Do Domestic Cats Living Outside Really Become Feral?

The word feral refers to a domestic animal that has escaped or been freed from its domesticated state and returned to an outdoor or natural environment, and so has reverted to a wild state.

This leads people to misunderstand how once domesticated cats cope with changes in their environment, and into believing that all cats cope exactly the same way. In other words, people think that a cat is either domesticated or it is wild! Anyone who has rescued cats from living outdoors will have observed that while some outdoor cats may seem fully “feral” or wild, others, although they are surviving and coping, will be somewhat or fully trusting of humans, and will not act “wild” in their interactions with their would-be saviors.

Going feral does not mean going wild, at least not for cats. A cat born in the wild is not “feral.” It is wild. Having had no interactions with humans, and not having been handled at an early age (as early as three-weeks old is optimal), it may never display anything but fear and aggression towards humans. It will be a fully “natural” cat and display fully wild behavior patterns. Although even wild cats can sometimes adapt to living with, or at least associating with humans, they will never fully trust a human and behave like a domesticated cat.

So, cats are not born domesticated. They must learn to trust humans. They have, if you will, the tendency to be willing and able to trust humans, and even have a mutually beneficial and loving relationship. Canines are similar. Not all animals have this tendency. Some animals cannot be domesticated. Some animals only to a certain extent.

What we see is that when domesticated cats are forced to live outdoors, they do revert to the type of behaviors that their species have been exhibiting for thousands of years, but there is considerable variation in the details of how they live. Other “domesticated” animals, such a pigs, for example, go feral in a much more complete way and become truly “wild animals.” They even undergo morphological changes.

Feral cats may live in colonies or groups, close to human habitation where there is shelter and food available. A wild animal does not live right next door to a human. Although some feral cats will stake out a territory and become loners for much of their lives, exhibiting the solitary behavior of a primordial feline, cats are able to adapt to a variety of environments, from the city to the country, and display variations in their tolerance of and trust of humans.

So, when we say that domesticated house cats living outdoor go feral, we are not saying that they go completely and utterly wild and will never again live with a human! If this were true, the many feral cats who are rescued by the many dedicated people trying to deal with this problem, would never have any kind of life. Yet, these cats are adopted all the time, and many of them who have been fully domesticated and integrated with humans make themselves at home in their new dwellings, becoming wonderful, loving, pets.

Even some feral cats who do not become lap cats still adapt very well to living with humans and become beloved members of the family. Cats vary. Cats born wild may never be able to live with humans as a typical house cat does. However, the idea that “cats returned to the outdoors” go wild is simply inaccurate. Cat’s returned to the outdoors adapt. Cat’s returned to the indoors also adapt.

It is true that compared to dogs, cats returned to outdoor environments go feral more readily and quickly.

One thing that is important, if you are thinking of adopting a once feral cat, is how you introduce your new cat to its new home. There is a right way and a wrong way to do this and how you do it can make all the difference in how cat adopts to living with its new family, and how it behaves going forward. This introduction is especially important if you already have another cat or two in the house!

Also be aware that there is a big difference between rescuing a cat from outdoors yourself and bringing it home or adopting a rescued cat from a shelter or other rescue organization. One of the main things that the dedicated staff and volunteers will do at a rescue shelter is spend as much time as possible with the cat, handle it when and if possible, and try to do their best to introduce it to and get it used to being with humans.

Most of the time, we do not know for sure whether a feral cat is feral born or not. A great majority of them are. How old they are when they are rescued will make a big difference in how they react to humans. The younger the better! The point of this article is simply that there is a difference between a feral-born cat and a cat who lives with humans and then becomes feral.

As Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County says, You’re the Proud Owner of a (Formerly) Feral Cat. There is a proper way of introducing a new cat to its new home, regardless. Visit the link for further info.

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