Editor’s Note: In January 2021, Persimmon Peak was renamed Persnickety Pets.
If you've spent any time around feline rescue groups, you've probably heard someone talk about Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs. TNR programs play an important role in managing the well-being of outdoor cat populations and the human communities around them. In addition to decreasing the burden on area shelters and rescue groups, TNR programs also help control communicable feline diseases, decrease disruptive mating behaviors, and create friendlier, healthier neighborhood cats. If you're a cat parent who wants a humane solution to cat overpopulation, make sure you know about TNR!
A trapped feral cat awaits transport to a veterinary clinic to be altered, ear-tipped, and returned.
What's the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?
Simply put, stray cats are socialized (or friendly) towards people; feral cats are not. We love the way this short article from the Alley Cat Allies breaks down the difference between stray cats and feral cats and why this distinction is important: Feral and Stray Cats - An Important Difference.
How does TNR work?
TNR programs have 3 steps. First, a feral cat is humanely trapped in a wire cage by a rescue organization or colony caretaker. Second, the cat is taken to a vet clinic where it is neutered (or spayed), given a wellness exam, and vaccinated. Third, the cat is returned to the area where it was trapped to live out its days without producing any more kittens. TNR programs are successful because they halt all breeding in a feral cat colony.
What's up with the "Return" part of TNR? Is it that important to return cats to the same area?
The "Return" part of TNR is indeed very important! By returning cats to the areas they came from, it prevents other reproductively-active cats from coming to the area for the resources that originally attracted the trapped cats. Returned cats are able to live safer lives because they already know where to find food & shelter and how to avoid that area's dangers. Additionally, the immediate community will notice a quick drop in cat population numbers and disruptive mating behaviors as these neutered cats return to their home area.
Why are feral cats usually missing a piece of their ear? Is that really necessary?
If you've seen a cat that's missing the tip of their left ear, you've probably seen a TNR cat! Ear-tipping is a safe, humane medical procedure performed on a cat under general anesthesia while they are being spayed/neutered. During the ear-tipping procedure, a veterinarian surgically removes the top 1/4" of the cat's left ear (or in some areas of the country, makes a V-shaped notch). This is done as a visual "field identification" so colony caretakers can tell from a distance which cats have already been trapped and neutered. Eartips also let well-meaning neighbors know that a cat is being cared for and doesn't need to be taken to a shelter.
Are TNR cat colonies any healthier than those that are left alone?
Definitely! In addition to being spayed or neutered, cats trapped in TNR programs also receive vaccinations for communicable diseases like rabies. Without the stress of pregnancy and nursing kittens, female TNR cats are able to spend more of their energy staying healthy. Male TNR cats are less likely to get into fights with other cats or roam through dangerous areas in search of mates.
Why aren't feral cats simply caught and put up for adoption? Wouldn't they be better in a home?
For cats that have spent significant time fending for themselves, without human help, the switch to living indoors can be a very hard adjustment. Some feral cats never get used to being around people and do best living outdoors with minimal human interaction. However, many TNR programs do include an adoption "path" for cats or kittens who are well-socialized to humans and could adjust easily to living indoors in a home.
I've never heard of TNR before - surely there are other good ways to control the cat population?
Other population-control methods like catch-and-kill are reactive measures that don't address the root problem of cat over-breeding. People who are fed up with booming outdoor cat populations may resort to poisoning or shooting cats to get rid of them, methods that can be dangerous to personal pets and other people in the community. TNR is the only proactive measure for addressing cat population control: by capturing, sterilizing, and returning cats to the areas they know, outdoor cat populations stabilize and may eventually decline as reproduction stops.
Do feral cat colonies serve any purpose in my community?
They sure do! Healthy, well-managed feral cat colonies are a great option for rodent, gecko, and snake control. In addition to their assistance in hunting pests, a vaccinated cat colony is less likely to spread communicable diseases to personal pets. Neutered colony members won't be engaging in noisy or aggressive mating behaviors and they will no longer contribute to the cat overpopulation problem.
TNR in Real Life
One of our most active local groups offering TNR programs is the Azalea City Cat Coalition (ACCC). We spoke with ACCC founder Susan Young about why the group was formed and what she loves seeing most in a well-managed feral cat colony:
The Azalea City Cat Coalition was founded in 2008 after we discovered a group of roughly 30 cats and sick kittens. We learned very quickly that there were NO programs that provided help or assistance for the stray or feral cats. This was unacceptable - so we founded our own group to assist community cats! I love seeing healthy, non-breeding feral cats in their natural environment. Peaceful and content. I love seeing people care for them as well. Helping community cats through TNR improves the community's and cats' health, while saving lives!!
Further Reading on TNR
Looking for more information on feline Trap-Neuter-Return programs? Gather up your lap kitty and check out these in-depth resources we've gathered for you below.
Trap-Neuter-Return - This great overview of TNR programs is written by the Alley Cat Allies, the feline welfare advocacy group responsible for bringing TNR to the United States. There's lots of good reading on their site, so poke around a bit to learn more about the work they do to improve the lives of stray, feral, and shelter cats. If you prefer, watch their video below.
The Case for TNR - Need some evidence-backed data on the benefits of TNR? Alley Cat Allies has compiled this great roundup of TNR studies and what they mean. Check the references at the bottom of the page to find the source articles and research papers to read for yourself!
A Closer Look at Community Cats - The ASPCA does a great job covering the plight of community cats and how you can help. If you're interested in getting involved with or becoming a caretaker for a feral cat colony, this article has some great tips on dealing with difficult neighbors and TNR training resources.
Local Groups with TNR Programs
If you'd like to help manage or care for feral cats in your area, check out these local rescue groups that offer or specialize in TNR programs.
Alabama Animal Welfare Coalition - The Alabama Animal Welfare Coalition is a non-profit, foster-based rescue serving the Mobile area. Founded in 2012, they offer low-cost spay/neuter for dogs and cats as well as a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program for feral cats.
Azalea City Cat Coalition - The Azalea City Cat Coalition is non-profit, volunteer-based feline rescue organization serving Mobile and Baldwin counties. They specialize in solutions for feral and community cats, including low-cost spay/neuter programs as well as TNR services.
Dauphin Island Cat Association - The Dauphin Island Cat Association is a non-profit group working towards reducing the population of stray and feral cats on Dauphin Island specifically through the practice of TNR.
Mobile Cat Society - The Mobile Cat Society is a non-profit, foster-based feline rescue serving Mobile, AL. They offer low-cost spay/neuter for rescues as well as TNR services for feral cats.
Save A Stray - Save a Stray is an all-volunteer, foster-based rescue group serving the Mobile, AL area. They are dedicated to helping local cats and dogs through foster/adoption services, spay/neuter initiatives, feline TNR, and organized transport efforts.
🐾 And that's all we have on Trap-Neuter-Return! Are you helping with any TNR programs or feral cat colonies in your area? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.