The small tabby you see on the corner every morning with no collar or home is almost definitely a stray, but if you had seen this cat only scarcely from a peripheral point of view, it would likely be safe to consider her a feral cat.
The Difference Between Feral Cats and Stray Cats
The most notable difference between stray cats and feral cats is that strays are generally accustomed to human interaction, and they often go out of their way to seek it by living in areas that are inhabited by larger numbers of people and even visiting the doors of some people.
Ferals, however, avoid human contact and are quite fearful of people and objects that are associated with them.
Any cat that is not known to you should be handled with caution, as even good-natured cats may not like being touched in a certain way. If a cat outside allows you to handle them and does not freeze out of fear, they are likely a stray, if they do not have a home somewhere already. These cats visit homes for food and the occasional attention, and sometimes it ends up that they move in.
Adopting a Stray
If you suspect that a cat is a stray and you want to take them into your home, it is important to take them to a veterinary clinic or an animal shelter to scan them for a microchip to see if they are registered to an owner.
It is also a good idea to check with neighbors to see if the cat already has a home, especially if they will be transitioning to being an indoor cat. Sometimes owned cats are mistaken for strays.
A feral cat, however, cannot usually be brought into the home and cared for. Feral cats have never been socialized with humans, and because of this, they are unlikely to venture close to human dwellings. They are seen more often in areas with land that is not developed, such as the woods or an abandoned field.
Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) Programs for Feral Cats
Despite the solo hunting nature of a cat, ferals live in colonies and this can quickly result in overpopulation of feral cats.
Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) programs can help with this; feral cats are trapped and brought to a veterinarian to be spayed or castrated and given their vaccines, and then they are released back to where they were trapped. This allows them to return to their own colony, but they cannot reproduce and create more feral cats and they will not participate in the spread of disease.
Caring for Feral Cats
Caring for feral cats is different than caring for a stray, as the ferals will not come into your yard to eat the food you leave out. However, if you know that there is a colony of feral cats nearby, you can tend to this colony and help make their lives more comfortable. You can put out food for them; while feral cats hunt for the majority of their food, they will likely eat what is left out for them, and this can help feed those that are not able to hunt.
You can create housing for them as well out of boxes or totes. A smaller one placed into a larger one filled with newspaper as insulation, with a door cut out to the small box from the outside, can house multiple cats and provides a great amount of warmth during cold weather.
Caring for stray cats and feral cats is a wonderful thing to do if you live in an area where these homeless cats are found. Many would not do well when placed into a shelter setting, but ensuring that they have food, warmth, and protection is a kind way of improving their quality of life.