TNR for Stray Cats: Meaning, History and Statistics

Note: Trap-neuter-return is also referred to as Trap Neuter Return, trap/neuter/return and TNR.

Few debates in animal welfare spark as much heat as how to handle feral, stray or alley cats — or what Best Friends calls “community cats.” To some, these cats are nothing more than a nuisance. Others consider them a burden on the natural ecosystem. But many feel that these cats just happen to prefer life in the great outdoors, or that they are there through no fault of their own. Many people even consider stray cats an extension of the family.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, we’re here to help you learn more about the issue. So here is an overview of just about everything Best Friends has to offer on feral cats, stray cats, trap-neuter-return (TNR), legal issues, history, opposition and more. And if you want more information, we have included links to everything you need.

Stray cats, feral cats: How many names do they have?

The short answer is a lot. There are almost as many names for community cats as there are ways they ended up outdoors. In addition to the popular descriptors “stray cat” and “feral cat,” here’s a quick list of common terms for these outdoor kitties:

  • Homeless cats (Best Friends and others object to this term being used broadly because many of these cats do have “homes.” They just happen to be outdoors.)
  • Ownerless, free-roaming cats (a neutral, catch-all term)
  • Alley cats
  • Street cats
  • Neighborhood cats

It’s easy to see how challenging it is to come up with one name that encompasses all outdoor cats, which is why Best Friends chooses to refer to them as community cats.

Ear-tipped community cats eating who have already undergone TNR

Is trap-neuter-release the same as trap-neuter-return?

They are not exactly the same, but we’ll get to that shortly. Trap-neuter-return (TNR) is a humane, nonlethal alternative to the old trap-and-kill method of controlling feral cat populations. All community cats, whether they are considered stray, feral or just free-roaming, are caught in humane cat traps, medically evaluated, spayed or neutered by a licensed veterinarian, vaccinated against distemper and rabies, and then returned to their original outdoor homes. Often, these cats live in groups called cat colonies.

Returning cats to the location where they were trapped is very important because the cats will be familiar with food and water sources, and available shelter. Again, this is their outdoor home. Opponents to TNR sometimes claim cats are released anywhere, though it's clear that this is not common practice. Doing so would put cats in jeopardy unless careful precautions are taken. Best Friends emphasizes the need to return cats properly in all of our community cat programs and encourages others to do the same.

Most importantly, however, TNR allows cats to have longer, healthier lives without producing litter after litter of feral kittens.

Trapping cats

TNR begins, of course, with trapping cats. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Unlike pets, feral cats don’t come running when you shake a can of treats. Trapping cats can require more patience, plus irresistible bait.

Compassionate people willing to help with TNR can borrow humane cat traps from their local animal shelters, humane societies and rescue groups. Several online retailers also sell humane cat traps. Common features to all these traps are a tripping mechanism and a self-locking door.

There’s a kind of science behind determining the best time and place to set traps, and we won’t go into the details here. Trapping logistics differ for each cat colony and can be tricky. But if you’re interested in learning everything you need to know to do it yourself, Best Friends has plenty of information on how to trap a cat humanely for TNR.

Gray and white community cat with a humane trap

Spay or neuter cats and then return them

Luckily, the spaying and neutering part isn’t as tricky for the volunteer as the trapping part. But that’s not to say it doesn’t require planning, either. Sometimes it takes a little research and negotiation to find a spay/neuter clinic willing to fix cats at low cost. But most areas have at least one veterinarian who’s happy to help. If you need a veterinarian who provides this service, don’t give up if you don’t find one right away. Local shelters and rescue organizations often have information on low cost spay/neuter services and clinics that accept community cats.

Community cats usually have the tips of their left ears removed during their surgery. Is ear-tipping cruel? Nope, it’s done while under anesthesia, so the cats don’t feel a thing. A left-ear-tipped cat (or right-ear-tipped cat, for that matter) is the universal sign that says: “I’ve already been through the TNR program. You don’t need to bother to trap me again and take me to the vet to be fixed.”

While cats are in the care of a vet, they also usually receive vaccinations and a general wellness exam. If all goes well, there are no health concerns, and the cats recover nicely from surgery, they are returned to the site where they were trapped and quietly released.

For a better look at TNR in action, check out this video on the Best Friends Tangier Island TNR project.

Learn how to start a TNR program in your community

Releasing a community cat after she's been fixed

A brief history of TNR

The humane approach called trap-neuter-return emerged on the public scene in Great Britain during the 1950s and later in Denmark in the 1970s. At some point during that time, TNR began to take hold in the U.S. as well, but it didn’t become part of the public discourse until the 1990s. That’s when Alley Cat Allies eased TNR into the mainstream.

TNR evolved in the U.S. after the city of Jacksonville, Florida, became the first city to introduce it in a shelter setting in 2008. At that time, the city teamed up with local nonprofit First Coast No More Homeless Pets and, with funding from Best Friends, launched the Feral Freedom program. This program allows First Coast No More Homeless Pets to take all community (feral) cats entering Jacksonville’s Animal Care and Protective Services, so that they can be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, ear-tipped and returned to their outdoor homes. According to the First Coast No More Homeless Pets website: “This program has and continues to save thousands of cats each year from certain death at Animal Care and Protective Services, and frees up vital resources to be used on adoptable pets.”

The Feral Freedom program has been instrumental in helping the City of Jacksonville to achieve and maintain no-kill status for the past two years.

In 2010, the program was replicated successfully in San Jose, California. According to San Jose Animal Care and Services, intake of cats and kittens decreased 29.1 percent after four years, and the number of cats killed decreased dramatically — from more than 70 percent in 2009 to just 23 percent in 2014.

In 2011, Best Friends began a similar program in DeKalb County, Georgia. As a result, the save rate for cats jumped from 46.5 percent to 77.8 percent in the first year alone. As recently as the third quarter of 2015, the county save rate exceeded 85 percent.

Best Friends community cat initiatives

Best Friends’ community cat initiatives can be divided into two main categories:

  • Programming: Best Friends and its partners operate more large-scale TNR programs than any other organization in the country. Because Best Friends sterilizes, vaccinates and releases tens of thousands of community cats each year, many thousands of births are prevented.
  • Legislation and advocacy: Best Friends tackles various legal issues relevant to the protection of community cats at both the local and state levels. We also work closely with local advocates (often through our network partners) and promote TNR through many channels, including conference presentations, newsletter and magazine articles, and website stories.

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Best Friends’ TNR programs for community cats

Cat enthusiasts were elated by the outstanding results in Jacksonville’s shelters. But Best Friends decided to take it another step further. In April 2012, it launched the first of its Community Cats Projects, in partnership with PetSmart Charities™, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Antonio, Texas. The Community Cats Projects are high-volume programs that not only address the community cats brought into shelters, but also focus on specific cat colonies, zip codes and neighborhoods associated with high shelter intake of cats. In this way, the programs seek to put TNR programs into place to prevent cats from landing in the shelter.

The results? You can read the full results on the Best Friends blog, but here are some highlights:

  • In 2015, 43.5 percent fewer cats and kittens entered Albuquerque’s shelter system than in 2011, prior to the program’s start. And the number of cats and kittens dying decreased by 82 percent.
  • The number of cats killed in San Antonio’s municipal shelter during 2015 was 65 percent lower than in 2011.

Equally as exciting as the statistics is how the cities have embraced these programs for their lifesaving value. In fact, last year Best Friends turned over the management of the two original programs to local municipalities and their partners.

Best Friends Community Cats Projects are now making a difference in other locations: Baltimore, Maryland; Columbus, Georgia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Pima County, Arizona. Here are some highlights:

  • In Baltimore, the save rate for cats and kittens increased to 81.1 percent in 2015, compared with 65.3 percent in 2012.
  • In Columbus and Pima County, the number of shelter cats dying in 2015 decreased by 80 percent and 79 percent, respectively, since 2013.
  • Philadelphia increased its save rate for cats and kittens to 75.1 percent in 2015, compared with 65.2 percent in 2013.  

We also have community cat programs in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Salt Lake County in Utah, plus the Best Friends Four Directions Community Cat Program, which operates in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Ear-tipped stray tabby cat after TNR

Alternatives to spay and neuter

Is there an alternative to TNR? Yes, sort of, but it certainly isn’t humane. Called the trap-and-kill method, the goal is to eliminate all outdoor cats There’s no spay and neuter, and there’s no return for the cats.

Fans of trap-and-kill who want to eradicate outdoor cats constantly ask the questions: “Does TNR work? Can it erase all traces of community cats?”

The question is: Do we really want or need to exterminate all outdoor cats? Thankfully, most Americans answered no when asked this question in a nationwide survey commissioned in late 2014 by Best Friends. When presented with an analysis of the impact of trap-neuter-return programs on populations of feral cats in places like Jacksonville, most people realized TNR works just fine.

(Interestingly, trap-and-kill advocates cannot point to any community where this method is successful, even by their own standards, even though trap-and-kill has been used far longer than TNR.)

The TNR opposition’s protests

For the most part, protests from opponents of TNR can be placed in three categories:

  • Feral cats and birds. It’s true that some cats can’t resist the hunt. But Best Friends maintains that the studies TNR critics use to make their case are inaccurate on major points, such as using results from one habitat to make broad, sweeping statements. But the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (so you know whose welfare the society is most concerned about) declared on its website: “Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide.”

  • Public health impact. There are three concerns here:
    • First is the concern about feral cats and rabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of rabies cases in cats during 2013 (the most recent data available) was the lowest reported since 1991. Since 1960, only two cases of human rabies in the U.S. have been attributed to cats, but Best Friends still advocates for vaccinating cats before returning them.
    • The second concern is the spread of a parasite called toxoplasmosis. But as the CDC notes, prevention generally is quite straightforward. The simple act of hand-washing takes care of a lot of public health concerns.
    • And, finally, there are nuisance complaints. Community cats yowl, spray and fight. But spaying and neutering eliminates production of the hormones estrogen and testosterone, thereby reducing these behaviors. The proof is reflected in numerous cases out there, but perhaps the most dramatic results came in Harrington, Delaware. Some 550 cats (93 percent of the count prior to trapping) were spayed or neutered and vaccinated as part of a community cat program. Afterward, nuisance calls decreased by 98 percent. Communities with Best Friends programs also experienced a reduction in nuisance calls.
  • The cats’ welfare. Believe it or not, there are some who actually say rounding up and killing community cats is better for the cats than letting them live outdoors. Of course, there are dangers to life outside. Many are from humans, such as traffic, people with ill intentions, and dangers from more natural elements. Still, not only is killing community cats because it’s dangerous outdoors illogical, but it’s a stance that is also almost uniformly rejected by Americans, as are all lethal management methods.

Legal matters pertaining to stray cats and TNR

There are no cookie-cutter laws when it comes to feral cats, caring for stray cats and TNR. That means TNR efforts may look slightly different in each community. But there are a few key legal issues that can have a big impact on the success of any TNR effort:

  • It’s important that cat colony caregivers not be considered owners of the cats, because this would falsely indicate that they have some control over them.
  • In answer to TNR critics, it should be made clear that returning street cats to the location where they were originally trapped does not constitute “abandonment” (an act of animal cruelty). Spaying or neutering cats, vaccinating them, and giving them a wellness check all contribute to improving the cats’ lives.
  • Nuisance provisions in local ordinances should focus on behavior (not just the presence of free-roaming cats) and require multiple registered complaints about those behaviors.
  • Mandated holding times for healthy stray and feral cats at animal shelters should be as short as possible for cats being sterilized, vaccinated and returned to their outdoor homes. The ideal is no holding time at all, as in the bill that Best Friends helped pass in Arizona and Utah that exempts eligible community cats from any mandatory holding time.

These are just a few of the key legal issues. You can read about others in the Best Friends Community Cat Programs Handbook. The Best Friends cat initiatives team addresses these issues (and more) at local and state levels by contacting elected officials and sending out legislative alerts to encourage the involvement of Best Friends members.

The verdict on trap-neuter-return

The vast majority of Americans are onboard with TNR. Ending the killing of dogs and cats in America’s shelters requires a humane approach to caring for stray cats. TNR is the best (and in most cases the only feasible) option on the table.

Ear-tipped community cat

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