Me, along with many other feral cat caregivers, cat enthusiasts, rescues, and shelters, get messages all day, every day that sound just like the title of this post.
I’m a caregiver to my backyard feral cat colony and a cat blogger/advocate.
I am not a rescue, a TNR group, a shelter, or God. I try to help as many people as I can but because of all of the other hats I wear, I cannot guide each and every person through the process of TNR and I certainly cannot go out there and do all of the legwork for somebody else.
Unless I don’t want to sleep!
Which is why I decided to do a comprehensive guide to Trap-Neuter-Return.
What is Trap Neuter Return (TNR)?
Trap Neuter Return (TNR) is a humane method of controlling the feral cat population and minimizing community exposure to rabies. It also helps your area shelters and rescues, because the fewer number of kittens that are coming in off the streets, the more shelter cats are finding good forever homes.
At least in my neck of the woods, my county has taken an official “pro-TNR” stance and my state (New Jersey) is on its way, because it has been proven to be a MUCH more effective method of reducing the feral cat population than antiquated “trap and kill” programs. Not only that, but our area shelters are starting to report higher “live release rates” since my county took this official stance in 2017. And it’s cheaper on local and county government since TNR is often funded by grants and/or caregivers and volunteers.
Like I always say, these cats did not ask to be dumped off. They didn’t ask to be born, much less on the streets and homeless. They have a right to live, as well.
And until the government can find a way to pass and enforce laws requiring pet owners to spay and neuter their pets and stop dumping unwanted kittens off in the woods, etc, this is as close to a viable and humane solution we will get.
Decide the Cats’ Fate
Only YOU can decide if you want the commitment of caring for feral cats.
Because I was originally feeding the feral Tom cats who knocked Fluffy up and I failed to neuter them, I felt it was MY responsibility to make this “right”.
The Kits didn’t ask to be born to feral parents.
I want to mention that it’s a little-known fact that most shelters euthanize feral cats because they are “unadoptable” since they are not socialized to humans. And they need to make room for “adoptable” cats.
Sad, but true.
There are some shelters out there who are developing Barn Cat programs, but they are few and far between at this point in time (2018).
Please really consider their welfare when making your decision.
And know that the “vacuum effect” phenomenon is very real. When feral cats are removed from a location for whatever reason, if conditions are favorable (ie shelter, a food source, water), new feral cats CAN and WILL move in once the current cats are removed since there is nobody there to defend their “territory”.
As soon as one leaves for whatever reason, another shows up. Every. Single. Time.
Kittens are ALWAYS Better Off with Mama!
I see people so anxious to TNR the mama cats that they make decisions in haste, which are not always in the best interest in the kittens’ survival.
Recently, a friend got a call about a feral mama and her kittens. She’s determined to TNR every female she can. She went out there to trap mama and removed her from the area immediately and figured she would go back the next week for the kittens.
She did this without knowing if the kittens were even weaned and old enough to survive on their own.
As far as I know, the kittens were never seen again.
What would I do differently?
I would ask the person who found the kittens if they knew if the kittens were eating solid food on their own yet. Most people cannot tell a feral kitten’s age just by looking at the kitten, so I ask, but I take their guestimate with a grain of salt unless they are REALLY experienced.
If in doubt, use mama to trap the kittens. If the kittens are weaned, mama still needs to be fixed! And, of course, the kittens need to be fixed when they are old enough, regardless if you decide to adopt them out or TNR them and let them live as outdoor feral cats.
This video by Kitten Lady shows her using a feral mama’s kittens to catch mama. BE CAREFUL taking kittens away from mama! As you see in this video, Hannah is VERY lucky she didn’t get her face ripped off by the feral mama.
Like Kitten Lady mentions in her video, kittens are ALWAYS better off with their mama! Mama can raise them better than even the most seasoned fosters and rescues, which is why The Kits ALL came inside with clean bills of health besides having round worm.
Since my backyard is relatively safe, Fluffy had The Kits tucked safely away, and had help from Charlie and then Oreo, I opted to leave them with Fluffy until I figured out what to do with them. I already understood that Fluffy knew a whole lot more about raising kittens than I did!
Have you seen kittens and not mama? Do the kittens look clean and cared for? If so, they are likely under mama’s care but you just don’t see mama yet. Mama could be out looking for food. Or napping elsewhere. When Fluffy had her kittens tucked safely under the barn next door, she used to come over to my picnic table in the backyard to nap. She also left The Kits under the barn while she came over to eat in my shed until they were roughly 4 weeks old. Then they started coming over with her.
That’s how I knew she was weaning them off. They started to eat solid food over here and Fluffy’s food intake slowed down.
If the kittens look well cared for, wait for a while to see if mama shows up. She will usually show up after a few hours to feed and care for them. If mama doesn’t show up after a few hours, assume they are orphaned. They need intervention immediately!
This Infographic from Alley Cat Allies explains what your next steps should be.
Orphaned kittens are better left in the hands of experienced fosters or caregivers. However, if it’s a Saturday night and you can’t get them to a shelter or rescue IMMEDIATELY, Kitten Lady has some great tutorials and information on how to care for orphaned kittens!
A Note on Socializing Feral Cats
I plan on doing an entire blog post just on this subject, but here’s a quick thought.
If the location where you found the cats is “feral cat friendly” and somewhat safe and the cat is TRULY feral (ie: runs from you, hisses and spits when corners with its ears flattened, etc) it’s best to return them where you trapped them. But, please, if you do, make sure you feed it at least once per day, provide it clean, fresh water, and shelter, if at all possible.
Kittens under eight weeks of age are much easier to socialize than adult feral cats or older kittens. The Kits were 16 weeks old when I rescued them, but bear in mind they knew me since before they were born. If you’re committed to helping them socialize so you can adopt them out or even keep them as your own cats, here is a great article by Alley Cat Allies to help get you started.
Another option is to find a no-kill shelter or cat rescue in your area who has fosters experienced with socializing feral kittens. If you decide to go this route, PLEASE do your homework to make sure they are a “no kill” facility before surrendering the kittens.
Feel free to Contact Us if you need any tips, as well!
Anybody Can Do Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)
This is what one of my Facebook friends commented when someone was asking me to take care of a feral cat problem in their back yard.
“Anybody can be a trapper!”
I couldn’t find a rescue to take The Kits.
My neighbors were going to take them to the shelter, thinking they were helping them. We were contracted with a high-kill shelter at that time and none of these cats would make it out alive.
I could NOT allow that to happen to these babies.
Since I had no clue what I was doing, I LEARNED! A local friend who TNR’ed a few cats gave me a some tips and lent me a trap. I learned everything else from the internet and then got moving!
Is Your Area “Safe” for Community Cats?
First, you want to find out if you’re even allowed to feed feral cats on your property. It really all depends on where you are located and how enlightened your state/county/town are.
I also STRONGLY SUGGEST building a rapport with your neighbors to let them know what you are doing and why. It’s been my experience that open lines of communication with neighbors and a good rapport with them helps the CATS…and that is our goal.
Feral cats tend to wander A LOT LESS once they are fixed. However, you do have the really, truly feral cats who just will NOT hang out close to your property no matter how hard you try to befriend them. Those are the cats who only come to eat at night, spend the majority of their time elsewhere, and RUN whenever they see you or another human.
Explain to your neighbors that you have feral cats you are caring for and that you want to neuter them so the population doesn’t get out of hand. Tell them the cats will be vaccinated for rabies (and distemper depending on what you have available locally). Let them know that having feral cats around will reduce mouse, rat, and ground mole populations. (Unless they are MY feral cats and Gus the Ground Mole is living in your yard. If you follow our Facebook page, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, why not? Go follow us!!)
Having this talk with your neighbors will reduce the chances that they will complain about the cats in the future. Keeping a good rapport and a respectful relationship with them is one of the best things you can do for the fate of your feral cat colony.
The Next Steps
You want to get the cat(s) on a feeding schedule because that will make it MUCH easier to trap them. Same time, same place, EVERY day. Pick an area that is sheltered from the elements and an area that you can fit a humane trap when the time comes to trap.
At this point you want to look into getting a humane trap. You can contact local shelters or rescues, or even friends you have that you know care for feral cats or rescue cats and see if you can borrow a trap. Many shelters offer them on loan with a refundable deposit once you return the trap to them.
If you have more than one or two feral cats you want to TNR, you may want to look into purchasing one. Here are a couple I recommend. I personally have a Havahart at the moment but want to upgrade to the Tru Catch because I feel it is a little safer.
They also sell Havahart traps at Home Depot.
The Clinic Appointment
Next, find a low-cost spay/neuter clinic in your area. You can Google “low cost spay and neuter for cats” and your zip code to find programs and clinics in your area.
If you’re in the South Jersey/Philly area, Animal Welfare Association – Voorhees, NJ has a low cost “feral fix it” program. For $35, you can get the cat spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies, and ear tipped. Ear tipping is a universal sign that a feral cat has been fixed and vaccinated for rabies. For $10 more, they will also administer a distemper vaccine.
You want to look into getting appointments FIRST because availability for these appointments can be tough, especially during “kitten season”. I know with AWA, it sometimes takes a few days to get a callback. I usually reserve week-long “blocks” of appointments because I don’t always catch my target cat in the first attempt and neither will you. Especially the shyer cats. CSTAR-SOS Clinic only operates spay/neuter clinics monthly.
If all else fails, ask your vet or other vet offices in your area if they offer any low cost fixing options for feral cats. Often, they will set you up with a similar deal.
You want to plan ahead because once you trap a feral cat, it’s VERY difficult and may be IMPOSSIBLE to re-trap them so make sure you have an appointment for them on or around trapping day. If you trap the cat and release them without getting them fixed, good luck trying to trap that cat a second time!
Trap Training and Trapping
I cover this pretty well in a video I filmed in 2016. Please pardon the hair. And if you have the mindset of “this is a comedy” before viewing the video, you’ll appreciate our horrible videography skills. Or at least they won’t get on your nerves as much.
I cannot stress this enough…PLEASE DO NOT EVER LEAVE A SET TRAP OR A TRAPPED CAT UNATTENDED. As SOON as you trap the cat, cover it and get it to a SECURE location that is not too hot or too cold and is safe from predators, other pets, or anybody who will do it harm.
It is also VERY important to COVER the trap as soon as Kitty is trapped. Feral cats calm WAY down after being covered. If you have a kitty chatting it up and still trying to get out once the trap is covered, chances are, it’s not really feral. The more “social” cats act more like your pet cat going to the vet…you know, clawing at the door and singing the song of their people!
If you have to hold them overnight or for any length of time before their appointment, you can line puppy potty training pads underneath the trap to catch their “business”. If their appointment day is the same as trapping day, DO NOT FEED them any more food than what you used to trap them and only give water if their appointment is longer than eight hours after the time you trapped them.
Kitty will be getting anesthesia, so the risk of aspirating fluid or throwing up undigested food, both of which can kill Kitty while they are under, is very real.
Kitty’s Spay/Neuter Appointment
Every place is different so I’ll just share my experience with AWA to give you a general idea.
Check in time is 7:30am for the clinic I use. They will NOT accept any cats after about 8am, so if I don’t get there in time, I’ll have to hold that poor cat until the next day…IF I have an appointment. So I do everything in my power to get Kitty there on time.
Once I sign in, I have to fill out a paper for Kitty. At AWA, the only way to get “feral” pricing is if Kitty shows up in a trap and Kitty gets an ear tip during her surgery.
Some people get hung up on that ear tip, hoping maybe they can adopt Kitty out if it’s not so “feral”. They often fight with the AWA workers about allowing them to tip the ear, thinking they will not be able to adopt Kitty out at a future time if it’s ear tipped. Here’s my thoughts on this…I have three ear-tipped beauties as indoor-only cats right now. And I adopted out two of my former feral ear-tipped cats. An ear tip did not stop their new parents from adopting them and loving them wholeheartedly. And if someone doesn’t want a cat just because of a little ear tip, do you really want them to adopt Kitty, anyway?
Back to clinic. When it’s our turn, they take Kitty and keep the trap. They will put Kitty back into the trap after surgery before she wakes up. **(In the recovery section, I’ll talk about instances when you may want to bring a carrier for Kitty’s trip home.)
Pickup time at AWA varies but it’s usually about 3:30. Before I leave with Kitty, I always check to make sure Kitty is awake and alert. I check for excessive bleeding and I make sure they are ear tipped. I double check the paper work they hand me to make sure I have their rabies certificate for my records. AND I make sure they give me back the RIGHT kitty! Yes. They have accidentally switched kitties and the caretakers didn’t realize it until after they left!
Again, NEVER LEAVE KITTY UNATTENDED IN A TRAP. And NEVER leave Kitty in a hot car. When I pick up Kitty from AWA, I head straight home. Especially if it is too hot or too cold outside. Often, Kitty is just starting to come out of anesthesia at pick-up time and this is a very vulnerable time for them. When a cat is coming out of anesthesia, they cannot regulate their own body temperature, so make sure the temp inside your car and their recovery area is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You want to try and control the temperature the entire first night of recovery while they are clearing the anesthesia.
And PLEASE, never attempt to transfer them out of the trap into a carrier or a cage unless you are indoors in a secure location. I hear TOO many stories of people who transferred Kitty into a carrier from a trap outside or at the clinic. Kitty got out and took off. When that happens, there is a disoriented kitty who is still under some degree of sedation and may not be able to defend itself. And a feral cat will DIE trying to find their way back to where they know to be “home”. Wait until you’re in Kitty’s recovery room before trying to transfer him to his recovery cage or pen.
Also, Kitty may still be very groggy and it’s tempting to try and pet Kitty, but unless you knew her to be friendly BEFORE trapping, do not touch Kitty. Feral cats are scared to death of humans and will attack when they feel threatened. Even while drugged up to their eyeballs. An untreated cat bite can lead to a severe infection that may even require IV antibiotics, a tetanus shot, the rabies series, and hospitalization. Please be smart and don’t take that chance.
The Recovery Period
Opinions vary on how long you should hold Kitty after surgery. And, of course, every cat and every situation is different. Here is a general guideline from Alley Cat Allies.
I’ve only TNR’ed one female (Fluffy). She was pregnant, and, unbeknownst to me until after the fact, was pretty far along in her pregnancy. She had complications that led to internal bleeding requiring a second surgery, and she was mildly anemic as a result. We ended up holding her a total of six days and five nights, which is twice as long as I would normally hold a female who is an “uncomplicated spay”.
Other than that, I’ve had all boys. And I have severe space constraints in my house, especially now that I have Fluffy and The Kits inside. I have a small bathroom that has just enough room for the trap I caught them in. Since they were boys and their neuter is MUCH less invasive than a female spay, I let them recover in the trap overnight and if all looks well the next morning, I release them. Basically, I make sure they are eating well, not bleeding anywhere, and they are alert. It’s great if they are acting hostile. Since they are feral, they SHOULD BE once the anesthesia wears off!
Setting Up the Recovery Area
ONE IMPORTANT NOTE! I said this before but it’s THAT IMPORTANT that I will say it again… when you pick the cat up from surgery, they cannot regulate their own body temperature because they are still under the influence of anesthesia. It’s CRUCIAL that you recover them in a climate-controlled area where the temperature is between 68-74 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid the risk of hyper- or hypothermia.
CHOOSE A SECURE LOCATION INDOORS! This one I absolutely cannot stress ENOUGH. Since Kitty often smells like blood, you don’t want them to recover in a cage or a trap outside or even in a barn/shed or other non-secure outbuilding. The smell of blood can attract predators from MILES and Kitty will have no way of getting free when confined to a trap or a cage. Also, since they are groggy from anesthesia and/or pain medicine, they are not as sharp. Their defenses aren’t as sharp. I have heard nightmare stories of recovering cats in cages inside barns or sheds who were attacked and/or killed by predators during the recovery period. PLEASE TAKE THIS ADVICE SERIOUSLY!
Setting Up for an Overnight Stay
To set up the trap in the recovery area for MALE cats, I flatten a large box (usually from Chewy.com) in the shower stall and line it with a thick lining of puppy training pads. I learned this little trick with Charlie. If you place the trap OVER the pads instead of putting the pads or newspaper inside the trap, it’s easier to lift up the trap to removed any soiled pads and “business” and put fresh pads down so they don’t have to sit on their “business”. I recovered at least ten cats this way and they seemed much more comfortable using this method!
If you do not have a trap divider, you can slowly open the front of the trap an inch or so to slip food in. I use small Dixie bowls for this purpose. If you stick the bowl in first, you can push it with your finger behind the bowl so Kitty won’t see your hand going toward him. If he attacks, he will attack the bowl. You can also use tongs to push the bowl in.
I usually feed wet food only and I add extra water to the food. I put the wet food in the center and do a “moat” of water outside of the food. That’s enough to keep them well hydrated during their overnight stay, and then you won’t have to worry about Kitty spilling the water all over his recovery area. Live and learn!
I also cover the trap halfway or three-quarters of the way. That gives them an area to feel covered and secure, yet allows air flow into the recovery area.
Setting up for an Extended Stay
I personally prefer to recover female cats for a minimum of two nights/three days. If Kitty was pregnant, you may want to hold her longer. A sick or injured kitty will have a longer recovery time. Ask the clinic or vet for their recommendation. We recently TNR’ed a male cat with an injured tail. Since the vet amputated his tail, we held him for two weeks before releasing. Every cat and situation is different!
If you need to hold Kitty longer than overnight, set up a dog cage or large plastic dog kennel. You want enough room for a “feral cat den”, a small litter box, and room for food and water bowls opposite the litter box because most cats will not eat where they do their “business”.
A feral cat den is a cat carrier that creates a little place where kitty can hide in and sleep if they so choose. Likely, Kitty will hide in there when you go in to clean the cage and feed, etc. Actually, I count on that because if Kitty hides in the den, you can use a long stick to close the door of the carrier. Once you have the door closed, hold the stick up against it to keep it closed while you reach in and secure the door by hand. Once Kitty is secure in the carrier, you can pluck the carrier out of the cage to clean it. It’s so much quicker, easier, and safer to clean the cage this way!
**This is a situation when you may want to bring a carrier to the clinic when you drop Kitty off for surgery. When Kitty’s surgery is complete, they will put Kitty into the carrier instead of the trap. When you get to the Recovery Area, you can just place the carrier that’s holding Kitty into the cage. Unlock the carrier door just before you secure the larger cage but DO NOT OPEN IT YET. Once you securely lock the cage, you can open the carrier door with a stick or broom handle and secure the carrier door to the side of the cage in the “open” position using zip ties.
If you’re recovering kittens, use a large plastic dog kennel instead of a dog cage because kittens can easily slip through the bars or slip out of the bottom of a large dog cage.
You can purchase inexpensive zip ties from Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Amazon. If you use plastic dishes and a litter box, cut a small hole into the side of the bowls and the litter box, just enough to slip the zip tie through. Then you can secure them to the side of the cage. Securing them ensures Kitty won’t spill anything. You can also use zip ties to secure the “feral cat den” door to the side of the cage so the door doesn’t accidentally shut. (I learned this one the hard way with some kittens I recovered.)
It’s wise to check on Kitty twice per day as well as twice daily feedings. Sometimes, true ferals will not use a litter box. It’s always good to line the bottom of the cage with newspaper. Just do the best you can to clean up the cage while remaining safe.
Fluffy didn’t go into the feral cat den when I went to visit her. I took some chances cleaning Fluffy’s cage that I probably shouldn’t have. It helped that she knew me and reacted with a friendly squeak whenever she saw me. Therefore, I felt safe taking those chances with her. Know Thy Cat.
Again, cover the trap halfway or three-quarters of the way. That gives them an area to feel covered and secure, yet allows air flow into the recovery area.
Or like I call it, their “Freedom Run”!
This is bittersweet. If they are truly feral, they are happier outside where they consider “home”. I’m happy for them because I know their ordeal is over and I’m about to make their day by releasing them. But it’s sad because just for a short while, they were SAFE and in my care. But, if they are TRULY feral, trust me, you’re doing the right thing by releasing. More on that to come in another blog post.
Like I said above, I only release if Kitty is awake, alert, eating well, and not bleeding. If in doubt, the clinic where Kitty had their surgery should have an emergency line for post-surgical questions and problems. Please contact the clinic or vet if Kitty isn’t looking well at ANY time during the recovery process.
I ALWAYS feed a couple of hours before releasing, especially since they don’t always come back right away.
You want to make sure you release Kitty at the same location you trapped him! Kitty can become disoriented if you release him anywhere else. He will likely become lost trying to find his way home. Feral cats can and will die trying to find their way “home”. More on that here.
Be sure to cover the trap or carrier before taking Kitty to the release spot. She will be nervous because she doesn’t understand what is going to happen to her next.
Once you get Kitty to the release spot, pull back the cover just a bit and see how they react. If they start thrashing around, cover the trap back up. If they are calm, you can pull the cover halfway back so they can see their surroundings.
THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. DO NOT JUST RELEASE RIGHT AWAY. Please give Kitty some time to re-acclimate himself to his whereabouts. Especially if he had an extended recovery. You can see with some cats the exact point they realize where they are. If you watch Kitty, you may see his demeanor change from fear to excitement. He knows he’s “home”. When you see that change in them, it’s okay to release. It can take anywhere from 5 – 20 minutes.
I always make sure my other ferals aren’t around when I release. As you see, they often shoot off like a cat out of Hell. Make sure the area is quiet with no loud machinery, construction or people around, if you can help it.
Awaiting Their Return
This is the absolute hardest part. More often than not, they don’t return to the scene of the crime right away. My cats have taken anywhere from one hour (Trouble) to eight days (Fluffy) to return.
I always make sure the trap is NOWHERE near the “scene of the crime” after release. If I am trapping other cats at the same site, I try to set the traps in a different area. The last thing I want is to scare Kitty when he returns.
They ALWAYS return. I’ve TNR’ed around 30 cats, and eventually they all came back. This was my BIGGEST fear and what stopped me from starting TNR sooner. Charlie and Oreo were coming around for a year before I TNR’ed them because of that fear.
I didn’t act until AFTER I saw kittens. That kinda defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
You’re Not in “This” Alone!
This is by no means a complete guide. I wanted to go as in detail as possible (for a blog post) to help those who are brand new to TNR. The whole process intimidated me because I didn’t know a lot of the “small details” involved.
Community Cats United website provides great information and resources for those just starting out. Their sister Facebook page, Trap-Neuter-Return Community, is full of experienced lay people who will also help you out! This is an awesome community to join to really learn the ins and outs and tricks from feral cat caregivers!
Feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions or need guidance for your particular situation.
Follow our Facebook page for tips and tricks on feral cat care. You can also meet our cats and see the daily ‘goings on’ around here! And don’t hesitate to shoot us a direct message on FB!
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THANK YOU for deciding to be part of the solution by spaying and neutering your community cats!
Together, we can HALT the over-population of feral cats and enable more homeless shelter cats find a FOREVER home!
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