Defining Community Cats


Not all cats can be neatly categorized as feral, stray or pet

Bryan Kortis
Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Feral cat in fieldI spend a lot of time explaining how Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is the most humane, effective approach to reducing the growing free-roaming cat population in Canada.

But what exactly is a free-roaming cat?

Traditionally, the animal welfare field has classified cats into 3 categories:

  • feral cat is unsocialized and fearful of people, which makes him a poor candidate for adoption.
  • stray cat once lived in a home, but was lost or abandoned and forced to survive on his own. Strays can usually be quickly re-socialized and adopted, if homes are available.
  • pet cat is a companion animal with an identifiable owner and home.

However, classifying cats isn’t so easy — not all cats fall into these categories.

For example, barn cats are often feral, but share qualities of pet cats because they’re essentially owned by the farmers working the land on which the cats live. In some low-income communities, it is common for people to feed and care for cats and allow them into their homes. 

But these same people would not say they own the cats, nor would they take the cats with them when they move. Elsewhere, cats people do claim as pets may spend most or all of their time outdoors, freely mixing with local ferals and strays.

Some cats truly belong to a community

New terms have evolved to describe the many cats who defy simple classification. “Free-roaming” cats spend most of their time unconfined outdoors. This term focuses on lifestyle rather than temperament or ownership, and free-roaming cats can include ferals, strays and pets.

Another label with growing popularity is “community” cats. The name reflects a belief that when cats are not owned by any individual, they belong to the community, which has collective responsibility for their care. (At PetSmart Charities of Canada, we use the terms free-roaming cats and community cats interchangeably.)

The new terms mirror the development of TNR. To stop reproduction, TNR programs need to spay or neuter any free-roaming cat, whether feral, stray, owned or some combination. To be most effective, TNR programs need support — legal, financial and otherwise — from the community. The greatest overall impact, and improvement in cats’ lives, happens when an entire community shares the responsibility for and commitment to the TNR effort.

To learn more about how to control your community’s free-roaming cat population through TNR, read my latest book on how to start a TNR program in your community. 


PetSmart Charities of Canada finds homes for nearly 20,000 cats and dogs each year. The newest member of your family could be just a click away.