The Difference Between a Wild Dog, Feral Dog, and a Stray Dog

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Learn the difference in terminology between wild, feral, and stray, when it comes to dogs. When does a stray dog become feral, when does a feral dog become wild?

When you look at a dog roaming the streets what do you think? Do you consider the dog to be wild, feral, or stray? Most people do not know the difference, and many do not understand what these simple, common words mean, as they apply to dogs.

Wild Dogs

african wild dog

photo source

Correctly speaking any dog you see on a city street is probably not a wild dog. Wild dogs are really those born wild, to wild parents, and who have never had an owner. Although there is a blurry line between “Feral” and “Wild”, a true wild dog is a dog such as a Dingo, an African Wild Dog, or a New Guinea Singing Dog. These are dogs which have lived wild for generations without human interference in their breeding and genetics, and have gone without owners.

"Wild" can also refer to a behavior seen in feral dogs, in that they do not accept, or are totally fearful of humans. 

Feral Dogs

feral dogs in India

photo source

A feral dog is most often a dog who had an owner at some point, but has been discarded for such a period of time that it no longer behaves “tame”. We enter that blurry area, as feral dogs are also offspring of dogs that have been discarded, and their offspring as well. While some of these dogs may never have had an owner, or known the comfort of being a “pet”, they are not truly “wild” under technical terms, although in behavior they may be totally unsocial to humans. Most dogs who are descendent's of domesticated dogs, no matter how many generations ago, are considered feral as opposed to “wild”.

Stray Dogs

stray dog

photo source

A stray dog is simply a lost dog, or one that was recently abandoned, or discarded, by its owner. A stray dog, if not caught and reunited with its owner, will eventually become a feral dog. The line of separation between being a “stray” and being “feral” is also blurred, but marked somewhat in that a stray dog still has some trust of humans, where as the feral dog behaves as though it is more or less wild and independent.


Of the three, the feral dog is the most dangerous to humans, and even other dogs. The feral dog may not have as much fear of humans as a wild dog, but does not respect them either. They may form packs and attack livestock, pets, or even people. In areas where feral dogs are common children should not be left alone outside for fear of a pack attack. Feral dogs are quite comfortable among human buildings, and activity, more so that an truly wild one would be, and are not as easy to intimidate.

Feral dogs also pose problems to our pets in that they spread diseases in areas where people have pets.  In India they are blamed for spreading Rabies, infecting thousands of people every month.

What to do when Encountering a Strange Dog

Wild dogs can often be scared away with loud noises. Feral dogs may require harsher threats, as such most areas try to capture feral dogs. In areas where animal control does not exist people may try to deal with the feral dog population problem by poisoning them, shooting them, or other means.

Stray dogs should be thought of as "lost dogs", caught and taken to the local animal control (SPCA, humane society) so their original owner can be found. A person who sees a stray dog can also (rather than try to catch it) phone their local shelter and see if an owner has reported their dog missing, and as such the owner can come to retrieve their dog. It should never be assumed that a stray dog was discarded by the owner, although many are, some have simply gotten out of a broken fence, or even been taken by a neighbor and dumped some place else.

Further Reading

What to do when you Find a Stray Pet

The Difference Between Mutts, Purebred, and Designer, Dogs

Help for Owners who think their Dog was Abused

1 comment

Jerry Walch
Posted on Feb 15, 2011