There are few issues facing community leaders that are more difficult and controversial as community cat management. On one hand, animal welfare enthusiasts want to provide for the welfare of free-roaming cats. On the other hand, local agencies are tasked with protecting public health and animal control. Dissent between feline and wildlife advocates further complicates matters. Community cat management in the form of trap-neuterreturn (TNR) is the only proven method to improve the lives of feral cats, improve their relationships with community members, and effectively decrease the size of colonies over time.
Defining a Community Cat
“Community cats” are typically a combination of unowned or semi-owned cats who live outside. They may have been lost or abandoned former pets, feral unsocialized cats, or the offspring of either. Unsterilized community cats are estimated to contribute to roughly 80% of kittens born every year in the USA serving as the most significant source of cat overpopulation.1 Only 2% of community cats are sterilized, leading to the birth of countless generations of outdoor cat.2 Most community cats are loosely owned whereby they have community members feeding them and/or providing shelter.
Historical Management Practices
Historically, public agencies have attempted to catch and remove cats which typically involved trapping cats in the community, sheltering, and euthanizing them after a pre-determined holding period. Such conventional approaches were largely ineffective, however, for long-term change. Non-targeted removal of select animals does little to impact the overall population given the high feline reproductive rate. The transportation, sheltering, and euthanasia costs taxpayers millions of dollars in an endless cycle of catch and kill. In the USA, a former president of the National Animal Control Association stated, “What we’re saying is the old standard isn’t good enough anymore. As we’ve seen before, there’s no department that I’m aware of that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture and euthanize policy; nature just keeps having more kittens.”3
In the USA, Canada, and Europe trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs are being implemented to humanely manage community cat populations. Healthy, un-owned cats are sterilized, ear tipped, vaccinated, and put back where they were found. The rationale is that if a shelter has limited resources, a healthy cat knows how to survive and should not be euthanized to prevent possible future suffering. Using resources for sterilization has a much larger impact than focusing resources on intake and euthanasia.
How TNR Works
In principle, TNR is quite simple. Cats are humanely trapped from their homes in the community and transported to a veterinarian to be sterilized and vaccinated. After recovery, cats are returned back to the area from which they were trapped. Kittens and friendly cats may be adopted into homes.
TNR helps decrease the size of cat colonies over time - During an 11-year study of TNR at the University of Florida, the number of cats on campus declined by 66%, with no new kittens being born after the first four years of operation.4
TNR improves cats’ lives - Following TNR, caregivers report that cats tend to roam less after neutering, which is beneficial for their safety and reduces potential conflict with neighbors. Furthermore, cats are vaccinated which decreases their susceptibility to infectious disease. Mating behaviors such as yowling, spraying, and fighting also diminish.
Role of Local Animal Shelters
In the USA, approximately 6–8 million cats and dogs enter animal shelters annually, with up to 50% being euthanized.5 This figure rises to nearly 100% for feral cats, who cannot be adopted. Feline-related intake and euthanasia activities cost more than a billion USD annually while doing little to manage the actual cat population in the community or mitigate wildlife issues.
Shelters with high euthanasia rates should re-evaluate their intake policies as they pertain to community cats. Communities which involve TNR as part of their overall cat management plan tend to see a decline in shelter intake over time. For shelters that can’t afford to sterilize cats in-house, cooperation with local TNR groups and private practitioners can be used to transfer cats off-site for surgery.
While programs in the USA are frequently cited for their success, the Hong Kong SPCA is an example of a successful TNR program in Asia. The HK SPCA’s successful Cat Colony Care Programme (CCCP) has TNRed over 45,000 cats since 2000. Also, since 2000, the HK SPCA has also continually lobbied the local government to introduce TNR for dogs, so that the numbers of free roaming, unowned dogs, especially in Hong Kong’s New Territories, can be humanely reduced.
What About Relocation or Sanctuaries?
While relocation may seem like a cost-effective option, it tends to create a vacuum in the community for new cats to move in. Cats typically live in a particular area because of a food source. If the food source is still available, removing cats will have little to no effect on the overall population as new cats will simply move in. Furthermore, relocation to an unfamiliar area causes cats stress and suffering; many will simply not be able to survive in a different area. Similarly, cat sanctuaries fail to address the community cat population. There will never be enough sanctuaries to accommodate every cat in the community.
Sterilization requires a significant budget and multiple stakeholders are required to secure adequate resources. Note that TNR programs can be cost-saving initiatives over time as they decrease euthanasia and sheltering costs. Grant-giving agencies are frequently interested in interested in helping fund collaborative programs involving both private organizations and municipal agencies. Most grants are designed to sterilize a substantial percentage of free-roaming cats in a specific target area. By sterilizing most of the cats in an area, reproduction is greatly reduced and the cats’ population gradually declines. Private veterinarians may be willing to offer discounts for surgical services.
1. Levy JL, Crawford PC. Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2004;225(9):1354–1360.
2. Wallace JL, Levy JK. Population characteristics of feral cats admitted to seven trap-neuter-return programs in the United States. J Feline Med Surg. 2006;8:279–284.
3. Taking a broader view of cats in the community. Animal Sheltering. September/October 2008. Cited 3 May 2017. Available at: www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/broader_view_of_cats.pdf. (VIN editor: Link not accessible).
4. Levy JK, Gale DW, Gale LA. Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003;222(1):42–46.
5. Pets by the numbers: U.S. pet ownership, community cat and shelter population estimates. Humane Society of the United States. Cited 1 May 2017. Available at: www.humanesociety.org/issues/pet_overpopulation/facts/pet_ownership_statistics.html.