So what's the difference betwen a stray cat and a feral cat? Some people use the word interchangeably, not knowing the difference. It's very important to discern whether the cat is stray or feral, though. This helps you decide if the cat needs a home, wants a home, or is better off in it's natural environment. It also helps in explaining to others why you aren't trying to find the cats homes (if the cats are feral).
Typical stray cat:
- separated from owner, whether lost or abandoned
- socialized, will likely approach humans/can be approached without cat running away
- often vocal, may seem distressed, hungry, confused
- may appear disheveled, as if not accustomed to outdoor living
- likely to eat in our presence
- are seen throughout the day
Typical feral cat:
- unsocialized, not likely to draw near to people/will scatter quickly if approached
- most often silent
- appear adapted to conditions, look healthy and well-groomed
- will wait to eat food until humans have moved away significantly
- usually seen around dusk to dawn
I say "typical" because there are differences in every colony. Just as every human is unique, each cat has his/her own set of circumstances and personality. For example, the colony of cats I am caretaker for are definitely all "feral," but one, Snuggle/Tricky constantly meows at me when I bring the food out. (Still don't know whether to call him Snuggle or Tricky...) He has never approached close enough to touch, but will follow you for the food. The others just watch from a distance. I don't know if he and his brothers were abandoned as kittens, which is why he meows at me, or if he simply feels comfortable enough to yell at us for his food. His brothers are certainly more distant, though.
The difference between "stray" and "feral" is important. Stray cats may desire homes. Feral cats do not. Some feral cats can be socialized, but if not, they will at least (hopefully) have food, water, and shelter along with their families and freedom.