What Shelter and Field Services Staff Should Know About Community Cats

If you see a cat outdoors, the cat could be stray, feral, or free-roaming. Those terms are often used interchangeably by the general public when referring to cats who live outdoors. At Best Friends Animal Society, we like to call these outdoor cats "community cats" because they are valued members of our community and are often cared for by community members.

Trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) is a common-sense, cost-effective solution for managing community cat populations by preventing additional births — rather than trying to round up, house, feed, and kill more cats. Despite TNVR becoming increasingly popular over the past few decades, a great deal of misinformation exists regarding TNVR programs and community cats in general.

To protect community cats, yourself and the area you serve, you need to know the facts.

Community cat fact vs. fiction

Fiction: TNVR leads to nuisance complaints from residents.

Facts: A well-run TNVR program generally reduces nuisance complaints — sometimes dramatically. Summarizing their review of the relevant research, the authors of a 2013 report from the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs write: “Credible studies indicate that neutering reduces urine spraying and roaming in search of mates by male cats, and spaying eliminates estrous-associated behaviors in female cats, including aggression, vocalization and perhaps efforts to escape outdoors in order to mate.”1

Fiction: Most residents are opposed to TNVR for managing the community cats in their neighborhood.

Facts: Results of a 2014 national survey commissioned by Best Friends Animal Society revealed a 68% preference for TNVR over impoundment followed by lethal injection of unadoptable cats (24%).2 That’s nearly 3-to-1 in favor of TNVR. 

More recently, a 2017 survey (also commissioned by Best Friends) found nearly identical results: 72% of respondents supported TNVR, compared to just 18% favoring impoundment and lethal injection. At a time when Americans are divided about so many policy issues, roughly 7 in 10 agree that TNVR is the best way to manage community cats.

Results of a 2006 survey commissioned by Alley Cat Allies found that 81% of respondents thought “leaving a cat where it is outside” was more humane for the cat, compared to the alternative of “having the cat caught and then put down” (14%).3 When respondents were asked the same question — but were told to assume the cat would die two years later after being hit by a car — the support for “leaving the cat” remained strong, at 72% (with 21% preferring to have the cat caught and euthanized). 

The same questions were asked in two subsequent surveys, and the results again indicated a strong preference (e.g., 73–86% of respondents for the first question) for “leaving the cat where it is outside.”4,5 

Such attitudes are in line with the results of a 2011 national survey in which just 25% of respondents agreed that animal shelters “should be allowed to euthanize animals as a necessary way of controlling the population of animals.”6

Fiction: TNVR doesn’t work.

Facts: The science is quite clear: There are only two ways proven to reduce, and eventually eliminate, a population of community cats: intensive TNVR efforts or intensive eradication efforts, such as those done using poison, disease, lethal trapping, and hunting on small oceanic islands.7,8 

Given the horrendous methods employed — and costs that can exceed $100,000 per square mile9 — eradication is a nonstarter in the U.S. The only fiscally sound option, then, is TNVR. 

Arguments about the limitations of its effectiveness, the alleged impact of outdoor cats on the environment, and so forth largely miss the point. In the vast majority of instances, TNVR is simply the best option available to humanely reduce the outdoor cat population and any related nuisance complaints.

A number of TNVR program success stories have demonstrated dramatic population reductions, and in some cases, completely eliminated colonies of free-roaming cats. 

Fiction: TNVR increases the risk of rabies transmission to humans, domestic animals, and wildlife.

Facts: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports: “Over the last 100 years, rabies in the United States has changed dramatically. More than 90 percent of all animal cases reported annually … now occur in wildlife.”10 

Vaccination against rabies is common practice for TNVR programs in the U.S., especially in parts of the country where rabies in cats occurs most frequently. (Best Friends recommends that vaccination against rabies be included in all TNVR programs and that reasonable attempts are made to assure boosters are also administered.) 

In fact, a 2012 nationwide survey of feral cat groups conducted by Alley Cat Rescue revealed that 96% of the groups provide rabies vaccinations as part of their TNVR programs.11 TNVR therefore protects public health by creating a powerful barrier between wildlife and humans. And not every cat needs to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity”12 (Figure 1). The public health benefit of TNVR is therefore two-fold: The cats are vaccinated, and their numbers are reduced over time.

Since 1975, the CDC has documented 109 cases of human rabies in the U.S., most of which were attributed to contact with wildlife. Of the 26 cases attributed to domestic animals, 25 were attributed to dogs (nearly all exposures were outside the U.S.). Just one case was attributed to contact with a cat.13 (Seven cases were the result of organ and arterial transplants.)

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Fiction: TNVR compromises the welfare of community cats.

Facts: Best Friends Animal Society operates more large-scale TNVR programs than any other organization in the country; as such, we are in a unique position to comment on the positive impact of these programs. Our firsthand experience, and evidence from a number of studies, shows that the vast majority of community cats are healthy — even thriving. 

During an 11-year observation period, more than half of the 23 cats living continuously on the University of Central Florida campus were estimated to be 6.8 years old or older, for example.14 A 2012 nationwide survey conducted by Alley Cat Rescue revealed similar longevity: A quarter of TNVR organizations responding to the survey had colony cats in the 6–8 year range, and 35% had cats in the 9–12 year range, while 14% reported caring for cats 13 years of age or older.11 And a number of studies have found that cats involved with TNVR programs are “surprisingly healthy and have good body weight.”15–17

The research shows that well-managed TNVR colony cats are, generally speaking, just as healthy as indoor-outdoor pet cats,18 with rates of feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection “similar to infection rates reported for owned cats.”19 Comparable findings have been reported in Ottawa, Ontario.20 By contrast, significantly higher rates of both FeLV and FIV have been observed where no active TNVR program had been implemented.16

Fiction: TNVR encourages the abandonment of cats and kittens and might actually be considered abandonment.

Facts: TNVR is not abandonment; healthy cats are merely being returned to their neighborhoods. Existing anti-cruelty statutes that address the act of abandonment are contingent upon the critical elements of intent and the foreseeable harm that might result from a person’s deliberate decision to withdraw necessary care. 

Returning healthy cats to their original location after sterilization and vaccination obviously does not meet the legal requirements for abandonment because their healthy condition suggests that these cats have ample access to resources — and therefore the intention underlying the return of these cats is noble and the foreseeable harm minimal.

Although it’s true that TNVR programs are sometimes faced with the unfortunate (and illegal) dumping of cats and kittens at colony feeding sites, there’s simply no evidence to suggest that these cats and kittens would not have been dumped anyway. 

Moreover, cats abandoned near a managed colony are far more likely to be adopted (multiple studies have found that approximately 30–50% or more of TNVR cats are adopted into homes14,15,21,22) and/or sterilized and vaccinated, thereby mitigating their potential impact on the overall population of community cats (as well as any potential impacts on wildlife and the environment).

Person releasing two humane traps at the same time with one brown tabby running out

Fiction: TNVR is too costly to be feasible.

Facts: Studies show that TNVR can actually save taxpayers money. A review of data from Hillsborough County Animal Services (HCAS) in Tampa, Florida, for example, found the cost to sterilize and vaccinate colony cats to be $65 per cat “as opposed to $168 for (HCAS) picking up, handling, and disposing of an animal.”23 

This is similar to cost estimates from San José Animal Care and Services, in California, which reports a cost of approximately $72 per cat for “vaccinations against rabies and other common cat disease, flea treatment, ear treatment, microchip, and ear-tipping.”17 

Estimates compiled from across the U.S. by researchers with the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs indicate less of a cost difference — but with TNVR still more economical (about $20 to $97 per cat) than the traditional impoundment and lethal injection (about $52 to $123 per cat).

Dr. Donna M. Alexander, administrator for Cook County (Illinois) Animal and Rabies Control, has testified in court that “prior to adoption of the TNR programs, local municipalities were trapping and euthanizing approximately 500 to 600 feral cats per year, at a cost to taxpayers of about $135 per cat.” Implementation of the county’s TNVR program, then about five or six years old, “had saved the county over $1.5 million, primarily resulting from having fewer feral cats to euthanize.”24

Literature cited

(1) Moldave, K.; Rhodes, L. Contraception and Fertility Control in Dogs and Cats; Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs, 2013.

(2) Wolf, P. J. New Survey Reveals Widespread Support for Trap-Neuter-Return. Humane Thinking 2015.

(3) Chu, K.; Anderson, W. M. Law & Policy Brief: U.S. Public Opinion on Humane Treatment of Stray Cats; Alley Cat Allies: Bethesda, MD, 2007.

(4) Beall, A. E. Community Cats: A Journey into the World of Feral Cats; iUniverse, 2014.

(5) Robinson, B. Letter: How to Manage Green Bay’s Feral Cats. Green Bay Press Gazette. January 25, 2018.

(6) Karpusiewicz, R. AP-Petside.Com Poll: Americans Favor No-Kill Animal Shelters. 2012.

(7) Bester, M. N.; Bloomer, J. P.; Aarde, R. J. van; Erasmus, B. H.; Rensburg, P. J. J. van; Skinner, J. D.; Howell, P. G.; Naude, T. W. A Review of the Successful Eradication of Feral Cats from Sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 2002, 32 (1), 65–73.

(8) Ratcliffe, N.; Bell, M.; Pelembe, T.; Boyle, D.; Benjamin, R.; White, R.; Godley, B.; Stevenson, J.; Sanders, S. The Eradication of Feral Cats from Ascension Island and Its Subsequent Recolonization by Seabirds. Oryx 2009, 44 (01), 20–29.

(9) Campbell, K. J.; Harper, G.; Algar, D.; Hanson, C. C.; Keitt, B. S.; Robinson, S. Review of Feral Cat Eradications on Islands. In Island invasives: eradication and management; Veitch, C. R., Clout, M. N., Towns, D. R., Eds.; IUCN: Gland, Switzerland, 2011.

(10) CDC. Rabies in the U.S.: Public Health Importance of Rabies. 2011.

(11) ACR. Alley Cat Rescue’s National Feral Cat Survey. PR Newswire 2012.

(12) Jekel, J. F. Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Preventive Medicine, 3rd ed.; Elsevier Health Sciences, 2007.

(13) Sung, J. H.; Hayano, M.; Okagaki, T.; Mastri, A. A Case of Human Rabies and Ultrastructure of the Negri Body. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology 1976, 35 (5), 541–559.

(14) Levy, J. K.; Gale, D. W.; Gale, L. A. Evaluation of Effect of a Long-Term Trap-Neuter-Return and Adoption Program on a Free-Roaming Cat Population. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2003, 222 (1), 42–46.

(15) Levy, J. K.; Isaza, N. M.; Scott, K. C. Effect of High-Impact Targeted Trap-Neuter-Return and Adoption of Community Cats on Cat Intake to a Shelter. The Veterinary Journal 2014, 201 (3), 269–274.

(16) Normand, C. M. Feral Cat Virus Infection Prevalence, Survival, Population Density, and Multi-Scale Habitat Use in an Exurban Landscape. M.S., Arkansas Tech University: Ann Arbor, 2014.

(17) Johnson, K. L.; Cicirelli, J. Study of the Effect on Shelter Cat Intakes and Euthanasia from a Shelter Neuter Return Project of 10,080 Cats from March 2010 to June 2014. PeerJ 2014, 2, e646.

(18) Stoskopf, M. K.; Nutter, F. B. Analyzing Approaches to Feral Cat Management — One Size Does Not Fit All. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2004, 225 (9), 1361–1364.

(19) Lee, I. T.; Levy, J. K.; Gorman, S. P.; Crawford, P. C.; Slater, M. R. Prevalence of Feline Leukemia Virus Infection and Serum Antibodies against Feline Immunodeficiency Virus in Unowned Free-Roaming Cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2002, 220 (5), 620–622.

(20) Little, S. A Review of Feline Leukemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Seroprevalence in Cats in Canada. Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology 2011, 143 (3–4), 243–245.

(21) Spehar, D. D.; Wolf, P. J. A Case Study in Citizen Science: The Effectiveness of a Trap-Neuter-Return Program in a Chicago Neighborhood. Animals 2018, 7 (11).

(22) Spehar, D. D.; Wolf, P. J. An Examination of an Iconic Trap-Neuter-Return Program: The Newburyport, Massachusetts Case Study. Animals 2017, 7 (11).

(23) Hamilton, F. E. Leading and Organizing Social Change for Companion Animals. Anthrozoös 2010, 23 (3), 277–292.

(24) County of Cook v. Village of Bridgeview; 2014.

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