Creature Feature: Feral Cats

Editor’s note: While feral cats may be good at controlling rodent populations, they can cause harm by killing native wildlife or even spreading disease. Some estimates suggest that between 1 and 4 billion birds are killed annually by free-ranging cats, and cats are recognized on the list Globally Invasive Species threatening native wildlife.

Cats are one of the most popular pets; there are currently about 88 million cats living in American households [1]. When you say that you have a pet cat, very few people will imagine a cat who avoids human interaction and only lives outdoors. Unlike house cats, feral cats (Felis catus) spend their lives outdoors hunting for food and adapting in natural habitats. Although they may look just as cute and cuddly as cats that are owned as indoor pets, these wild cats do not like interacting with humans due to a fear of being captured.

 Many feral cats prefer napping in natural environments.
Feral cats may find themselves in unusual places, such as storm drains.

Largely owned by businesses and factories, feral cats are also known as “working cats,” because they can help with killing pests like mice and rats [2]. Feral cats, however, can be adopted by anyone. I adopted Luna and Twinkle, two female feral cats, and they are just two of the many outdoor-adapted cats living in the United States. There are many organizations and shelters that focus on capturing feral cats, neutering them, and releasing them back into the wild or putting them up for adoption. Oakland Animal Services, the shelter where Luna and Twinkle were adopted from, is one of those organizations. 

Feral cats are usually adopted in pairs because they are sociable and enjoy having a companion.

From my experience, caring for a feral cat requires less work than that of a house cat. Most feral cats prefer loose dirt around plants over a standard litter box. Their owners do not have to clip their claws or groom their fur. Feral cats live in their owners’ backyards and are normally free to roam the neighborhood. They catch mice and other pests for your neighborhood! In order for them to know that the backyard is their home, they must live in a cage in the backyard for about a month before being released. If the owner feeds the cat everyday on a fixed schedule, they will know to come back to the backyard at those times for food. They will be scared of their owner in the beginning, but if the owner puts in effort to bond with their cats through hand feeding and even just sitting next to the cage, feral cats may warm up and feel less threatened. 

Luna and Twinkle in their cages before they were released. In order to ensure that the cats know their home and to trust that their owner will give them food, the cats must be acclimated in separate cages for one month.

Besides living outdoors, how are feral cats different from housed cats? Although feral cats can be the same breeds as housed cats, their behaviors differ drastically. For example, Twinkle is an American shorthair, which is a popular cat breed to have as a pet. Even after being owned as an outdoor cat for half a year, she still dislikes being touched and frequently runs away when her owners get close. In contrast, if you were to adopt an indoor cat, they would get used to the environment at home. When cats feel threatened by humans, they hiss, widen their eyes, and shrink their head into their body. In contrast, housed cats would be less aggressive and opt to run away to hide. Feral cats are also nocturnal, actively hunting or exploring all night and sleeping all afternoon. Luna and Twinkle love being in nature, napping in bushes and sunbathing in the afternoon sun. 

Luna loves to sunbathe in the warm California weather.

Despite always being alert of their surroundings and having hunting instincts, feral cats are cats after all. Just like housed cats, Luna and Twinkle actually love playing with cat toys, such as stuffed mice and fish. When showing affection to their trusted human, they roll over and expose their bellies. A cat showing their underside of their bodies means that they trust you because they dislike their bellies from being touched, and they trust you enough to know that you will not hurt them. Luna, who is more accepting of petting than Twinkle, frequently purrs when pet, showing signs of happiness. Determining the mood of a cat relies mostly on their body behavior. The most common behavior noticed in many cats is the famous “question mark tail,” meaning confidence and playfulness. If the tail is wrapped around their body, it means that they are nervous and that you should not approach them. If the tail is straight down and extended, it means that the cat is feeling aggressive [3]. These cues are the same between feral and housed cats. 

Luna loves playing with her mouse toy!
Twinkle’s tail wrapped around her body when I approached her, showing signs of nervousness.

I never would’ve never imagined that feral cats could be adoptable, and that I would adopt two myself. My cats turned out to be more friendlier than I thought, especially Luna. When I first adopted them, I assumed that they would never let me touch them, and that they would only come back to my backyard for food. Surprisingly, Luna loves head scratches, and Twinkle loves to hang out in the plants in my yard.

Jacqueline Lee is a junior at Amador Valley High School, and she hopes to study veterinary medicine at UC Davis in the future. She has been a Teen Wild Guide at the Oakland Zoo for almost three years, and has grown interest in being a veterinarian for zoo animals.


[1] Hildreth, Aaron M., et al. “Feral Cats and Their Management.” Extension Publications,

[2] Kruzman, Diana. “These feral cats aren’t put down, they’re put to work.” USA Today, 12 July 2017,

[3] Rothrock, Ellyce. “Cat Tail Language: What Your Cat’s Tail Is Telling You.” Catster, 21 October 2019,

All images and videos taken by the author.

[Edited by Meredith Lutz]

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