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
cat sitting on top of an outdoor table

First Things 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).

With those definitions out of the way, let’s 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.

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.

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

The next thing you can look for is the presence of something that would indicate human contact. In other words, look for a flea collar or an ID chip embedded in the ear. The presence of either one indicates that the cat in question is not a feral cat. Now you have to decide between a stray and a pet.

If the cat is wearing a flea collar, check the condition of that collar. A dried-out flea and worm collar suggest the animal has been away from home for some time. That would indicate a stray. If the collar looks like it’s in fairly good condition, you’re probably dealing with an outdoor cat.

On the outside chance the cat has an ID chip attached to its ear, you don’t need to guess about its status. You can take the animal to a local pet store or veterinarian and have the ID chip scanned. Then just try to contact the owner. If you make contact, you’re dealing with a pet. If you can’t make contact, you might be dealing with a stray.

black and white cat standing on grass

These Are General Rules

We’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 we 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

Should you determine you are dealing with an outdoor cat, do not do anything that might possibly encourage the animal to stay with you. Don’t feed it, don’t pet it, and don’t attempt to be its friend. Why? Because you don’t want the cat to attach itself to you. Remember, this is someone else’s pet. The rightful owner wants the cat to come home on schedule. If you befriend the cat, that may never happen.

Let’s assume you determine you are actually dealing with a stray cat – after taking a look at the seven telltale signs listed in this guide. What next? Then you have to decide whether you want to try to find the cat’s owner, adopt the animal as your own, or take it to a local shelter. It may not be an easy choice to make.

You might want to take a few minutes and look through some of the other information here on our website. We offer plenty of advice on caring for stray cats. By reading through some of our other guides, you might find the information you need to make the best decision for the animal.