How ‘Trap-Neuter-Return’ Works in Cats

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs are regarded as a humane and practical way to care for feral cats while also reducing their negative impact on public health and wildlife.


It starts with a phone call. “Betty,” the skittish tabby who has won the heart of the soft-hearted caller, has not come around for the bowls of food and water left on the back porch for more than a week. “She may be injured,” the worried caller tells Shrewsbury, Massachusetts Animal Control Officer Leona Pease.

Unbeknownst to that caller is that “Betty” is also “Missy,” and “Tess,” among other names given to the same cat by area residents who, though strangers to each other, have emotionally attached themselves to the striped feline they hope Officer Pease can locate.

Caring members of the community are a boon to veterinary clinics providing Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs. Once aware of all that these programs do for feral and stray cats, locals are often interested in helping to manage the local cat community, particularly the colonies made up of wild-born feral cats who have never known a human owner, and the lost and abandoned cats who occasionally join them.

Area residents, at the very least, are likely to alert Control Officer Pease to a cat problem — whether it’s “nuisance calls” about spraying and fighting, or reports of a cat colony taking up residence near a dumpster or huddling, and left stunned, when the swath of trees they considered home is cleared for yard renovation.

TNR, practiced in all areas of the country, is seen as a humane and economical way to care for these cats while also reducing their negative impact on public health and wildlife. “It’s a practical solution to overpopulation and it’s what needs to be done,” explains Officer Pease. It is even better when community members learn more about the program and want to help. Veterinary students who participate in all aspects of TNR gain greater empathy, knowledge and hands-on experience through their particular program.

What is Trap-Neuter-Return?

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) involves the humane trapping of free roaming community cats, a group of cats who live in a community — also referred to as a colony — and providing them with veterinary care that includes sterilization and a rabies shot prior to returning the cat to the area where it was found, which it likely considers home. Though it would seem inhumane to bring a cat back to the outdoors, these cats are so unfamiliar with living in a home with a human owner that such a future would be akin to a life sentence in jail.

The Difference Between Stray Cats and Ferals

The difference between truly feral cats and strays, who once lived with humans, is distinct. Feral cats don’t purr, don’t meow and they avoid humans. Stray cats, by contrast, tend to settle near places where humans can be found, relying on them for food, and they will meow, purr and even rub up against people. That does not mean that some strays do not end up in a feral colony where they may successfully integrate, especially if they have reverted to wild behavior after a long time away from a human parent. But normally, it doesn’t go that way.

Cats trapped as part of a TNR program are first won over by consistent feedings provided in the area where they congregate and, once they are acclimated to the steady diet, the food is withheld for about 36 hours. Then, cages with trap doors are put out where feedings have come to be expected, with a fresh can of food left within the cage as bait. Once trapped in the cage, the cat, along with other caged colony mates and the occasional stray, are brought to a veterinary clinic that runs a TNR program.

How TNR Works

On a mid-September morning, nearly 70 cats are under treatment at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, where monthly Community Cat Clinics and weekly Feral Animal Clinics are conducted in the Luke and Lily Lerner Spay/Neuter Clinic. Though it’s Sunday and veterinary students could be sleeping in or studying, they are dressed in scrubs and hard at work in a MASH unit-like set up, working under the guidance of experienced veterinary staff.

At the front door, sheet-draped cages containing feline cargo are peeked into so the critters can be considered for age and sociability; kittens and friendly cats — if they don’t have a caretaker looking after them — will not be released to their old haunts but put up for adoption. A surgically tipped ear, which means that a smidgen of the top of the ear has been removed as a marker of previous TNR care, lets workers know that this particular cat has already been treated and will not need to be sterilized.

“Incoming” are also checked for injuries and other health issues, as well as for embedded microchips that could reunite the cat with her former owner.

Working tables stretch out from the walls of the front room of the clinic, covered in supplies and anaesthetized cats worked on by technicians and veterinary students. At the first table is Emily McCobb, DVM, MS, DACVAA, Director of the school’s Shelter Medicine Program. Dr. McCobb oversees the Sunday clinics, is busy providing instructions, plucking the loose baby teeth from a young cat’s mouth, and then examining another cat whose injured eye will need to be surgically removed.

Because of the care they’ve received, TNR cats are not at risk of cancer of their reproductive organs or mammary glands, engage in fewer fights, and suffer less wear and tear on the body from delivering and providing food for kittens. The Cummings cats will also be less of a problem in terms of public health when returned to their urban Worcester setting. (Cats treated in suburban or more rural areas will make less of an impact on wildlife, which they would be more inclined to kill for food if pregnant or nursing.)

It’s not just a win-win for the cats and the areas they are returned to. The veterinary students also benefit greatly. “Essentially, the students learn all aspects of TNR, from trapping and learning from caretakers, to working with veterinary staff on clinical pathology, as well as neutering and spaying, which provides excellent surgical experience,” says Dr. McCobb.

TNR casts a wide net
According to the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), nearly half of the kittens born outdoors die within their first year. Even if they survive that risky period, they live on, only to endure weather in all its extremes, fending off predators, facing starvation, infections, and physical attacks, including attempts by humans to kill them in order to reduce their numbers.

How You Can Help Strays and Outdoor Cats

In the past two decades, TNR has made its way into more communities with ever-growing involvement of Animal Control Officers and volunteers who assist the programs. Caring individuals make sure to provide food and shelter for the outdoor cats, strays included, even trapping those that are failing or injured to bring them in for treatment. These cats now have life spans comparable to the lifespans of house cats. As Officer Pease points out, colony cats who have been receiving care through TNR look “as fat and healthy as owned inside-outside cats.”

“We know TNR works, but it doesn’t work in a vacuum,” says Dr. McCobb. “Statewide, sterilization efforts for cats in our region have proven so effective that numbers are down in many of our shelters for cat intake. The program has proven so good at what it does that in the past two years, some shelters have started to bring cats suitable for adoption in from New Jersey and Pennsylvania because they have empty cages and we can now save more lives. In other words, the colony cats are no longer reproducing, which shows that if you do all you need to do, there should not be population growth.”


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