter and vaccination services to humanely trapped cats.

Why are some cats missing the tips of their ears?

Ear-tipping is generally done as part of a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) program. It involves surgically removing a small portion of the tip of one of a cat’s ears while the cat is under anesthesia for spay or neuter surgery. It’s extremely safe and is the universally accepted way to signify that a community cat has been spayed or neutered.

What is trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) or trap-neuter-return (TNR)?

TNVR stands for trap-neuter-vaccinate-return, and it is the most humane and effective way to reduce community cat populations while saving their lives and providing public health benefits. (TNR is an older term from before we started talking about “vaccination” as a key part of the program.)

Through TNVR, community cats are humanely trapped, evaluated by veterinarians, vaccinated, ear-tipped, spayed or neutered, and returned to their outdoor homes. That means they’re returned healthy, happy, and unable to have kittens, resulting in safe, humane communities for cats and people.

Looking to learn more about the TNVR programs and the history of those programs in the United States?

Frequently Asked Questions About TNR  
TNR for Stray Cats: Meaning, History, Statistics  
TNR Action Kit  
How to Trap Animals for Rescue or TNR  
Humane Cat Trapping Instructions for TNR  
Cat Neutering or Spaying for Strays

If you see a community cat outdoors, there are ways you can help.

Calico kitten outside on some concrete by a plant and pot

How you can help: Caring for community cats

When you find a cat who lives outdoors — whether it’s a community cat, a kitten, or a group of community cats — there are steps you can take to help.

What to do if you find stray kittens

They’re cute, cuddly, and desperately in need of your help. Or are they? If you happen upon a litter of tiny kittens outdoors, it’s natural to want to scoop them up and try to care for them yourself or take them to a shelter. But both of those options might actually place them in more danger.

Follow these steps to give newborn kittens the best chance of survival.

Caring for community cats in the winter

When the temperature outside begins to drop, community cats need protection from the harsh weather. You can help make sure outdoor cats in your community have warm shelters where they can find safety and comfort. And the best part? You can often easily make shelters yourself. Find out how to care for community cats in the winter.