Definitions of various cat populations defy universal acceptance, focusing variably on ownership status, lifestyle, and level of socialization.
Cats: A Highly Adaptable Species
Cats have coexisted with human societies for 10,000 years. Over the millennia, cats have been revered as deities, respected as guardians of the village food supply, feared as partners in witchcraft, and loved as companions.
For the vast majority of this time this highly adaptable species has lived and thrived outdoors in every landscape, from the inner city to rural farmland. Cats did not move into the home in large numbers until the mid-20th century, when commercial cat litter became available. Even so, cats are still regarded as an outdoor species in most of the world.
Definitions of various cat populations defy universal acceptance, focusing invariably on ownership status, lifestyle, and level of socialization. Cats may be defined as “free-roaming” if they are not confined to a yard or house, a definition based on confinement of the animal rather than ownership or socialization status.
The Socialization Status of Free-Roaming Cats
Strictly speaking, feral cats are defined as untamed and evasive, a definition based on socialization status toward people. They are either born in the wild and lack socialization to people or are returned to the wild and become untrusting. Stray cats may be defined as lost or abandoned pet cats that remain socialized and friendly toward humans.
The lines between loosely owned outdoor cats, stray cats, and feral cats are often blurred. Owned cats can become lost. Stray cats that have lived in the wild for an extended time may become feral. Feral cats that are cared for may become tame. Thus, individual cats may occupy different niches at different times in their lives.
The Confusing Definition of Ownership
Animal shelters and municipal ordinances typically dichotomize cats into owned vs. stray, regardless of socialization status. Even the concept of cat ownership is elusive, since many stray cats take up residence with families who were not seeking to acquire pets.
Many municipalities define ownership to occur with the provision of food or shelter, even if the resident makes no claim on the cats for whom they care. A lack of standardization in the use of terminology leads to confusion, difficulty in comparing scientific data from one report to another, and artificial boundaries between intermingled cat populations.
The Concept of Community Cats
Increasing social awareness about unowned, free-roaming cats has resulted in the articulation of a new concept: the “community” or village cat. This terminology describes how cats (and dogs) are regarded in much of the world outside of the United States. In addition to cats who clearly have an identified owner and residence, most communities are also populated by colonies of cats occupying a wide spectrum of socialization level and interactions with human society. These cats are “owned” by the community and the community is their “home.”
The National Animal Control Association (NACA) recognizes these community cats as an integral component of the overall cat population and promotes the development of comprehensive management practices that encompass both owned and community cats (NACA 2008).