What Is TNR? Trap-Neuter-Return of Feral Cats

What is TNR?

A friend of mine was complaining about a bunch of stray cats hanging around her house. When I suggested she TNR them, she gave me a blank look and asked me, what is TNR?

TNR is the common acronym for Trap-Neuter-Return, a process designed to prevent the reproduction of feral (wild) cat colonies. There are three main steps to this process:

  1. TRAP feral cats safely and transport them to a veterinary facility.
  2. NEUTER all male and female cats to prevent reproduction. Kittens or friendly cats will be evaluated for adoptions. Many people also vaccinate the cats while they are at the veterinarian.
  3. RETURN the altered cats to their colony while providing food and shelter.

TNR controls feral cat colonies and is most commonly practiced by Good Samaritans who want to reduce the population of feral cat colonies because they love cats and understand the terrible, short lives feral cats can lead.

Feral Classification

Cats can be labeled as feral for many reasons. While the meaning most of us know identifies feral cats as cats born in the wild, some street cats are lost or abandoned pets. Others were both born and raised outdoors or were never socialized by humans.

Benefits of TNR

There are many benefits to the TNR program:

  • Cats that have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated spread less disease.
  • A cat that has been altered no longer has a reason to search for another cat for mating. This reduction in roaming helps avoid outdoor dangers, such as being hit by a car.
  • Males that have been altered lose many negative behaviors, such as spraying urine and fighting for mates.
  • Female cats won’t go into heat anymore, which reduces howling and moaning.

Some TNR programs also administer rabies vaccinations, which reduces it from being spread to humans (which is most often deadly). While the same cat may not receive a later booster shot of the vaccine, the initial application can offer the cat immunity from rabies for one to three years.

Unsuccessful Alternatives

Euthanizing a colony of feral cats will only remove the problem temporarily. A new group of cats can move into the area and start breeding. The same problem continuously remains.

Poisoning or intentionally killing cats is illegal and will not prevent new colonies from entering the same area.

Feeding the strays will only help keep them healthy. A healthy cat can breed more successfully because it doesn’t have to find a food source and has enough body weight and fat to support the pregnancy and her kittens.

Identifying Sterilized Cats

With an estimated tens of millions of feral cats roaming the United States, how can you tell if a cat has been sterilized yet? A sterilized cat may be microchipped, but the most visible sign is the missing tip of one ear. This ear “tipping” is performed surgically by a veterinarian during the TNR cycle. This also helps keep already sterilized cats from filling up shelters and TNR facilities.

Getting Started

Check with your local animal shelter, humane society or veterinarian to see if a TNR program is already active in your area. If no program exists, and you have a feral cat colony, start by contacting these organizations or your veterinarian to ask if they would be willing to sterilize the cats. Some will do this for free or at a discounted rate. Once you have a facility or veterinarian prepared to sterilize the cats, other issues still need to be addressed.

Estimate the size of the colony. This is important because your veterinarian may not have enough space to house the animals before their procedures and during their recovery periods (average recovery period is 48 hours).

Ask if rabies vaccinations will be administered at the time of sterilization. Cats testing positive for incurable diseases may be euthanized.

How will sterilized cats be identified? Ask your veterinarian or the facility you are using what steps they will take to ensure that a sterilized cat does not return to their facility unnecessarily.

Volunteers will be needed to help trap and transport the cats before and after their sterilization procedures. Ask friends, family and neighbors to help in your efforts to control your local feral cat population.

Traps are essential to TNR programs. Estimate your need based on the number of feral cats observed and add a few extra to make sure you are prepared for more. This can also be a huge expense! Ask local shelters, friends and veterinarians to lend their traps temporarily with the guarantee that they will either be returned or replaced after the TNR program is completed.

Feed the feral cats on a regular basis. Once the cats get accustomed to the area and the food source, they will return on a regular basis. Establishing this consistency in appearance will aid in trapping the cats for the TNR program.

Coordinate the ideal days for all volunteers involved. Some veterinarians or sterilization facilities may not work weekends, and your volunteers may be available only at that time. Try to find three consecutive days where the veterinarian and your volunteers will be available to bring in the cats and return them after their recovery.

TNR Training Programs & Additional Resources

Some cities or national organizations offer training programs to help get you started. You may also encounter issues with the local government; it may see you releasing sterilized cats and assume you are abandoning them. Heidi Bickel of Stray Pet Advocacy details these issues, advice and more to aid in your program. The same website offers extensive information for tools, laws, worksheets and much more.

You may face roadblocks, questions and opposition, but sterilizing even one cat can make a difference. The cats are already there; the problem is in your neighborhood. Do nothing and the cats will continue to multiply. Start with just one cat and you might inspire others to help you with your TNR initiative. TNR is the only universally accepted humane and effective method for controlling the feral cat population.

This video provides a visual guide to the TNR process:

Photo: massdistraction/Flickr

From Around the Web

  • Garnett Volom Whiting Animal Control

    I am proud to say that our animal shelter is one of the only shelters in Northwest Indiana that has a outside feral colony and practices TNR!!

    • Kristine Lacoste

      That’s great to hear! Hopefully you will serve as an example for other organizations and individuals and get more people involved.