How to Help Stray & Feral Cats: Trap-Neuter-Return
If you’ve noticed feral cats living in your neighborhood, you aren’t alone. In Chicago, there are an estimated 300,000 feral cats living on the streets and more than 60 million in the USA. For years, we’ve heard Bob Barker remind us to spay or neuter our pets. But it shouldn’t stop there! Feral cats may not be pets, but they are in dire need of spaying and neutering as well. To help combat the problem of overpopulation of homeless animals, Tree House is one of a growing number of shelters promoting Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) as the most effective way to control stray and feral cat populations.
What is Trap-Neuter-Return?
TNR is a humane sterilization method used to reduce the number of feral cats. Stray and feral cats are humanely trapped and evaluated by a colony caregiver. The evaluation process allows the caregiver to separate friendly strays and kittens 12 weeks old and younger (who are good candidates for socialization) from the feral cats. The feral cats are then brought to Tree House or another participating clinic to be sterilized, vaccinated, and ear-tipped. Ear-tipping is an effective way to visually identify a sterilized feral cat in a managed colony. After the surgery, healthy adult feral cats will be returned to their familiar habitat under the supervision of the caregiver while friendly strays and kittens begin the adoption process.
Since 1971, Tree House has been caring almost exclusively for sick, injured, and abused stray cats—cats who often have no other chance at a good life—but despite our best efforts and those of other shelters and animal welfare agencies around the country, the number of stray and feral cats is not decreasing at a fast enough rate. Because feral cats breed at a much faster rate than we can socialize them, getting ahead of the overpopulation problem through adoption alone is not a realistic solution.
Trying to socialize a truly feral cat is a laborious and intensive process that could take months or even years (if you succeed at all), and this process is not usually in the best interest of the cat. Feral cats have lived their entire lives without direct human contact, other than possible feeding and monitoring from afar by human caregivers. Feral cats’ survival instincts tell them to be wary of people and of confinement, so being caged for socialization often can harm a cat’s physical and mental health despite the best intentions of the rescuer.
Of course, trap and kill is never an acceptable answer. Feral cats have as much right to live as domesticated cats and other animals, and statistics have revealed that not only does it cost more to trap and kill cats than it does to trap and sterilize them, but trap and kill doesn’t work. For years, the policy in many communities has been to have a local agency trap and euthanize feral cats. The agencies typically trap some cats within a colony, but not all, so the remaining cats increase their reproduction to repopulate their colony. In just a few months, there are as many feral cats in the neighborhood as before the trapping.
While TNR isn’t an overnight solution, it’s a permanent one. Over time, colonies diminish. TNR is also good for the community. Spaying and neutering colonies lessens the behavior neighborhood residents often complain about—yowling, fighting, and territorial marking. And, TNR’d cats are typically vaccinated for rabies, which is in the best interest of public health.
How Tree House helps:
For many years, your donations have helped us provide low-cost spay and neuter surgeries for pets of low-income guardians and for rescued strays and feral cats. In addition to our already low-cost spay/ neuter packages, every February we offer free spay/neuter surgeries for pets of low-income guardians in honor of Spay/ Neuter Month, and every October we perform one hundred free feral fixes in honor of Feral Cat Month. In 2009, Tree House opened our high-volume, low-cost BDVM Mac Lean Spay/Neuter Clinic at our Bucktown Branch. The new facility, has allowed us to significantly increase the number of spay/neuter surgeries we perform. With your support, every surgery that our veterinarians perform helps to alleviate the serious problem of overpopulation.
How do I safely and humanely trap a feral cat?
Familiarize yourself with the trap before attempting to use it. We recommend wiring open the trap and using it as a feeding station for several days to allow the cat to become comfortable walking into the trap.
When is the best time of day to trap?
Early in the morning and dusk are the best times to trap, but it is most important to trap during the times when you normally see or feed the cat. You may want to withhold food for a day or two before trapping to improve your chances of luring the cat into the trap by using food. Trapping at night is risky. You could trap opossums, raccoons, skunks, or other wildlife. If you accidentally catch one of these animals, release it immediately.
It is important that you not leave a set trap unattended for more than a few minutes at a time. Watch the trap from a comfortable distance. When the trap is sprung, quickly cover it with a blanket or towel, and move the cat to a safe area indoors.
Where do I keep the trapped cat the night before the veterinary appointment?
Keep the cat indoors away from predators and the elements. Safe places include garages and sheds, inside a spare room in the home, or in an automobile (crack the windows for ventilation, and only use vehicles if the temperature outside is not too hot or cold). If you don’t have much space, consider keeping the trap in the bathtub. Set up the area by putting a plastic sheet or tarp under the trap and newspapers on top. Make sure that all escape routes are closed.
How do I get food and water in the trap?
Do not give food to the cat the night prior to surgery. The cat should have an empty stomach to prevent nausea caused by the anesthesia. Water should be provided at all times while the cat is not in transit. Using a trap divider (a metal divider used to separate the cat from the back of the trap), insert a small bowl of water into the end of the trap. When interacting with a trapped cat, always avoid direct eye contact because it is a sign of aggression. Before transporting the cat to her appointment, remove the water bowl just as quickly and as carefully as you placed it inside, or you can use a wire hanger to overturn the bowl and spill the water.
How should I care for the cat after surgery?
After surgery, be sure to give the cat food and water. An unbent wire hanger may be used to slowly upright overturned bowls. Use a water bottle to fill the water bowl, and slide in filled food bowls or drop the food in through the holes in the trap. You also can use a funnel. It is important that a cat eat and drink while recovering. The cat must be kept warm and dry since she will not be able to regulate her body temperature immediately after surgery. Ideally, she should be in a place that is kept at room temperature. If that’s not possible, she can be kept in a garage or shed with blankets wrapped around the trap, leaving an opening for air circulation. You also can stuff a towel or small blanket in the trap for extra comfort. You may want to use portable heaters and heat lamps in cold weather conditions, but be sure to keep them away from flammable objects. It is also a good idea to elevate the traps off the ground a few inches. Place the trap on two-by-four pieces of wood or on a wide and sturdy bench or table, or put several layers of carpet remnants or cardboard under the trap, cover with plastic sheets, and top off with newspaper to provide insulation. Remember to keep newspaper on the floor of the trap and under the trap to absorb waste.
How long should I wait before releasing the cat back to its territory?
We recommend keeping males for one day during warm weather and two days during winter. Females usually need at least one day more than males. Keep cats in their traps for the recovery period. Generally, if the cat is eating, drinking, and eliminating regularly, she should be ready for release. Please understand that it is detrimental to the cat’s mental and physical health to keep the cat inside any longer than necessary. As long as the sutures are still in place and there is no excess bleeding, the cat should be ready to be released in a day or two. If you have any doubts about the recovery, please call Tree House or the facility where the surgery was performed.
Where should I get a humane trap?
You can borrow a trap from Tree House with a $50 deposit, which is fully refunded upon returning the trap. If you plan on tackling a large colony, you may want to consider buying your own trap(s). Some quality brands include Tomahawk (livetrap.com), Havahart (havahart.com), and Tru Catch Traps (animaltraps.com). Please call Tree House at 773-784-5488 ext. 221 for more information about our trap lending services.
We know that many animal lovers have questions about the logistics and legalities of TNR, feral cats and wildlife, and feral cat quality of life. For more information, please visit treehouseanimals.org/tnr or tnrchicago.org