What are feral cats?
The word 'feral' means members of a domesticated species that have reverted to living as wild animals. While they are often mistaken for stray cats, ferals have little or no contact with humans and cannot be tamed.
Feral cats are the same species of cat as our pet cats, but are not socialised to humans or the domestic environment. This means they behave like wild animals.
Feral cats are likely to be
not friendly - unsocialised to humans, feral cats find people threatening and can be hard to spot. They won't come close, even with encouragement
living alone or with others - sometimes, they might live in a colony with other feral cats
ear tip - they may have their left ear 'tipped' to show they have been neutered and returned
away from houses - they'll avoid human contact and often have a hiding spot away from populated areas
not microchipped - most feral cats don't have a microchip
permanent - they are more likely to have set up a permanent home or shelter
What makes a cat feral?
Cats learn what is normal at a very young age, during what is known as a 'socialisation period.' Between the ages of two to six weeks, kittens can learn to enjoy human contact, forming a bond and becoming great pets.
Feral cats are usually the offspring of stray, feral or abandoned cats and have missed out on this early experience, making them likely to be wary of humans.
How can I care for a feral cat?
Despite their wild nature, feral cats still need a level of care. With many ferals living in colonies, the cat population can grow quickly. Neutering and returning the cats to their colony stops continual breeding.
While most ferals are resourceful when it comes to finding food, it is good to keep an eye on them during the winter. If you suspect a feral cat is sick or injured, they can be trapped and taken to the vet.
Why do feral cats have their ears tipped?
Trapping a feral cat to get them to the vets for neutering can be a stressful process – for the cat and the trapper. As feral cats are particularly scared of humans and don’t like being confined in small spaces, it can take a lot of time and effort.
To make sure an already neutered feral cat isn’t unnecessarily trapped, they will have their ear ‘tipped’ or 'notched'. This is where between a half centimetre and one centimetre of the tip of the left ear is removed while the cat is under anaesthetic. This serves as a permanent visual mark and can be seen from a distance.
Ear tipping doesn’t harm the cat as it is surgically removed by a veterinary professional while the cat is under anaesthetic. It heals quickly and has no lasting effects.
Do feral kittens make good pets? Can they be domesticated?
It’s important to remember that generally, cats don’t need company. Feral cats prefer not to be around humans so it’s better for their welfare if they are just trapped, neutered and returned to their home outdoors. They are wild animals and so find contact with humans very stressful, which is why a feral cat cannot be domesticated.
Feral kittens can sometimes be socialised, but this needs to be done early and by a professional. It takes a lot of time, effort and kitten know-how to successfully socialise feral kittens. Each situation is different and often trying to domesticate feral kittens can upset them and cause them a lot of stress. We would never recommend trying to socialise feral kittens yourself as there’s a lot to think about and consider.
Want to learn even more?