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Feral Cats, Community Cats, TNR & New Research

by | Jan 1, 2023 | Cat Behavior & Care | 2 comments

Some of my earliest bylines as a “pet journalist” appeared in Cat Fancy magazine. I got my first book contracts because a NYC editor read and liked a couple of my Cat Fancy articles. But the magazine sold in 2013, and published a final issue in 2015. Much of the content remains important and share-able. The last article I wrote for Cat Fancy (updated below) covered feral cats and TNR.

feral cats

Feral Cats, Community Cats, TNR & New Research

There are an estimated 60 to 100 million free-roaming feral and community cats in the United States. They caterwaul from alleyways, give birth in woodpiles, and slink beneath dumpsters, eking out a meager existence on the scraps of civilization. Nobody knows how many live homeless and unloved, but wherever cats gather, controversy soon follows.

Caring cat lovers tried many “solutions” and opinions abound regarding the best way to deal with un-owned and feral felines. In the last decade, a small army of dedicated and caring cat advocates, including Riverfront Cats, and the Feral Cat Project (which lists several success stories!) believes that TNR is a viable and ethical answer. But it’s expensive, and labor intensive. What about other answers?

feral cat with kittensResearch Helping Ferals

Clearly, we need new strategies beyond trap/neuter/release (TNR) programs. “The importance of finding viable, safe, humane and cost-effective techniques for nonsurgical sterilization in community cats cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Kathy Tietje, Vice President of Scientific Operations at Morris Animal Foundation. Two studies recently approved by Morris Animal Foundation addresses this issue with nonsurgical methods to control reproductive capacity. “We’re excited about these innovative projects and their impact on population control of this specific group of cats.” The projects begin in 2023 and should last 12-24 months.

Reducing the number of cats entering the shelter system and improving overall feline health outcomes are the primary drivers behind these new studies. This also reduces the environmental impact of free-roaming community cats through humane population control. The University of Georgia project aims to developing an oral vaccine to decrease male cat fertility by reducing reproductive hormone levels. The Tufts University project focuses on decreasing hormone levels in female cats through an injectable medication. Until then, TNR continues to lead the charge for feral cat welfare.

community cats

What is TNR?

TNR stands for “trap-neuter-return,” a program designed to control and decrease the numbers of roaming felines. Trapped cats receive a health exam to identify very sick cats, which are euthanized. Sterilizing healthy kitties and vaccinating prevents reproduction or contagious illnesses such as rabies.

Friendly adult cats and tame-able kittens are adopted while the feral (wild) adults live out their lives—sometimes a decade or longer—in the managed colony. The removal of one ear tip identifies these cats as managed. The caregiver(s) monitor the colony and provide food and shelter.

feral cats street cats

TNR In The Beginning…

TNR first appeared in Europe and became better known once animal welfare societies in Great Britain began advocating the approach more than 40 years ago. Louise Holton, an early proponent, first learned of TNR in the mid-1970s while living in South Africa. “I fed colonies of cats in Johannesburg,” she says. “As soon as they started talking about TNR, it just made sense to me, and I trapped my colonies and fixed them through the Johannesburg SPCA.”

It took longer for the idea to reach America. While working in animal protection, Becky Robinson noticed feral cats in downtown Washington, DC, at around the same time that Holton moved to the area. Animal welfare organizations offered no help. “I was pretty shocked when they said I should bring cats in for euthanasia,” says Holton. Believing education was the key, Holton founded Alley Cat Allies (ACA) in 1990 as an educational resource for humane methods of feral cat control. Today, ACA staff and directors continue the work.

The TNR concept gained national attention in 1995 when Joan Miller of the Cat Fanciers Association presented a talk on cat lifestyle diversity at the AVMA Animal Welfare Forum. The next year she and Dr. Patricia Olson (then affiliated with the American Humane Association) co-coordinated the first National Conference On Feral Cats in Denver. Presenters offered a variety of views, and concluded that national coordination was necessary. “Alley Cat Allies grew more rapidly after that,” says Miller.

For more about the history of this movement, check out the excellent book (out of print but available used) by Ellen Perry Berkley, TNR: Past, Present and Future: A History of the Trap-Neuter-Return Movement.

feral cat on garbage

Hisses And Purrs for Feral Cats

Not everyone supports TNR. “Pro and con is an easy way to categorize,” says Dr. Margaret Slater, a veterinary epidemiologist from Texas A&M University and author of Community Approaches to Feral Cats. “But almost everybody has a gradation of views. Nothing is black and white.”

The most common objections focus on protecting the cats themselves. People argue that as a domestic species, it’s our responsibility to keep cats safely confined. People dislike stray cats pestering their own pets or messing in their garden.  But feral cats rarely tame or adapt to confinement.

feral cats on roofThe Vacuum Effect

Moving them becomes difficult when sanctuaries fill up. An area cleared of cats that offers hot or cold weather feral cat shelter and food quickly attracts more cats—a “vacuum effect” that argues for maintaining the colony in its original location. Even if trap and kill programs weren’t expensive and ineffective, most Americans dislike treating cats as vermin.

As an introduced or “exotic” species, critics such as the American Bird Conservancy argue we should remove cats from the environment to protect native wildlife, particularly endangered species. Cats cause the most problems where ecosystems are already in the most trouble, such as on island ecosystems where any predator is a problem. TNR is not a good choice in these fragile environments.

But proponents argue that mostly, cats hunt more rodents than birds, and usually only catch sick, old, or very young birds. “Cats get blamed for a lot of things, but it’s almost never just cats,” says Dr. Slater. For instance, rats also are an introduced species, and quite good predators of many birds. Robinson adds, “A bulldozer on a spring day probably does more damage to the ecosystem than a feral cat in his entire life.” Even critics of TNR often support the programs in situations such as barn cat relocation or city cat colonies, since they risk no endangered species.

feral cats in snow eating

Making A Difference for Feral Cats & TNR

Holton, now with Alley Cat Rescue, says they conducted a national survey of feral cats groups (in 2013). “This survey proves that Trap Neuter Return (TNR) works and that many groups and individuals volunteer their own time and their own money to control and stabilize the nation’s feral cat population.”

  • Most feral cat groups provide spay/neuter services to “owned” cats, as well as offering TNR services for ferals. This, of course, PREVENTS future colonies from forming.
  • Most (96%) of the TNR groups practice neuter-before-adoption for the stray cats they place in homes.
  • One quarter of the groups report that their colony cats are 6 to 8 years old. Thirty-five percent report their cats are between 9 and 12 years old, and over 14% report feral cats 13 years old and some even older!
  • 96% of the groups provide rabies vaccinations to feral cats; 64% provide distemper; 11.76% provide feline leukemia shots; 62.18% deworm feral cats; 63.87% provide flea treatment.
  • One third reported that there were 26 to 30 kittens in each colony before TNR; 42.86% said there were 0-5 kittens in colonies after TNR.
  • 71.42% said they had relocated some cats in their colonies — this means an immediate drop in numbers of cats in colonies, something that Alley Cat Rescue has experienced many times with our own colonies.
  • Sadly, 61.34% said their local animal control agencies do NOT offer TNR and 36% said animal control agencies had trapped and killed whole colonies in their areas. And as expected with trying total eradication, 27.73% said cats moved back into these areas where they were all trapped and killed, most within 2 to 3 months after the cats were removed.
  • Nearly all the groups (82.35%) educate the public about feral cats and TNR—65% say this has been “somewhat” effective, with 17.65% reporting their outreach programs to be extremely successful.
  • In response to “working with animal control,” this answer was split between most saying this was “difficult,” a little less reporting “somewhat successful” and 21% reporting “positively.”
  • Working on TNR with local city/government: Although only 15% found this easy to do, I think that is a positive indicator that we are moving in the right direction.
  • Sadly 57% reported that it was “difficult” trying to work with their local wildlife groups.

“We have come a long way since I started on this mission to promote TNR in 1990. Back then, there was only a handful of forward-thinking groups and individuals working on implementing TNR in America. [This survey by ACR] found nearly 700 groups and we will work on identifying more in the future.”

Looking for Common Ground for Feral Cat Control

There is common ground. People on both sides of the TNR fence agree we should sterilize community cats and feral felines, and safely confine them. “Rather than fighting over TNR, we need to think about how to turn off the source of cats,” says Dr. Slater. “There’s always going to be more cats if we can’t turn that faucet off.”

Feral cat programs have impacted our world in an intangible but perhaps even more important way. TNR demonstrates that all cats have a value, even those that can’t be touched. We as human beings now recognized our ethical responsibility toward these community cats and that they should be cared for and treated humanely.

“TNR changes public attitudes about the value of cats,” says Miller. “That message is enormous.”

If you know of an organization successfully using TNR, please drop the name and link in the comments section–let’s show ’em some purr-fect love!

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2 Comments

  1. Leah

    Tuscaloosa Spay Neuter Incentive Program (Tsnip) has helped us spay/neuter our ferals. They help with feral colonies all over town.

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