Fact vs. Fiction: What Every Veterinary Professional Should Know About Free-Roaming Cats

Trap-neuter-return (TNR) is a common-sense, cost-effective solution for managing populations of unowned, free-roaming cats (sometimes called stray, feral, or “community cats”) by preventing additional births — rather than trying to round up, house, feed, and kill more cats. Despite TNR becoming increasingly popular over the past 25 years, a great deal of misinformation exists regarding TNR, and outdoor cats in general.

To protect community cats, your clients, and your patients, you need to know the facts.

For additional information on TNR and community cats

Fiction: TNR doesn’t work.

Facts: The science is quite clear: There are only two ways proven to reduce, and eventually eliminate, a population of free-roaming cats: (1) intensive TNR efforts or (2) intensive eradication efforts, such as those done using poison, disease, lethal trapping, and hunting on small oceanic islands.1,2 Given the horrendous methods employed — and costs that can exceed $100,000 per square mile3 — eradication is a non-starter in the U.S. The only fiscally sound option, then, is TNR. 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, TNR is simply the best option available to humanely reduce the outdoor cat population and any related nuisance complaints.

A number of TNR programs have demonstrated dramatic population reductions and, in some cases, have completely eliminated colonies of free-roaming cats. For details, please visit this section of our library for resources such as “Trap-Neuter-Return Success Stories: What the Research Tells Us.”

Fiction: TNR compromises the welfare of community cats.

Facts: Best Friends operates more large-scale TNR 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 unowned, free-roaming 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.4 A 2012 nationwide survey conducted by Alley Cat Rescue revealed similar longevity: One quarter of TNR organizations responding to the survey had colony cats in the 6–8 year range and 35 percent had cats in the 9–12 year range, while 14 percent reported caring for cats 13 years of age or older.5 And a number of studies have found that cats involved with TNR programs are “surprisingly healthy and have good body weight.”6–8

The research shows that well-managed TNR colony cats are, generally speaking, just as healthy as indoor-outdoor pet cats,9 with rates of feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection “similar to infection rates reported for owned cats.”10 Comparable findings have been reported in Ottawa, Ontario.11 By contrast, significantly higher rates of both FeLV and FIV have been observed where no active TNR program had been implemented.7

Fiction: TNR 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.”12 Vaccination against rabies is common practice for TNR programs in the U.S., especially in parts of the country where rabies in cats occurs most frequently.[a] In fact, a 2012 nationwide survey of feral cat groups conducted by Alley Cat Rescue revealed that 96 percent of the groups provide rabies vaccinations as part of their TNR programs.5 TNR 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”13 (Figure 1). The public health benefit of TNR 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.14 (Seven cases were the result of organ and arterial transplants.)

Woman releasing a calico cat who is running away from a humane trap

Fiction: TNR poses a significant threat to wildlife, especially native birds.

Facts: The astronomical mortality “estimates” sometimes attributed to free-roaming cats15 simply cannot be reconciled with the best population estimates available,16 or with the population trends documented by the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey.17 In addition, such estimates leave no accounting for other well-documented causes of bird mortality, such as pesticide use, oil spills, habitat loss, window strikes, or other anthropogenic causes. Indeed, were these claims even remotely accurate, no birds would be left.

It’s well known that all predators — cats included — tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and the unhealthy. At least two studies have investigated this phenomenon in detail, revealing that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than birds killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with windows or cars).18,19 As the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds notes: “It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations.”20 In any case, because the most effective way to reduce most populations of community cats is through sterilization, TNR offers a benefit to wildlife as well.

Literature cited

(1) 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.

(2) 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.

(3) 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.

(4) Levy, J. K.; Gale, D. W.; Gale, L. A. Evaluation of the 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.

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

(6) 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.

(7) 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.

(8) 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.

(9) 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.

(10) 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.

(11) 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.

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

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

(14) 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.

(15) Loss, S. R.; Will, T.; Marra, P. P. The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications 2013, 4.

(16) Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013. PIF Population Estimates Database pif.birdconservancy.org/PopEstimates/ (accessed Mar 5, 2018).

(17) Sauer, J. R.; Niven, D. K.; Hines, J. E.; Ziolkowski, D. J. J.; Pardieck, K. L.; Fallon, J. E.; Link, W. A. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017; USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, 2017.

(18) Møller, A. P.; Erritzøe, J. Predation against Birds with Low Immunocompetence. Oecologia 2000, 122 (4), 500–504.

(19) Baker, P. J.; Molony, S. E.; Stone, E.; Cuthill, I. C.; Harris, S. Cats about Town: Is Predation by Free-Ranging Pet Cats Felis Catus Likely to Affect Urban Bird Populations? Ibis 2008, 150, 86–99.

(20) RSPB. Are Cats Causing Bird Declines? 2016.

[a] Best Friends recommends that vaccination against rabies be included in all TNR programs, and that reasonable attempts are made to assure boosters are also administered.

Download a printer-friendly PDF