Defining Community Cats

Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Not all cats can be neatly categorized as feral, stray or pet

A community cat in a 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 the U.S. 

But what exactly is a free-roaming cat?

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

  • A feral cat is unsocialized and fearful of people, which makes him a poor candidate for adoption.
  • A 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.
  • A 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 or ranchers working the land on which they 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, 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 — comes 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, you can read my latest book on how to start a TNR program in your community. It'll be available for purchase at the end of April 2014.


Phoenix Ximenez

Thank you for your work with the TNR program. I have been trying to get my colony under control with little success. I live in Jersey City, NJ and the local resources do not have much funding to assist financially. There is a low-cost fee of $45 for nuetering/spaying, but I have almost 20 cats in my backyard and constantly find new litters. I'm barely making ends meet but am determined to find a way to take care of these cats and keep the numbers down.

I've contacted Paul Bellan-Boyer about the Community Cat Conference scheduled for tomorrow in Jersey City at 10am. I plan to attend and look forward learning more about the TNR program and how I can help..

Phoenix Ximénez


Hi Phoenix, I'm so happy to hear you're trying to help community cats in your neighborhood. You might want to check out the low-cost spay/neuter clinic locator tool we have on our website. We offer TNR grants to qualified 501(c)(3) nonprofit animal welfare organizations. If you know of a group that's interested, have them reach out to us. 


I'm the manager of a new cat coalition in Vancouver, and I'd like to use these definitions as ours. Could I please get permission to do so? Thanks!


Hi, I'm happy to hear you found this helpful. Feel free to use anything on our website, just please cite PetSmart Charities. Thank you for helping cats in Vancouver!


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