Feral and stray cats are the greatest source of cat overpopulation in the United States. A large percentage of feral cats are euthanized each year and governments are trying to implement “catch and kill” programs to decrease the cat population. Feral cats deserve to be treated humanely and be given a chance at a healthy outdoor life. Wikipedia defines a feral cat as a free-roaming cat that is born and raised in the wild. A stray cat is a pet cat that has been abandoned or lost and has reverted back to its “wild” instinctual self in order to survive. These cats have also been referred to as alley cats, street cats, or outside cats.
In the U.S. alone, only 3% of free-roaming cats are neutered or spayed, leaving all the unneutered cats to continue reproducing and growing the feral cat population. One female cat has the ability to produce roughly 100 kittens in seven years1. This high rate of reproduction among feral cats is why feral cats account for 80% of the cats that barrage animal shelters. In California alone, animal control agencies and shelters for cat-related expenses spend more than $50 million per year.
Sadly, out of the 80% of feral cats that are turned in to animal shelters, 72% of these cats are subjected to euthanasia. Once a cat is turned in at a pound or shelter, there are only 3 possible outcomes for that cat: being adopted; reunited with their owner; or, being euthanized.
What is Trap-Neuter-Return?
One of the most popular programs currently in practice for feral and stray cats is the trap-neuter-return program, also referred to as TNR. This program is a non-lethal method to reduce the feral cat population and involves humanely trapping feral cats, having them spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and ideally cleaned, and then returning them to their cat colony to live out their lives, receiving ongoing care in the outdoors.
This method of controlling the cat population is remarkably more cost effective than trapping and killing feral cats. TNR costs roughly $50-$60 for the entire process, while it generally costs roughly $100-$105 to euthanize a cat. There are even a few TNR programs throughout the U.S. that cover the full cost for TNR, making the expense for the individual trapping the cat $0.
How TNR Works
If you are thinking about attempting TNR, it is important to be educated on how it works and what happens when the cat is taken to the vet. Perhaps attend a training workshop, or watch the Humane Society's training video. Then, make sure to find a feral-friendly vet to perform the procedure. In the best of feral clinics, once the cat is trapped and turned into the vet to get spayed or neutered, the vet will do a full examination to check for illnesses, wounds, etc. The cat will then have surgery to get neutered. While the cat is under for surgery, the vet will give the feral cat a vaccination for rabies and, ideally, a flea treatment and a treatment for internal parasites. A great vet will also clean the cat, and treat any wounds that the feral cat may have. After a feral cat has been spayed/neutered the vet may also notch or tip the left ear so that it can be identified as a cat that has already been trapped and neutered.
Steps to Perform TNR
One thing people do not realize is that there are proper ways to perform trap-neuter-release (TNR) on feral cats. It is important to understand how TNR works and how to properly execute the procedure before attempting it on your own, so read below and also try to attend a local training session if one is available to you.
- Obtain a Live Feral Cat Trap: The trickiest part of the TNR program is humanely and safely trapping the feral cat. Live feral cat traps are made for the purpose of this task. Many organizations and shelters provide free rentals of live cat traps. These programs sometimes offer a course on how to properly trap a feral cat before you can obtain your free rental. If you are unsure of how to trap a feral cat or have any concerns, it may be in your best interest to take a course before attempting to trap a cat. If you plan on participating in the TNR program regularly or are a colony leader, you may want to consider purchasing your own live feral cat trap. These traps typically run anywhere from $50 to $80 depending on the size and complexity of the trap.
- Inform Your Neighbors: One thing to keep in mind before you decide on setting your trap is to inform your neighbors that have cats or small dogs when you are going to set the trap. You would not want a pet cat or dog accidentally getting trapped instead of the intended feral cat.
- Bait and Set the Trap: If you regularly feed feral cats, the best time to try and trap a cat is at the cat’s normal feeding time. The most effective method to get the cat into the trap is to put a small spoonful of wet cat food inside the trap. If the trap is a 2-door trap, always make sure the rear door of the trap is secured. Some people choose to camouflage the trap with a cover. It is extremely important to make sure the proper size trap is used. For feral cats the dimensions of the trap should be approximately 32"L x 10"W x 12"H. Note: Never Leave the Trap Unattended For Long Periods of Time It is important to stay around the area in which you set the trap. Once a cat is trapped, it is important to put them in a safe and quiet place afterwards. Trapped cats left out in the open can be vulnerable to other wild animals and people. It is suggested that you check the trap every 30 minutes.
- What to Do with a Trapped Cat: Once the cat is caught, make sure to completely cover the trap; this will help calm the cat. Always check the trapped cat to make sure that they have not previously participated in the TNR program - this can be identified a notched or tipped left ear. Important: Never try to trap a nursing feline mother. If the mother cat is trapped it is possible that her kittens could starve or be susceptible to predators. Make sure to check the trapped cat to see if it is nursing; indications of this can be enlarged and pinkish nipples and matted fur surrounding them. If you have trapped a lactating female, you have the option of releasing it or taking it to the vet and having it spayed and released the same day.
- Caring for the Cat Before Surgery: If the cat is trapped outside of normal vet or organization hours, you will need to hold the cat overnight until you can take it to your local TNR program. Do not feed the cat, an empty stomach is required for anesthesia, but you may give the cat water inside its trap. To prevent the feral cat from creating a lot of noise, keep the trap covered and in a closed quiet room. Keep any children or other pets away from the cat. It is suggested that you put newspaper under the trap so that the cat can go to the bathroom without making a mess. Make sure to change the dirty newspaper often.
- Take the Cat to a Vet or Shelter: Not all veterinarian practices participate in TNR programs, so make sure to check with your local vet or contact your local TNR programs. During working hours, as soon as possible, take the trapped cat to the vet or other organization that will be performing the neutering. The vet will let you know when you can pick up the cat. Not all veterinarian practices participate in TNR programs so make sure to check with your local vet or local TNR programs.
- Release the Cat: Always make sure to release a cat back to the same place that it was trapped. Most feral cats are part of a colony of cats and it is important that they be released back into that colony. The best time to release a cat is very early in the morning or at dusk so that the darkness can provide security and cover for the cat.
Common Misconceptions, Debunked
1. Most Feral Cats are in Good Health
Many people believe that feral cats are unhealthy and carry diseases that could potentially put humans and their pets at risk. According to Alley Cat, out of all of the feral cats that were examined to be spayed or neutered, less than half of one-percent (0.05) were euthanized due to medical issues. This means that almost the entire feral cat population is healthy and not carrying any diseases that could harm your pets. When cats are brought into shelters or vets through the TNR program they are given a full examination and then they are vaccinated for rabies and other diseases and given flea and parasite treatment. Any wounds that the cat may have are also repaired and treated. TNR programs will not release a cat that is too unhealthy, or that is unfit to survive in the wild. In actuality, by participating in the TNR program, cats are likely to be healthier than if left to their own devices.
2. Free-Roaming Cats are Not Suffering When They are Living Outdoors
There is a common misconception that the quality of life for free-roaming cats is extremely poor and that they live a life of suffering. This is indeed false. Just like any other wild animal, cats are born with instinctual survival skills and can live comfortably in the wild. They are able to find shelter if they need it and hunt for their food. Feral cats will adapt to their environment just like a squirrel would.
3. Feeding Bans are NOT the Solution
One belief that people have is that, if you take the food away, then the cats will go away. That is extremely false. Some areas of the U.S. have enforced feeding bans so that residents living in that area are legally deterred from not putting out food for feral cats. Just because a food source is taken away and not readily available does not mean the cats will go away and find food elsewhere. When food sources are scarce, feral cats tend to move closer to human habitations, as they grow hungrier in hopes of finding scraps of food. When cats are malnourished they have a greater risk of developing parasitic infestations and since cats move closer to humans when hungry, this leaves those infections closer to your home and your pets. Cats will also continue to breed despite the lack of food. So the moral of the story is that feeding bans do more harm than good when it comes to trying to control feral cat populations.
4. Simple Cat Relocation Does Not Solve the Problem
It is common to think that the solution to a cat overpopulation problem is to simply relocate the cats. Sure, this method will get rid of the one cat, however, this method is extremely counterproductive. Once a cat is eradicated, this opens up a spot among the colony for another cat to come in and take its place. This method does not provide a solution to the breeding problem and could cause more breeding in other areas to which the cat was relocated. If several cats are removed at one time, this can lead to an influx of rodents around your home and increase the spread of disease that these rodents are carrying. Feral and stray cats provide rodent control.
Benefits of TNR
1. TNR Saves Kittens
Every time a feral cat has kittens, it significantly lowers the odds that other kittens in shelters will be adopted. With so many cats inundating the shelters, competition for homes is fierce. By spaying and neutering feral cats, we reduce the cat population, which in turn reduces the number of cats that are turned into shelters for adoption. Unfortunately, feral kittens are not adoptable without extensive training first, and if a kitten does not get adopted in a shelter, it is likely to be subject to euthanasia. TNR can help prevent this.
2. TNR Prevents Overpopulation of Feral Cats
Getting feral and stray cats spayed or neutered prevents them from reproducing, helping to stop the rising cat overpopulation. This can help the quality of life for feral cats, help reduce the number of cats around your neighborhood, and reduce the spread of disease and the number of cat deaths.
3. Feline Nuisance Behavior is Reduced by TNR
One major complaint about feral cats is their behavior. Many cats will participate in excessive fighting, whether it be territorial, food-related, over a female cat, etc. This can lead to loud noise outside of your home. Another behavior that is common among feral cats is spraying their urine on structures around your property to mark their territory. Nuisance behavior becomes more rampant when feral cats breed in sheltered areas close to or in homes it can lead to property destruction. It is a fact that when cats are spayed or neutered, there is a decrease in this kind of behavior, making living among feral cats much more pleasant.
4. TNR is the Most Cost-Effective and Humane Way to Control the Feral Cat Population
TNR can help save shelters, pounds and animal control agencies a significant amount of money. For one cat to participate in the TNR program, it is half the cost of euthanizing that same cat.
5. TNR-Cats Provide Excellent Rodent Control
Cats are natural born hunters. Free-roaming cats find many of their meals in rodents that are living around your home. Having feral cats controlling the rodent population can prevent rodents from making their way into your home and getting into your food supply. Reducing the rodent population also protects your pets from coming into contact with them, and the diseases they carry.
6. TNR-Cats Live Healthier, Happier Lives
There are many forms of cancer and diseases that can be associated with having an excessive amount of pregnancies in cats. When a female cat has too many pregnancies it promotes mammary, uterine, and other health problems. Spaying cats is a way to keep cats healthier and prevent premature deaths. Cats that are spayed also do not go into heat, which attracts fewer tomcats, resulting in less fighting and injury. Neutered and spayed cats also live longer, and remain in the same colony for a longer period of time.
There have been many studies done in various programs throughout the U.S. on the effectiveness of TNR programs. Multiple programs have been implemented and reported decreased numbers in their cat populations since implementing the TNR program. It has been proven that Trap-Neuter-Return can stabilize the feral cat population. During an 11-year study at the University of Florida, a TNR program was implemented and the number of cats on campus declined by 66%. It was also found that no new kittens were born in the first 4 years that the program was put into place.
At the University of Texas A&M, a TNR program was set into effect and neutered 123 cats in one year and discovered no new kittens in the next year. In the city of Berkeley and San Diego County, they reported that euthanasia rates for all cats that are brought to their shelters have been reduced by approximately 50% since free spay and neuter and TNR programs have been put into place. Euthanasia rates have also decreased 29% in Indianapolis when IndyFeral was started in 2002. Indianapolis Animal Care & Control also reported a 37% decrease in feral cat intake since the program was formed.
Best Friends Animal Society partnered with Petsmart Charities to prove that TNR programs have the potential to cut taxpayers costs in half in comparison to the “catch and kill” method. The study states that to trap and kill feral cats accumulates to a total cost of $16 billion. Whereas TNR programs would cost approximately $9 billion to support and run these programs by rescue organizations and volunteers.
TNR not only is effective for feral cat population control but it is also effective for cutting government spending.
Trap-Neuter-Return programs have been proven to be a more humane and effective solution to controlling the feral cat population. Feral cats are not unhealthy creatures that deserve to be euthanized - they are able to survive in the wild and live out a long and happy life. Studies have produced research that supports TNR and its effectiveness at controlling and reducing feral cat populations.
Too many cats are euthanized each year, costing US taxpayer’s exorbitant amounts of money; it is time to take steps to reduce feral cat euthanasia rates, which have been proven ineffective in controlling the feral cat population. Let’s give feral cats, and our wallets, a break. 1 There are approximately 146 million cats, and of this 146 million, about half of these cats are feral or stray cats.