Controlling Feral Cat Colonies

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Trap-neuter-return is a program designed to reduce the feral cat population that exists in many countries around the world, including Great Britain, Italy, Canada and the United States. U.K. animal activist Ruth Plant began the first documented TNR program in the 1950s, and groups in the U.S. initiated it in the 1960s.

Since TNR’s inception, the study of different feral cat colonies shows positive results in reduction of the colony size, aggressiveness and nuisance complaints from residents in the areas studied.

What is it?
In a trap-neuter-return program, feral cats are captured by authorities, the local humane society or concerned citizens using humane traps. The animals are taken to a veterinarian who neuters the cats, including those as young as nine weeks and pregnant females. The left ear is either notched or the tip cut off to help identify neutered feral cats. The recovery period is usually 24 hours, and the cats are fed and watered before they are returned to their territory. The colony will probably be skittish for a few days, but over time the colony will decrease in size and fewer kittens will be seen.

Feral or stray?
Feral cats are wild cats; the feral cat has escaped from domestication and is living the life of a wild animal. A feral cat may also be a cat born in the wild to wild parents.

Stray cats, on the other hand, have been abandoned by or escaped from their owners. The stray cat is more accurately called a homeless or wandering cat. Some of these cats are socialized and can be put up for adoption.

Studies show that cat colonies are reduced over years. A 2014 study by the University of Florida’s Dr. Julie Levy claims that the TNR program helped reduce animal control cat intake by 70 percent and euthanasia by 95 percent in the target area. A Texas A&M study from 1998 to 2003 noted that in the second year of the study, no nursing mothers or kittens were found. The Atlantic City Boardwalk Cat Project undertaken in 2000 by Alley Cat Allies stabilized the Boardwalk’s well-known cat colony at around 175 cats.

Individuals, veterinarians and organizations are opposed to TNR for reasons that include wildlife predation and public health issues. PETA believes that it is not in the best interests of the feral cat population and offers guidelines for appropriate program management, including veterinary care, vaccinations, spaying and neutering and recordkeeping. Otherwise, they recommend euthanasia since the cats struggle to survive in a hostile environment.

Opponents also note that the resources and logistics required for a successful program are difficult to maintain. A primary objection is the questionable quality of life for cats that struggle with predation, infectious diseases and kitten mortality.

Managing a TNR Program
PETA offers guidelines for monitoring a program after proponents allocate sufficient time and resources to manage a feral cat colony. The weather should be temperate, and the cats should be in a safe place, away from roads, people and other wildlife. Establish a regular feeding program with the feral cat colony and develop a good relationship with a veterinarian. Decide when to set out the traps, then capture, neuter, vaccinate, ear–tip and return the cats to the colony.
Continue to monitor health of the cats and maintain veterinary records on each cat. Set up a covered feeding station away from sleeping and eliminating areas and provide fresh water at all times away from the feeding area. If the cats do not already inhabit an abandoned building, construct a sheltered area where they are not exposed to the elements. Use straw or hardwood shavings for bedding. Build and clean (daily) a large, covered litter box filled with sand. Be accessible for emergencies, questions and problems.

Other Practices
Is there really an alternative to TNR other than euthanasia? Animal control for years has captured and euthanized stray animals with little success.

My father’s farm had a fairly large feral cat colony. The county animal control officers came out regularly to check the vaccination papers of the cats. Since there were no papers, the officer would put out traps to capture the animals to be euthanized. In a couple of years, the whole process would be done again. The failure here was resources; neither my father nor the county had enough resources to capture and neuter all the animals in the colony, so the colony was never under control. It was reduced, but not controlled as it could have been with a well-planned TNR program.

The most successful programs have been those associated with schools of veterinary medicine with strong research programs. Where there is good community support and adequate resources from local agencies, the Humane Society, PETA, Alley Cat Allies or other organizations, TNR programs have successfully reduced the feral cat population and neighborhood complaints about the cats. ■

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