Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR)
We are active supporters of TNR animal control programs. Due to physical and time limitations we no longer provide trapping and transport services for TNR but will work with you to show you how to trap and handle the cats in your area.
We also have a small bank of traps that we loan out on a first come, first serve basis to help you trap and fix your feral/free roaming cats. We generally have a back log of TNR projects so it may take a while to get you the training and equipment you need to complete you effort.
As information it currently costs approximately $35 to have a feral cat spayed or neutered at the Alabama Spay/Neuter Clinic. An excellent step by step process for how to plan and execute a TNR project is available on the Alley Cat Allies web site http://www.alleycat.org. Included below is a shorter version of that process:
What is Trap-Neuter-Return?
Trap-neuter-return, commonly known as TNR, is the only method proven to be effective at controlling feral cat population growth. TNR involves trapping all or most of the cats in a colony, getting them neutered, and then returning them to their territory. The returned cats, who are ear-tipped to identify them as neutered, are provided regular food and shelter and are monitored by their caretaker for newcomers. Whenever possible, kittens young enough to be readily socialized and friendly adults are removed and placed for adoption.
TNR immediately stabilizes the size of the colony if at least 70 percent of the fertile adults are neutered. Neutering closer to 100 percent will result in a gradual decline of the population over time. In addition, the nuisance behavior often associated with feral cats is dramatically reduced. This includes the yowling and noise that comes with fighting and mating activity and the odor of un-neutered males’ spraying to mark their territory. The cats tend to roam less and so become less of a visible presence.
They continue to provide natural rodent control, a particularly TNR immediately stabilizes the size of the colony if at least 70 percent of the fertile adults are neutered. Neutering closer to 100 percent will result in a gradual decline of the population over time. In addition, the nuisance behavior often associated with feral cats is dramatically reduced. This includes the yowling and noise that comes with fighting and mating activity and the odor of un-neutered males’ spraying to valuable benefit in urban areas. .
First: What is a “Feral” Cat?
A feral cat is a cat who has reverted in some degree to a wild state. Such cats originate from domestic cats who have been lost or abandoned and have learned to live outdoors or in structures such as warehouses, factories, abandoned buildings, or barns.
They adapt to urban areas as well as rural, establishing themselves in back alleys, parking lots, and piers, to name a few. In most cases, feral cats are not completely wild because they still depend on people for food, whether the source is a caretaker who comes by once or twice a day, a dumpster outside a restaurant, garbage cans, or the like.
Relatively few feral cats subsist by hunting alone. Just how feral a cat is depends on several factors. First is the age of the cat. After six or seven weeks, a kitten’s ability to socialize starts to diminish. How many generations the particular line of cats has been living outside a human home is another important factor. A cat born to a mother who was herself a domestic will tend to be less feral than a cat who is tenth-generation living outdoors.
The amount of human contact is a third factor. If the cats have regular interaction with people, they’ll be less wild than if they live in a spot where there is little or no contact. Finally, the individual cat’s personality must be considered. Every once in a while, you’ll come upon an adult cat who is many generations feral and rarely has contact with people yet is quite social and can be handled.
Implementing TNR: The Managed Colony Approach
The following is an overview of the steps involved in performing TNR on a single colony. Much more can be learned about each step by consulting the educational resources described in Step number 1.
Step 1: Educate Yourself
Before trying to set up a managed feral colony, you should learn as much as possible about trap-neuter-return. The work of TNR is not just caring for the cats; it is also acting as their advocate. To do this effectively, you need to know your subject well. Fortunately, there are resources available which allow you to learn quickly.
1. Neighborhood Cats’ online course, entitled “Trap-Neuter-Return: Managing Feral Cat Colonies” (for a complete overview, go to www.suite101.com, click on the “Pets & Animals” department, then on the TNR course. Immediate access to all written materials costs $14.95 (US); the interactive discussion-board version costs $19.95 (US)). This course is a comprehensive presentation of all you’ll need to know to begin working with TNR.
2. The Alley Cat Allies website (www.alleycat.org).
Alley Cat Allies, the largest feral cat organization in the United States, maintains a website that contains fact sheets and articles on almost every aspect of TNR. 3. The Neighborhood Cats website Info page (www.neighborhoodcats.org/info). Our website presents the basic steps of managing a feral colony in an easy-to-follow format and is full of tips and information useful to colony caretakers.
Step 2: Develop Good Community Relations
Feral cats’ territories usually overlap with locations where people reside or work, and people in the community often have their own relationships with the cats. Many might enjoy the cats and help feed and care for them. Others might see the cats as a nuisance and want them to go away. Whatever the prevailing attitudes are, they must be taken into account and worked with to ensure the success of a TNR project.
For example, neutering and returning feral cats to an area without having informed or asked the property owner for permission is inviting eviction and disaster later on. By contrast, educating the property owner on the advantages of TNR (“no kittens, no noise, no odor”) and gaining his support before the trapping begins will help provide long-term security for the colony.
One way to gauge the mood of a neighborhood towards the cats is to simply walk around and talk to residents, especially anyone who seems to spend a lot of time outdoors. Be professional in your approach and appearance and have some literature on hand. Try to find out how many cats there are, who feeds them, where they stay, how long they have been there, whether anyone has tried to do anything about them before, and so on. Write down names and numbers – they may come in handy later. Speak to superintendents and make appointments if necessary to meet with landlords or property owners. The people who work in buildings can be the friendliest towards the cats because they know the cats’ value as a means of rodent control.
Often a feral cat situation will first come to your attention because the population level has reached a crisis point. Naturally, because most people are ignorant of how the problems can be resolved, hostility develops towards both the cats and their caretakers. It’s important to expect a certain amount of hostility and not be drawn into a confrontation or argument. Instead, be understanding – if you were being waked up every night at 2 a.m. by yowling cats, or if you couldn’t use your garden because of the smell, you would probably be resentful, too. Calmly but persistently explain how TNR will solve these problems, whereas trying to remove all the cats won’t and will only keep the cycle going. People are generally receptive to a method which is humane and allows the cats to remain while eliminating the problem behavior.
If someone just won’t agree to TNR, you have to keep trying to convince them. Given the number of feral cats at large and their un-adoptability, relocation or rescue is rarely a practical option; you have to make TNR work in the territory they occupy. Gaining the support of animal control and local animal welfare organizations will help. Unfortunately, though, sometimes people have to learn the hard way that trapping and removing doesn’t work. After spending time and money on such a usually futile attempt, they may become more receptive to TNR.
Step 3: Set Up Feeding Stations and Shelter
Begin managing the colony well before trapping and neutering. By setting up a feeding station and establishing a regular feeding schedule, you are training the cats, who are very habitual creatures, to show up at a certain time and place. This will be invaluable when the time comes to trap. You’ll be able to effectively withhold food and make the cats hungry enough to enter the traps; plus, the cats will come to you instead of your having to go after them. You will also be able to count the number of cats in the colony, which is important when arranging for spay/neuter and having the right amount of equipment for the trapping. Inaccurate estimations of a colony’s size are very common – you can’t take anyone’s word for it.
The regular feeding will also allow you to determine if there are any young kittens, friendly adults, or sick cats. If so, arrangements for foster or veterinary care should be made ahead of time, before the cats are in your custody. During this pre-trapping phase, feed the cats as high-quality and nutritious a food as possible in order to strengthen their immune systems to withstand the stress of surgery and captivity. A couple of weeks of excellent nutrition will often also go a long way towards curing many common feline ailments, such as upper respiratory infections or ringworm. This is particularly true when the cats’ normal diet is of poor quality.
Shelter is important for health as well. During the winter, the cats need a warm, dry place to sleep. The Neighborhood Cats website (see the Info page) contains simple instructions on how to build winter shelters easily and inexpensively. More ideas can be found on the Alley Cat Allies site. The type of feeding station you use will depend on the kind of access you have to the territory. If possible, set plates and an automatic water dispenser inside a covered wooden box that is completely open on one side so one cat can’t keep others out.
If you can’t feed every day, you might try an automatic dry food dispenser. If a boxlike setup isn’t possible, then putting plates and a water dish as far from where people can get at them might be the best you can do. With both the feeding station and shelters, try to place them in a spot that is the least visible to passersby but where caretakers have easy access.
Wherever the feeding station is located, keep it clean! People understandably don’t like seeing a mess, and local health departments really don’t like it. So be considerate, and for the cats’ sake, clean up the feeding station on a daily basis and don’t leave empty plates and cans lying around.
Step 4: Secure a Holding Space
Trapping a colony takes two days or more, if the colony is large. During the trapping period and for 48 hours after surgery, you’ll need a holding space for the trapped cats. The traps double as cages, and the cats don’t leave them – except during surgery – until they are released (see Step number 7: Caring for Cats in Traps). The holding space needs to be large enough to comfortably hold as many traps as there are cats, with room for the caretakers to move around to feed and clean. The space also must be secure from strangers, protected from the elements, and heated in the wintertime. Spaces that might work include a garage, a basement, a warehouse, an extra room, and even a backyard in warm weather, if a tent or tarp can be set up to provide shelter from rain.
Putting the traps on tables makes feeding and cleaning easier, though placing them on the ground will do. Plastic drop cloths should be spread out over the floor or tables and the traps placed on top. The holding space inevitably ends up smelling a bit, but the plastic will catch any waste which gets out of the traps and will make clean-up easy. It’s a good idea, when the cats are in surgery, to roll up the plastic and throw it away, replacing it with fresh plastic. Do this again when the project is done and the cats have been released. In warm weather, to minimize the risk of a flea infestation, keep the traps covered with light cloths and vacuum thoroughly or flea-bomb afterwards.
Step 5: Arrange for Spay/Neuter
At this stage, you’ve educated yourself and the community on how TNR works and what its advantages are. A feeding station and shelter have been set up for the colony and a regular feeding pattern established. You know how many cats there are and whether any kittens or sick cats will need special attention, and you’ve also secured a holding space for the project. Now you can arrange a specific date for the cats to be neutered. Ideally, use a veterinarian or clinic that is experienced with feral cats and works quickly.
In New York City, the veterinary protocol for feral cats is to neuter, eartip, and provide a rabies vaccination; one clinic also administers flea and ear mite medication. Eartipping, which involves taking a quarter-inch off the tip of the left ear in a straight-line cut, allows for the rapid identification of a neutered feral after the cats are released. Other methods, such as photos or tattoos, have proven unreliable. Testing for FIV/FeLV infection is not standard procedure. The tests greatly increase the cost per cat of services, and studies have shown that the incidence of these diseases in the feral population is no higher than in the domestic population (1 to 2 percent for FIV; 2 to 4 percent for FeLV). If preventing the spread of disease is the goal, the money is better spent on neutering than testing. Of course, if a particular cat is being considered for adoption, testing is mandatory.
Step 6: Trapping
Alley Cat Allies has an excellent fact sheet entitled “Humane Trapping Instructions for Feral Cats.” It’s highly recommended for learning about the materials you’ll need and how to use them to actually get a cat into a trap. The fact sheet can be found on their website or on the Info page of the Neighborhood Cats site (see “Trapping – the Basics”).
The traps normally used are box traps, which should be 36 inches long and have rear doors so they can double as cages. These traps require the cat to enter the trap in order to reach the bait. When the cat steps on a trip plate, the trap door shuts behind him. (Certain traps have very small trip plates which cats often step over. If that’s the case, extend the plate by laying on top of it a piece of cardboard about six inches long.) At this point, if the cat becomes frantic, covering the trap with a sheet will calm him down.
The most important factor for a successful trapping is that the cats are hungry, so withhold food for at least 24 hours beforehand. Whenever possible, it’s best to try to trap an entire colony at once. There’s always a cat or two who is shy of entering a trap, and it may take a few days of withholding food to get her to go in. This is much more easily done if all the other cats are already trapped and you’re not trying to pick out one from the rest of the colony.
Mass trapping is more intensive in the short term but less work in the long run. Perhaps the greatest advantage to this approach is instant satisfaction: by neutering all or almost all of the colony, population growth and nuisance behavior are immediately brought under control and the situation improves right away.
Have more traps than cats on hand. That way, when you get down to the last cat or two, you’ll have a number of traps set, and catching them will be easier. When you first start trapping, don’t rush in to collect a trapped cat unless the cat appears frantic and might hurt himself. Every time you enter the territory, you run the risk of scaring scare a cat away for the night. If you do remove a trap, place another one in the same spot. Often, for whatever reasons, there are certain “hot spots” where cats keep going in.
Note that trapping, contrary to many people’s natural inclination, comes towards the end of the TNR process, not the beginning. “Trap first, think later,” is a recipe for getting yourself into a lot of trouble.
Step 7: Caring for Cats in Traps
This process is described in detail (with a photo) on the Info page of the Neighborhood Cats website. The traps become the cats’ cages. Feeding and cleaning is safely accomplished through the use of a simple tool known as a trap divider or trap isolator. It looks like a small pitchfork and fits through the bars of the trap, sectioning off one part from the other. Especially after the cat is first trapped and most eager to get out, two dividers should be used back to back.
At all times, the traps should be covered with light cotton sheets to keep the cats calm, although the ends may be exposed for ventilation. Feral cats tend to move from light to dark, so to get the cat to go to one end of the trap, pull the sheet back towards that end, making it dark where you want the cat to go and exposed where you want him to move from. If that doesn’t work, a little nudge with the trap divider slipped through the bars usually will.
Once the cat has moved to one end of the trap, section him off with the trap dividers. Now you can open the door at the opposite end and line the bottom of that side of the trap with newspaper. Then go to the other end of the trap and repeat the process: get the cat to move to the opposite end, section him off with the dividers, and line the empty side with newspaper. At this point, you can add food and water as well.
Water dishes should be flat and not easy to tip over. Feed the cat and replace the newspaper (which will collect the cat’s waste) twice a day. Sometimes people think it’s cruel to keep a cat in a trap for several days like this. In fact, feral cats in captivity prefer tight, dark spaces to large, open ones, as this makes them feel more secure. If you place a feral cat in a large cage, he’ll tend to just hunker down in a corner. Inside the traps, the ferals often get quite comfortable. As long as you regularly clean, they’re perfectly fine for as long as they need to be held.
Food and water must be removed from the traps the night before surgery so the cat has an empty stomach. Otherwise, the cat might vomit during the procedure and choke.
Step 8: Monitoring After the Release
If there are no complications following surgery, the cats should be released after 48 hours at the place where you trapped them. Ferals are very territorial, and relocating them is a difficult process that requires three weeks of confinement in the new territory. If they’re not returned to where you found them, the cats will quickly get lost.
Once the cats are neutered and returned, the TNR process is not over. Much of the hard work is done, but long-term monitoring of the colony is vital. The greatest threat to TNR’s effectiveness in gradually lowering feral populations is the continued abandonment of domestic felines who find their way into colonies. If the colony is not monitored for newcomers, then sooner or later a pair of abandoned cats will begin the reproductive cycle anew.
To prevent this, newcomers should be quickly trapped and neutered, then placed for adoption if feasible or returned if not. If any of the cats have eluded being trapped and do end up having a litter, the kittens should be removed ideally at six to seven weeks of age so they can be easily socialized.
Ongoing monitoring of the colony is also important because conditions change over time. By continuing to be present, the caretaker gives the community someone to whom problems can be addressed.
New neighbors may need to be educated or have a complaint with something the previous tenant or owner didn’t care about. Sometimes after neutering, a cat will become very friendly – too friendly to leave outside safely. So while trapping and neutering is the most intensive part of the TNR process, it is only the beginning, not the end.
Caretaking is an ongoing responsibility and the key to the long-term success and health of the colony. Community-Wide TNR Programs Every community will have its own resources and unique circumstances that will need to be taken into account in shaping a TNR program. TNR is more effective when implemented on a community-wide scale because the crossover of unneutered cats into managed colonies is reduced and the overall impact and cost savings for local shelters and animal control agencies are greater.