Cats - wild versus domestic

There’s a disconnect between those who work hands on with stray and feral cat populations and other people, when it comes to how we perceive outdoor cats. I think the name of the post even points to that. “Domestic cat” is the common name but many of those “domestic” cats are feral or stray, so they are wild. It’s not a versus because they aren’t mutually exclusive ideas in this case when it comes to cats. Many people like to assume it’s a cat, so it is probably owned or it must be owned, especially if it is not aggressive or fearful. Thats an outdated way of looking at the cat crisis most of the world faces. People who work with stray and feral cat populations often must have the perspective that a cat outdoors, no collar, unneutered, unvaccinated and no microchip, is a form of stray or feral, even if it is socialized. That must be the assumption to properly counter and prevent the spread of disease and to prevent their populations from exploding. It gets messy in terms of deeming them wild or not on iNaturalist because you just see images and that’s it. There’s not always context to help clarify the situation. What about instances where it’s unclear if a cat is owned but it’s outside with no collar? Well, for people who work with trapping and neutering stray and feral cats, that is a cat we see as being stray for the time being because we have to trap it to find out more about it. But for people who live in the neighborhood and see the cat walking around regularly, they may just see it as a friendly neighborhood cat who must be owned and must have came from somebody’s house. Either one could be right.

This is especially relevant in regions where “street cats” are the most prevalent form of strays. Places like Greece, many South American countries, many African countries, many Asian countries, are overrun with these “street cats”, that are unowned cats, but often friendly and do receive forms of assistance like food, water, even shelter or medical assistance sometimes. That is a type of stray cat, and a stray cat is a wild animal, even when it’s a domestic species. It’s even said that stray animals should be marked as wild in the iNaturalist’s help section about the DQA.

Stray cats and feral cats are not the same, but strays should also be considered wild. As for OP’s observations specifically, I disagree that some of those observations are of captive cats because they appear to be street cats, which like I’ve explained are a form of stray cat, which is a form of wild animal on the site. I’ve explained this before and can accept not everybody agrees, which is why I did skip over the cat observations I identified today from OP, because I realize we just don’t agree on what makes a cat stray / a street cat / wild. Which is okay and I understand because it can be messy and different people feel different ways.

However I think it is at the end of the day inaccurate to consider street cats and stray cats as captive just because they are a domesticated species. It literally says in the iNaturalist help section that stray animals should be marked as wild. That feels extremely straightforward. There’s nothing exclusive to stray and feral cats that cannot be applied to some other animal that’s accepted as wild, which other users have pointed out in the thread already. It also seems illogical to me for stray animals to not be wild but having it be accepted that loose pets that have ran away or are abandoned should be marked as wild. Strays should always be marked as wild.


I should also add that I am not touching on strays that turn into ferals. There’s technically rankings of stray and feral cats, and in just feral cats, that groups use when handling the cats. For example, some strays are socialized and unafraid and can be placed in homes. They can be nearly indistinguishable from pets. One of the major differences from a pet is that they may be unneutered and / or unvaccinated, and then they breed and create truly feral cats, that are not socialized, and that are afraid. All because that initial cat was assumed to be a pet, so nobody intervened and prevented that stray to feral pipeline. That’s just one example of many situations that happen all the time.

I say this to explain that it is complicated and not as simple as some people boil it down to. You don’t have to agree, but I really do recommend people try to read on literature about stray and feral cats and the bigger picture around them and the role they play in the environment, because that might help open people’s minds up to seeing them as wild animals.


There are many cases similar to cats, but, for some reason only cats are considered wild when wild roaming (I specifically avoid the term stray, because it is impossible to distinguish between stray and wild roaming). Let us take, for example, wild roaming cattle in Madeiran mountains - their owner only comes to check their general health and take away a bullock or two… Another example: in Madagascar chickens roam wild all over, coming home for the nightfall. And another - black pigs of Estremadura, which also roam freely and feed almost exceptionally in wild. All these animals make impact on ecosystems, not less than roaming cats make. But for some reason they are not considered wild, when freely roaming cats are. I really would be interested to know why this difference?


You seem to be under the impression that there are special rules for when cats are considered wild on iNaturalist. This is incorrect. Cats follow the exact same rules as all other organisms, which, for the record, are this:

“Checking captive / cultivated means that the observation is of an organism that exists in the time and place it was observed because humans intended it to be then and there. Likewise, wild / naturalized organisms exist in particular times and places because of other reasons (e.g. members of native or established non-native populations or released/escaped pets, hitch-hikers, or vagrants).”

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Not exactly. I am interested why cats, when they cannot be distinguished from a photo whether they are free roaming or feral are marked as wild, meanwhile other domesticated animals in the identical situations do not raise such issues and are marked as domestic as a rule and without much ado.

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This discussion seems to be retreading a lot of ground that has been covered in other forum posts. Some examples that folks may want to check through:
though there are many more.

One thread/trend that comes from those discussions is that for some animals, it can be very difficult to definitely ascertain whether they/their observations should be wild/not wild by iNat’s definitions. Cats are a frequent species to generate these situations, but not exclusively. Norms about pet ownership vary greatly throughout the world - in many places, pets dogs are allowed to roam as cats (though this is much less true in US+Canada). In general, according to iNat’s definitions, a somewhat free-roaming pet would not be considered wild. That is, if a pet is still based out of a home, often sleeps there, receives food there, is given veterinary care, etc., it is not generally considered to be wild even if it patrols an area around its home for some of its time.

A good hypothetical question to ask might be “If this animal’s caretaker moved, would they take the animal with them?” If that’s the case, a human is determining when and where the organism can be and they wouldn’t be wild. If the animal is not enough of a “pet” that they would move with their caretaker, we might consider them wild.

For instance, there might be situations, such as a “barn cat” that lives/hunts in a human-built barn near a house, but recruited itself to the barn, and receives no specific care from humans, which would better be considered “wild” on iNat.

Of course, it can be very difficult to ascertain some of these criteria/differentiate between these situations based solely on photographic evidence, as many of the comments on this and other threads point out. One other fairly consensus point that comes out of all of these threads is that the original observer is generally best positioned to determine whether a given organism is wild or not, as they often have more context than is in the photo alone (how did the animal behave?, have they seen it previously and know it to be a pet in their neighborhood?, did they see a human interacting with the animal as though it were a pet?, etc.). If the observer has made a specific determination about wild/not wild for an observation that appears to be in a gray area, it’s probably best to respect that and give the observer the benefit of the doubt unless it is clear that they are making a mistake in applying iNat’s guidelines.


The key word(s) I feel are “gray area”, and it has the potential to restart the entire conversation, especially because it is so true. Many people still do not agree on a basic level that any cat should be marked as wild, including feral cats, and including very sickly or dirty or malnourished looking cats in areas where there are huge street cat populations. An observation where the observer says “feral cat”, isn’t a gray area to me, but many observations where the observer says that, they, themselves, mark it as captive.

Many observations in countries like Kuwait, Greece, Italy, France and Mexico, have other users who serially vote that these such instances are of “captive” cats, when they are outside and look sickly or extremely dirty, and are somewhere where there’s an overwhelming issue with street cats. Those all feel like clear cases to me, too. Sometimes the observer seems genuinely to be incorrect and they don’t understand that stray and feral cats are wild, or are considered to be on the site. They can accept they are stray or wild, but still don’t think that’s a wild animal. I think by iNaturalist’s own definitions, they’d technically just be incorrect.

I’ve said it already but you don’t have to agree that stray cats and feral cats are “wild”. Honestly I see it more as people not “getting with the times” or “keeping up”, because them being considered wild is just how it is viewed for practical purposes, and it is what many deem to be the reality of the situation. The reality is that they weren’t seen as that big of an issue until the last 20 or so years, which is when groups started to really form more regularly to help the issue. I understand that some people still have an outdated look on it and I also understand I can’t change everybody’s mind all the time. I don’t think some people not being as knowledgeable or informed on it means they are wrong, but it also doesn’t make somebody like myself who is just applying the approach used IRL to the site as being wrong either. It’s a shame there isn’t a universal outlook on it, because it would greatly help more people take them seriously and realize how big of an issue stray and feral cats are, especially stray cats, and could enable groups to better manage the issue before it gets worse, which it constantly is. The assumption among many people who work with the cats is that it needs to be proven to be owned, which is why we have to trap and check for microchips. That assumption has helped prevent cats from breeding many of times and it works well, which is why it is important to see it that way when you’re working with cats and are trying to make a difference.

To get to that point though where you think that way, you have to jump over some hurdles you may have in your mind about what you think about cats and their level of wildness. I think the disconnect starts very early in that thought process which is why so many people are adamant about cats always being “most likely” or “almost definitely” owned. I’ve seen the argument, “this is the suburbs, so it was almost definitely owned”, many times. The disconnect is huge and it really hurts the efforts of the groups who are trying to help manage these cat populations.


This might be erroneous. If it’s a loose pet, that is lost, has ran away, or was abandoned, that should be marked as wild. I can’t speak to other types of animals other than dogs and rabbits, but I’ve found people tend to mark them properly, and usually will lean towards marking as “wild” when it appears to be one of those instances.

My opinion is that it’s because there isn’t much pushback on those animals in those areas. It’s exclusive to certain places, where feral and stray cats are nearly worldwide. There are many organizations and groups that exist solely to limit their numbers. I’m sure some exist for other animals, certainly dogs, but maybe some for chickens or pigs or other farm animals you mentioned, but not to the degree that there is for cats. I think while those other animals may have some similarities to the situation we face with cats, they are not the same, and the approach to them certainly isn’t. I think some of those examples have 0 pushback, where cats have a lot of pushback, in many, many places. I don’t think people use iNaturalist data that much to see where those types of farm animals are free-roaming during the day, but I know for a fact people use the data to try to see where feral and stray cat populations are. Of course I can’t say for sure there aren’t any people doing that with other animals, but there’s been none I’ve seen doing that, where I’ve encountered many people on iNaturalist or who use iNaturalist exclusively for that information about cats.

I agree, by iNat’s definition, these would be “wild”.

I think the alternate idea of “wild” suggested here by others very closely echoes the ABA’s definition of “established” when adding introduced birds to the ABA checklist, and this same debate happens on bird sites all the time. For competitive bird “listers”, a bird is only considered “countable” if it’s part of a self-sustaining population that does not require human interaction to survive. For example, Monk Parakeets from established populations in New York City and Chicago are not “countable” by ABA standards because their populations only persist because of the human cities they inhabit, and the climate of the region, sans humans, would not permit their existence. Technically a vagrant individual Monk Parakeet from Florida that ended up in NYC would be “countable” though, as it comes from an established population that requires no continuous human intervention; it just strayed into an unacceptable climate as an individual. For a long time (maybe still?) Whooping Cranes from the migratory central flyway population were considered “countable” but the non-migratory Florida ones were “not countable” because their population was still considered dependent on human intervention as it established itself. California Condor was considered a “Code 6” bird, i.e. extinct in the wild, even when wild condors were re-introduced into the wild and began breeding, because the population was not adequately self-sustaining yet. The list goes on and on…

My understanding though is that iNat’s wild/captive rules do not recognize any of these “establishment” distinctions that are such a huge part of hardcore bird-listers’ rules. But I see why someone coming from that world would think “cats only persist here due to a human city, so they don’t ‘count’”. If cats were birds and this were an ABA forum, they’d be absolutely right about that. It’s just not what iNat’s “Wild” means. (if it were, someone would have to mark my non-ABA-countable Whoopers as Captive: :O


Monk Parakeets in NYC and Chicago actually are countable by ABA standards:

That being said, I agree the ABA’s standards are dumb, and they should not apply on iNat. I don’t necessarily follow what they say on my own personal life list.

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“climatically impossible” – Several years ago a researcher on Minnesota’s wildlife department studied cats. Among the findings: Cat’s couldn’t survive the Minnesota winter without human help, which they got mainly in the form of shelter in a barn plus water put out for the dog and a daily pan of food shared among all the cats. No individual care. The cats were wild but fed, like the birds on my feeders today and like the birds, they caught a lot of their own food, too.


That disconnect between those that do and do not work with cats is real. I worked as a veterinarian assistant for a decade. “Domestic” was used as a breed designation for all mixed breed cats modified by hair type. Domestic shorthair, Domestic mediumhair,Domestic longhair, as opposed to purebred cats.
We saw many “domestic” stray and/or street cats, mostly kittens from rescue groups.


Yes, which is my point exactly. “Domestic” doesn’t = not wild, at least not on iNaturalist. It sounds contradictory but that’s how the site works and how people IRL who work with cats have to look at things.


My opinion is that this may be because there hasn’t been the kind of negative publicity about them that we constantly see about cats. Everything else you wrote reinforces this: despite the documented adverse impacts of, for instance, feral horses or feral hogs, we don’t see the degree of vitriol against them that we do against any cat that dares set foot outdoors.


I think it probably is because of that. Cats tend to be in populated areas, so people are exposed to them more. They can be in less populated areas like woods, actually a lot of feral colonies are in woods, but many cats start out being in areas with a lot of people, so that again makes it hard to ignore them.


Well, there’s been evidence showing that horses and possibly pigs may not be as harmful to North American ecosystems as initially believed as they are filling existing inches from animals that were recently extirpated (horses are just replacing horses that were also exterpated). Of course it’s complex and they will possibly become overpopulated without appropriate predators (the people who vocally advocate for the wild horses in the US west will probably not vocally advocate for wolves being introduced to eat them nor for human hunters to hunt the horses for food). But cats have a much larger impact in terms of jsut devastating birds and they are often more subsidized by humans in the form of feeding and such, compared with wild hogs, etc. I think there’s a time and place for outdoor cats - i think barn cats, even though they kill birds, are better for removing rodents than anticoagulant pesticide. But, they have a pretty unique and intense impact on the environment, especially small birds that a lot of people care about. I personally think invasive plants are a much bigger issue than invasive mammals anyhow.


You might think differently if you hiked through western rangeland that had been hammered by drought, cattle, AND feral horses. Not to mention the limited wetlands worked over by feral pigs.


Do you have any papers on this supposed lack of negative ecological impact? Or have you just hearing people saying their impact is minimal? Because there’s a lot of crazy people that say that and a lot of evidence to the contrary.

I think all three have both fierce advocates and fierce opponents. There are many people that think feral cats are great, which is why people so commonly feed them. There are also many people that despise feral horses and feral hogs. I think with cats it’s just more of a global issue (though feral hogs certainly are too, but not quite as much as cats).

My response to this remains the same:

Horses have been absent from North America for 10,000-12,000 years and many of the ecological communities that existed in the Pleistocene no longer exist. Horses were not extirpated from North America, they went extinct; they were not the same species as feral horses. While their decline was likely augmented by human hunting, they largely declined because the environment was no longer suitable for them after the end of the Pleistocene.

Furthermore there’s been no evidence that they actually fill the same niche. These bold claims are indeed common rhetoric, but they are unsubstantiated.

It depends on the plant, but overall I agree. Though feral hogs and feral horses really exacerbate the spread of invasive plants, so the two aren’t necessarily separate.


The motive for many behind feeding them is not because we think they are great but because we hope to be able to trap them and ideally socialize them and get them off the streets. At the very least, feeding them often allows people to be able to lead them to different areas or attract more of them, so you’re more likely to be able to find some that are susceptible to being trapped (neutered and vaccinated goes with this) and socialized, so they can be put indoors and with a family, rather than terrorizing the neighborhood / environment they’re in.

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