It’s a common sight in most neighborhoods, an unfamiliar cat. It might be dashing across the street, poking around your backyard, or howling at a full moon! These freewheeling cats fall into one of 3 categories.

Pet – a neighbor’s pet that’s out for their evening constitutional
Stray – a cat that is either lost or has been abandon
Feral – these cats are essentially wild

We all know they are all the same species: domestic cats. But there is a world of difference between them, and it all boils down to one word: socialization. Figuring out which of these 3 types you are dealing with will help you help the cat.

It’s not too hard to recognize the difference between a pet, a stray, and a feral cat. Pets and strays have been socialized to people. Although a stray may not run right up to you, they will feel comfortable being around and living with people. A stray tends to rely on humans for survival. They will live close to you, approach you for food, meow, and even rub against your legs given a little time to get acquainted. They are almost always alone.

Feral cats, on the other hand, have minimal contact with people and they don’t want to change that. They tend to live in cat colonies. As long as you leave them alone, feral cats don’t pose much of a threat to pets or humans. A feral cat won’t vocalize with you, they may not make eye contact, will almost always keep a distance from you, and run if you attempt to close that distance.

Why does it matter what type of cat you’ve got hanging around? A stray needs and wants a home, so call your local shelter to see if your new cat visitor has been reported as lost. If not, give it a home or let your local shelter take care of it so it has a chance at adoption. Living their life as a pampered pet is what they want.

Most feral cats (unless found very young) will not be happy or safe living inside. If you take them to a shelter, they will most likely be euthanized. If you want to help the ferals in your area – they do deserve compassion – there are some things you can do. You could call your local shelter and find out what their policy is for feral cats. You could leave out food and water for them. Lastly, you could contact an organization like Alley Cats that practice TNR (trap, neuter, release) in your area. They will neuter the cats, so they don’t reproduce, and they will provide food and water. There are pluses and minuses to all of these solutions.

No matter which type of feline you find in your neighborhood, treat them with compassion and you may find a new ally even in alley cats!