How to Tell if a Cat is a Stray or a Pet – 7 Telltale Signs

Sometimes it is not easy to tell at first glance if that strange cat that showed up around your house is a legitimate stray or a pet that just happens to be passing by. In fact, you cannot always tell from a distance. Sometimes you have to get up close and personal so that you can really examine the animal. That is, if the cat isn’t so shy that it runs away as soon as you try to get close.

Being that it is my mission to provide sound and useful advice about stray cats, I thought it appropriate to create a guide listing different ways to tell the difference between a stray cat and a pet cat just passing through. Knowing the difference could influence decisions you make regarding a newly discovered cat in your immediate vicinity. Before I get into each point in depth, the list for telling the difference between a stray cat and a pet cat are the following:

  1. The appearance of the cat’s coat
  2. The cat’s weight
  3. The condition of the cat’s feet
  4. The cat’s general behaviour
  5. The cat’s persistence (or not) of establishing and maintaining human contact
  6. The time of day the cat appears
  7. The presence of a collar or chip

First Thing’s First

This guide will discuss seven telltale signs for determining the status of an unknown cat. But first thing’s first. We have to establish the terms of the discussion in order to avoid any confusion. Why is this necessary? Because people frequently use the terms ‘stray’ and ‘feral’ interchangeably.

Here on my website, we recognize three different kinds of cats that people encounter. These are:

  • Feral Cats – Feral cats are cats that have never known human companionship. They are born outside of human interaction; they lived their entire lives outside of human interaction. They live ‘in the wild’ so to speak, even if that means making a home behind the garage of one of your neighbors.
  • Stray Cats – Stray cats are cats that were born as pets and have lived most of their lives with human companionship. They may be out and about because they wandered away from home and got lost. They may be stray because their owners could no longer take care of them and chose to dump them somewhere. In either case, they are not used to being on their own.
  • Pets – These are cats born as pets and still living as such. More often than not they are outdoor cats that simply prefer not to be cooped up in the house. They spend all day wandering around outside before returning home in the evening (or vice versa, as the case may be).

The Role of Animal Shelters and Rescue Organizations

Identifying and Caring for Stray Cats

Animal shelters and rescue organizations play an essential role in the identification, rescue, and care of stray cats. These dedicated establishments are staffed by professionals and volunteers who are committed to the wellbeing of animals.

If you find a stray cat, your first port of call could be one of these organizations. Many of them operate hotlines where they provide guidance and assistance for cases exactly like yours. Not only can they help identify whether the cat is a stray, but they also have the resources to take care of itOpens in a new tab. if necessary.

Services Provided by Animal Shelters

Animal shelters are equipped with state-of-the-art tools and facilities. One of the most critical services they provide is scanning for microchips. A microchip is a small device, typically the size of a grain of rice, implanted under a pet’s skin. This chip contains unique identification information that can help trace the animal back to its owner. If a stray cat has a microchip, it’s likely that it’s lost, rather than feral.

Shelters also have veterinary facilities, which can check the health of the cat and administer necessary treatments or vaccinations. Some shelters provide temporary foster care services, or can help to find new forever homes for unclaimed cats.

Supporting You in Helping Stray Cats

Beyond directly caring for stray cats, these organizations also provide invaluable support for people who find stray cats. They can advise you on what steps to take, depending on the specific circumstances. In some cases, they can even send a representative to help catch a particularly elusive feline.

Remember, it’s not your responsibility to solve the stray cat problem single-handedly. Animal shelters and rescue organizations are there to help, and they are just a phone call away. By working together, we can ensure that stray cats receive the care and attention they need.

Let’s now get to the telltale signs that will help you figure out the difference between a stray cat and a pet.

1. The Appearance of the Coat

The first thing to look at is the appearance of the cat’s coat. A clean and well-kept coat is indicative of a cat that has the time and safety for plenty of self-grooming. This would suggest a pet who just happens to like being outdoors. If the cat’s coat appears dirty and grungy, you’re probably looking at a stray. Don’t assume a dirty and grungy code is indicative of a feral cat; it’s not.

Feral cats are used to surviving on their own. They are good hunters and adept at sheltering and self-defense. As such, they have plenty of time to groom themselves. Strays are just the opposite. They are not used to being on their own. They are poor hunters and aren’t very good at sheltering themselves. Because they are spending so much time and energy just trying to stay alive, they don’t pay a lot of attention to grooming.

2. The Cat’s Weight

Next is the cat’s weight. Both feral cats and pets should look healthy in this regard. The pet is fed regularly at home while the feral cat is a good enough hunter to maintain its weight. A stray cat may look lean and somewhat gaunt because it’s not eating. The combination of a grungy coat and low weight almost always indicates a stray.

3. The Condition of the Feet

If you can get close enough to an unknown cat to examine its feet, the condition of the pads will tell you a lot. Soft pads with little or no sign of physical damage are most likely to be observed in pets. Pads that are somewhat soft but show signs of minor damage (like cuts, scrapes, and bites) are more commonly observed in strays. Feral cats will have calloused, weathered pads as a result of being outdoors all the time.

4. The Cat’s General Behavior

It’s common to jump to conclusions about a cat based on its general behavior. Although you can tell a lot about a cat by the way it carries itself, take some time to step back and observe before you approach the animal. Observing at a distance offers the most usable impression.

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As a general rule, outdoor cats are confident in their surroundings. They tend to not be skittish around human beings. If you are able to approach an outdoor cat, its status as a pet would mean it is likely to welcome contact with you.

A stray cat can be either skittish or friendly depending on circumstances. A new stray is more likely to be friendly given that it still has some memory of its experience with human beings. The longer a stray remains a stray though, the less friendly it’s likely to be. Cats that end up as long-term strays tend to become skittish.

As for feral cats, they can go either way too. They are more likely to run away or act aggressively if they feel threatened, though. So that’s something to watch out for should you decide to approach.

Socialization and Behavior Differences between Stray, Feral, and Pet Cats

Stray Cats

Stray cats are those that were once domesticated but have since lost their homes or have been abandoned. Despite their current circumstances, these cats have been socialized to humans at some point in their lives. This background influences their behavior, making them more likely to seek human interaction. Stray cats may approach people, houses, porches, or cars. They might meowOpens in a new tab. or purr, appearing friendly and eager for attention, and are generally more visible during the daytime than feral cats.

Feral Cats

On the other hand, feral cats are not accustomed to human interaction and often view people with caution. Born and raised in the wild, their behavior is starkly different from that of pet or stray cats. They are likely to avoid humans and often hide during the day, becoming active during the night when there’s less human activity. Feral cats generally don’t meow, purr, or make other sounds towards humans, as these are learned behaviors from interacting with people. They tend to form colonies with other feral cats for survival, exhibiting complex social structures within these groups.

Pet Cats

Pet cats, in contrast, are well-socialized to people and usually comfortable in human environments. They’re used to human contact and often show affection towards their owners or familiar humans. Unlike stray or feral cats, pet cats usually have a reliable food source and don’t have to compete or hunt for their meals. These cats often exhibit a range of interactive behaviors, including purring, meowing, and seeking out touch or play, behaviors less commonly observed in stray and particularly in feral cats.

The Impact of Environment and Upbringing

The differences in behavior between these three types of cats primarily stem from their upbringing and the environments in which they live or have lived. Cats, like many animals, are significantly influenced by their early life experiences and socialization process. This highlights the importance of treating every cat as an individual, recognizing their unique backgrounds, experiences, and behaviors. Understanding these differences can guide us in how we approach and interact with each cat, ensuring we meet their individual needs and promote their welfare.

5. The Animal’s Persistence

There are times when a new cat arrives in the area and just won’t seem to go away. This is another one of those situations in which you can rule out the feral car. Feral cats will not persist in attempting to establish human contact because it’s not important to them. On the other hand, it is important to strays.

A stray cat is generally a hungry cat who knows that humans are a source of food. So while a pet may spend some time hanging around before going home, a stray will stick around in hopes that you will feed and shelter it. You’re probably dealing with a stray if the cat sticks around for days on end.

6. The Time of Day

This next telltale sign is one that surprises a lot of people. Here it is: the time of day you normally see the cat in question may give an indication of its status. Feral cats are very territorial and tend to follow a certain schedule. You may see them out and about during the day, but you won’t see them early in the morning or late at night. They stick close to their shelters during those times.

A pet is an outdoor cat that goes home every evening. Therefore, it’s rare to see pets out and about during the early morning and evening hours. You would certainly not (under normal circumstances) expect to see them out overnight. That brings us to stray cats.

Stray cats really have no home. They also lack the survival skills necessary to adequately shelter themselves. So if you see a cat wandering around early in the morning, during the evening hours or overnight, it is most likely a stray that doesn’t know enough to take cover.

7. The Presence of Collars and/or Chips

One of the most telling signs that an unfamiliar cat is a pet rather than a stray or feral is the presence of clear identifiers that signify human contact and care. These can come in various forms, with the most common being collars or ID chips.

What are Collars For?

Collars are typically the most visible form of identification. These may be simple fabric bands around the cat’s neck, or they could be flea collars indicating that the cat has been treated for parasites. To assess the status of the cat based on its collar, take note of its condition. If the collar appears worn out, with indications of long-term wear such as fading or fraying, or if a flea and worm collar seems dried out, this could suggest that the cat has been away from home for some time, possibly indicating a stray. On the other hand, a collar that’s in good condition or shows signs of recent placement, such as a new-looking flea collar, likely points to an outdoor pet cat.

What are ID Chips

Besides collars, ID chips are another significant form of identification for pets. Contrary to popular belief, these chips are not typically visible or tangible from outside the cat’s body. Instead, they are tiny devices about the size of a grain of rice that are implanted under the skin, most commonly between the shoulder blades. These chips contain unique identification numbers that can be read by special scanners at vet offices, animal shelters, and some pet stores.

If you suspect that a cat may be a stray or lost pet, you can take it to one of these facilities to have it scanned for a microchip. This is a simple, non-invasive process where a hand-held device is passed over the cat’s body to detect and read the chip. If a chip is present, the scanner will display the unique ID number and the microchip company’s name. The facility can then contact the microchip company to retrieve the owner’s contact information associated with that chip.

Remember, though, not all pet cats have microchips, and not all those with microchips have updated information linked to them. Sometimes owners forget to update their details after moving or changing phone numbers, making it impossible to reach them via the chip’s information. If a chip is detected but you can’t make contact with the owner, you could be dealing with a stray that was previously a pet.

ID Tags and Tattoos

Apart from collars and chips, some pet cats may have other forms of identification, such as ID tags attached to their collars with the owner’s contact details, or even special tattoos usually found in the cat’s ear or on the inner thigh. These tattoos are unique identifiers typically applied by vets to indicate that a cat has been neutered or spayed.

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Remember, all these forms of identification are clues that can help you understand the cat’s status but don’t always provide a definitive answer. Always approach the situation with caution and consider seeking assistance from animal welfare professionals if you’re uncertain.

Possible Health Issues in Stray Cats

Stray cats, due to their exposure to outdoor elements and potential lack of consistent care, are at risk for various health conditions. These ailments can be as simple as fleas or as complex as nutritional deficiencies and diseases. It’s important to know about these potential issues if you come across a stray cat and consider providing care or a new home for it.


Parasites, such as fleas, ticks, and intestinal worms, are common among stray cats. Fleas can cause skin irritations, hair loss, and more serious conditions like anemia, especially in young or frail cats. Ticks can transmit diseases such as Lyme disease, while intestinal worms can lead to weight loss, diarrhea, and other digestive issues.

Skin Conditions

Various skin conditions can affect stray cats, often resulting from parasitic infections, allergies, or injuries. You might notice a cat with patches of hair loss, wounds, or visible discomfort, like constant scratching or licking.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Stray cats often struggle to find adequate food and waterOpens in a new tab., leading to nutritional deficiencies. These deficiencies can manifest in a variety of ways, including weight loss, dull coat, lethargy, and weakened immune system, making the cat more susceptible to infections and diseases.


Without the safety of a consistent home, stray cats are at a higher risk of injuries. They might get into fights with other animalsOpens in a new tab., face accidents like falls or traffic incidents, or get hurt while navigating through tough outdoor conditions. Injuries can range from minor cuts and scrapes to severe wounds or broken bones.

Understanding these potential health issues in stray catsOpens in a new tab. can help guide your actions if you encounter a stray that may need your assistance. It’s always recommended to consult with a veterinarian if you come across a stray cat that appears ill or injured, as they can provide the necessary medical care and advice.

These Are General Rules

I’ve given you seven telltale signs that can help you distinguish between a stray cat and a pet that just happens to be an outdoor cat. Please understand that what you read here is a collection of general rules. Not every stray cat exhibits all of the signs you read about here. Not every pet reacts the same way to human contact. And as for feral cats, they can be highly unpredictable at the best of times.

The best piece of advice I can give you is to observe for as long as you can before making any decisions. Often times the simple act of waiting before you do anything ends up resolving the situation on its own. Don’t just rush in after a few minutes and decide you have a stray cat that need rescuing. Nothing is likely to happen to the animal if you wait a few hours, or even a day, before making a decision.

Once You Know

In the case that you are dealing with an outdoor pet, it’s crucial to remember that it belongs to someone else. Tempting as it might be to befriend this cat, it’s essential to resist feeding it, petting it, or attempting to form a bond with it. This is to ensure the cat continues its routine and returns home to its rightful owner as expected. Establishing a connection might disrupt its regular pattern and cause distress to both the cat and its owner.

However, if you’ve assessed the seven telltale signs outlined in this guide and you conclude that you are dealing with a stray cat, a different course of action becomes necessary. This situation presents you with a number of options: you can attempt to find the cat’s previous owner, consider adopting the cat yourself, or take the animal to a local shelter. Each option carries its own set of considerations and challenges.

  1. Finding the Cat’s Previous Owner: If you choose to find the original owner, you may want to start by having the cat scanned for a microchip at a local veterinarian office or animal shelter, if you haven’t done so already. Post “found cat” notices in your community and on local social media pages. Include a photo and a detailed description of the cat, but consider withholding one identifying feature that only the true owner would know, to protect against false claims.
  2. Adopting the Cat: If you’re considering adopting the stray cat, it’s essential first to get a full health check-up. Stray cats might carry diseases or parasites that could be harmful to you or other pets in your household. Following a clean bill of health, begin the process of gradually introducing the cat to its new environment. Start by setting up a quiet, comfortable space for the cat with all necessary amenities. Slowly allow the cat to explore more of your home at its own pace.

Be patient and gentle with your new feline friend, understanding that it might take time for the cat to adjust to its new surroundings and learn to trust you. Regular feeding, providing clean water, and ensuring a clean litter box will help the cat feel safe and cared for.

Introduce any existing pets very gradually, under controlled conditions, to avoid conflict. Always be mindful of the body language of all animals involved. Seek professional advice if you have concerns.

  1. Fostering the Cat: If you’re unable to adopt but still want to help, fostering the cat temporarily while a permanent home is found is a wonderful option. This includes providing the same care as adoption until the cat can be placed in a permanent home. Contact local animal shelters or rescue organizations, as many offer foster programs and provide assistance with food, supplies, and medical care.
  2. Taking the Cat to a Shelter: If you’re unable to provide care or find a home, taking the cat to a local animal shelter is the best option. Prioritize no-kill shelters or rescue organizations when possible.

Regardless of the path you choose, remember that patience and compassion will be your greatest tools. Transitioning from a life on the streets to a loving home can be stressful for a cat. However, with time and love, even the most skittish stray can become a cherished pet.

Legal Responsibilities and Considerations

When encountering a stray cat, it’s essential to be aware that there are certain legal responsibilities and considerations that could come into play. Across different jurisdictions, the laws about pet ownership and handling stray animals can vary considerably. As such, understanding these laws can guide your actions and help you make informed decisions.

Pet Owners’ Responsibilities

As a pet owner, it’s your duty to provide for the welfare of your pet, which includes meeting their basic needs, such as food, water, shelter, veterinary care, and attention. In many places, pet owners are required by law to microchip their pets and keep their contact information up-to-date. This is important not only for the welfare of the pet but also to mitigate potential issues if the pet goes missing or is suspected of being a stray.

Dealing with Stray Animals

The laws around handling stray animals can also differ. Some jurisdictions encourage people to bring stray animals to local shelters, where they can be cared for and potentially reunited with their owners. Other areas may have more stringent regulations, even discouraging citizens from feeding or sheltering strays. So, upon discovering a stray cat, it’s advisable to contact your local animal control agency or a local shelter to understand the best course of action.

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Legal Consequences

Also, bear in mind that while it might be tempting to immediately adopt a stray, there can be legal ramifications. If the stray cat you’ve found actually has an owner, keeping the cat could potentially lead to legal disputes over ownership. Therefore, it’s best to report the found animal to the proper authorities and take steps to locate the potential owner.

In essence, understanding your legal responsibilities and considerations is vital when dealing with stray cats. Acting in accordance with local laws not only protects you but also ensures the welfare and safety of the cats involved.

How to Tell if a Cat is a Stray or a Pet – Conclusion

Being able to tell the difference between a stray cat and a pet can be helpful if you’re considering helping it and taking responsibility for its care. It’s important to look for telltale signs, such as the appearance of the coat and the presence or absence of a collar, to determine the cat’s status. Stray cats are vulnerable to various health conditions, and it’s crucial to seek professional help if you’re planning to take care of them. By fostering, adopting, or taking the cat to a no-kill shelter, you can provide a promising solution and help provide a safe and fulfilling life for stray cats in your community.

Key Takeaways

  1. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a stray cat and a pet cat at first glance.
  2. Stray cats were born as pets and may have gotten lost or abandoned by their previous owners.
  3. Feral cats are used to surviving on their own and are good at hunting and sheltering.
  4. Stray cats are vulnerable to various health conditions and may become less friendly over time.
  5. Persistence in attempting to establish human contact is a sign that a cat is likely a stray rather than a feral cat.
  6. Seeking professional help when caring for stray cats is crucial for their well-being.
  7. Fostering, adopting or taking a cat to a no-kill shelter are promising solutions to provide a safe and fulfilling life for stray cats.
  8. Understanding the differences between stray, feral, and pet cats can guide us in how we approach and interact with them, ensuring their individual needs are met and their welfare is promoted.


Q: What is the difference between a stray cat and a pet cat? A: A stray cat is a cat that was born as a pet and has lived most of its life with human companionship but has lost its home. A pet cat is a domesticated animal, often living in the house with human companionship, but might also spend time outdoors.

Q: What are some signs that a cat might be a stray? A: Stray cats often have a grungy-looking coat, look lean or gaunt due to lack of food, have minor damage on their foot pads, and might be either skittish or friendly depending on how long they’ve been strays.

Q: Can a clean and well-kept cat be a stray? A: While a clean and well-kept coat often suggests a pet, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a stray cat, especially if it has recently lost its home.

Q: Why would a stray cat stick around my home? A: Stray cats are generally hungry and know that humans are a source of food. If a cat sticks around your home for several days, it might be hoping you will feed and shelter it.

Q: How can I tell if a cat is feral? A: Feral cats are born and live outside human interaction. They are good hunters, adept at sheltering and self-defense, and are often skittish or aggressive around humans.

Q: Is a feral cat the same as a stray cat? A: No, feral cats are wild animals that have never known human companionship, while stray cats were once pets who have lost their homes.

Q: What should I do if I encounter a stray cat? A: If you encounter a stray cat, you could try to find its original owner, consider adopting it yourself, or take it to a local animal shelter.

Q: How can I find the original owner of a stray cat? A: To find a stray cat’s original owner, you might start by having the cat scanned for a microchip at a vet office or animal shelter. You could also post “found cat” notices in your community and on social media.

Q: Can I adopt a stray cat directly? A: Yes, you can adopt a stray cat directly. But first, get a full health check-up for the cat. Then, gradually introduce the cat to your home and any existing pets.

Q: What should I do if I find a stray cat but can’t adopt it? A: If you find a stray cat but can’t adopt it, you can consider fostering the cat temporarily or taking it to a local animal shelter.

Q: How can I tell if a cat is just an outdoor pet and not a stray? A: Outdoor pets often have a clean and well-kept coat, look healthy in terms of weight, show little to no physical damage on their feet, and are often confident in their surroundings. They might also have a collar or ID chip indicating they have a home.

Q: How should I interact with an outdoor pet cat? A: If you determine a cat is an outdoor pet, you should not feed it, pet it, or try to form a bond with it. This is to ensure the cat continues its routine and returns home to its owner as expected.

Q: Can the time of day help determine if a cat is a stray or a pet? A: Yes, the time of day when you typically see the cat can provide clues. Pets are often seen during the day and rarely in the early morning, evening, or overnight. Strays, lacking a safe shelter, can be seen at any time of day, especially when it’s quiet or when they’re likely to find food.

Q: How can I prevent my outdoor pet cat from being mistaken as a stray? A: Ensuring your cat wears a collar with an ID tag is a good first step. Microchipping your cat is also recommended, as a lost cat can be scanned at an animal shelter or veterinarian’s office to identify its owner.

Q: What if a cat I assumed was a stray was actually a pet? A: If you’ve unintentionally taken in a cat that turns out to be a pet, the best course of action is to contact the owners (if information is available from an ID tag or microchip) or local animal shelters and report that you have found a missing pet.

Q: How can I help a stray cat without adopting it? A: If you are unable to adopt a stray cat, you can still help by providing temporary shelter, food, or even taking it to the vet for medical treatment if needed. You could also consider becoming a foster home or taking the cat to a local animal shelter.

Q: Can stray cats spread diseases to my pet cats? A: Yes, stray cats can potentially spread diseases to your pet cats, particularly if they are not up-to-date on their vaccinations. That’s why it’s important to ensure your pet cats are vaccinated and to get a stray cat checked and vaccinated by a vet before introducing them.

Q: What should I do if a stray cat seems sick or injured? A: If a stray cat appears to be sick or injured, it would be best to contact a local animal rescue group, shelter, or a veterinarian. They will be best equipped to help the cat and provide any necessary treatment.


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Anthony Carter

Anthony is a content creator by profession but cats are a great part of his life. Read about him by clicking on the "About" link.

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