America’s Overlooked 40 Million Community Cats

According to The Humane Society of the United States, cats are divided into three distinct populations: The first two populations are the obvious ones: those owned as pets, and those in shelters and rescues. The third group is the one most people don’t think about: community cats, which consists of abandoned, stray, and feral (unsocialized) cats. The community cat population isn’t small: there are an estimated 30 to 40 million in the United States. Can anything be done about so many homeless cats? Many animal welfare groups advocate for a Trap-Neuter-Return approach to their management, which is the topic of my five posts this week.

What is TNR?

To understand Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), you need to know two terms. First, you need to understand that “feral” is a term used to describe an undomesticated and homeless cat. Feral cats are considered undomesticated because they have experienced minimal if any human contact. However, the term “feral” is not a straightforward one, because any cat that lives outdoors and does not have an owner can end up in a feral colony. Thus, The Feral Cat Project stresses that it is equally important to understand that it can be difficult, if not impossible, “to differentiate whether a frightened cat was born without human contact, formerly had human contact and became un-socialized from living on its own or if it is simply frightened.” Although feral cats have reverted somewhat to a wild condition, they still generally depend on people for food. According to Neighborhood Cats, very few feral cats subsist solely by hunting prey.

Second, you need to understand that Trap Neuter Return refers to a program whereby cats are humanely trapped, vaccinated, and spayed/neutered. Those considered unadoptable will also have one of their ears “tipped” (the ear tip is removed to identify the cat as having already been TNR’d), and then will be returned to their colony, which is cared for by volunteers who provide food, water, and shelter. Ideally, any adoptable cats (tame strays or kittens) are placed into foster homes, but the resources for this aren’t always available. Animal welfare groups advocate TNR for the management of feral colonies because they consider it the most humane and effective strategy for reducing feral cat populations.

Why Doesn’t Catch and Kill Work?

The traditional method of controlling feral animal populations is catch and kill. Many animal welfare groups argue that after decades of using this method, the feral population has continued to climb, thereby proving that the method is ineffective. In addition, it is inhumane.

One of the leaders in the TNR movement, Alley Cat Allies, explains that attempts to permanently remove cats from an area will always fail because of what is known as the vacuum effect. In a vacuum effect, whenever animals are removed from a location, new animals move in, and these animals breed to capacity. Alley Cat Allies has an entire PDF dedicated to the discussion of the vacuum effect. According to it, scientists have well-documented the vacuum effect in badgers, lions, possums, and raccoons.

One of the leaders in the no-kill movement, Best Friends, elaborates by stating that, “Every habitat has a carrying capacity, the maximum population size of a given species that can be sustained in a particular area. This carrying capacity is determined by the availability of food sources, water, shelter and other environmental necessities. When a portion of the sustainable population is removed and the availability of resources is unaltered, the remaining animals respond through increased birthing and higher survivability rates.”

A documented effort to remove a population of cats on the uninhabited, sub-Antarctic Marion Island substantiates that the efforts to trap and kill are ineffective and inhumane. According to the article entitled “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean”, and published in Biological Conservation, in 1949, five cats were introduced to sub-Antarctic Marion Island (brought there as pets by scientists) and by 1977 their number had grown to about 3,400. Because the cats were reducing populations of native wildlife, the decision was made to eradicate the cats through various methods that included the introduction of disease and shooting. And yet, after each attempt, the preferred habitats were quickly recolonized. At the time of the report in 1990, all efforts to eradicate the island’s cats had failed.

Perhaps due to its controversial nature, animal welfare groups seem to less often bring up the issue of environmental balance, but I think it’s worth considered because some studies show that feral cats actually can be of benefit to their environment. A study in the March issue of the 1979 New Zealand Journal reported on the food intake of feral cats in the forest of Orongorongo Valley, Wellington. After 677 scats of feral cats were examined, the scientists concluded that feral cats “were important in holding rat and rabbit populations in low densities and reducing seasonal fluctuations”. Moreover, it was thought that, at least in the region being studied, the cats’ reduction of the rat population “might reduce the mortality of some birds”. Alan Beck, professor of veterinary medicine and director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University told Live Science, “All species have an impact.” The point is that if you remove all feral cats from an environment, something is going to change, and it might not be for the better.

What Are Alternatives?

We’ve applied the same techniques for dogs and cats in shelters, and what we’re learning is that not only do we need to treat them very differently once they enter a shelter, but we also need to look at different methods for keeping healthy cats out of the shelter in the first place.

Jennifer Scarlett, veterinarian and co-president of the San Francisco SPCA

But why keep feral cats out of shelters? The problem is that the top documented cause of death for cats in America is euthanasia in shelters. Alley Cats Allies provides the additional statistic that nearly 100% of feral cats are euthanized when brought shelters, because they are not easily adoptable and they don’t adjust well to shelter life.

According to various animal welfare groups, some partially-successful efforts to help the abandoned or stray cats have included adoption and cat sanctuaries. However, Alley Cats Allies notes that the problem with these programs for feral cats is that, while some cats who have lived their entire lives outside may befriend their caregivers and make slow and steady transition to living inside, these cats are not representative of the millions of cats who can’t adapt to domestic life. The effort to domesticate feral cats is time-consuming and has an extremely low success rate. Simply put, it is generally not possible to uproot a wild cat and put it into someone’s home and expect it to turn into a loving house cat.

As for cat sanctuaries, while certainly a commendable goal, Alley Cats Allies notes that the problem with these is that they do nothing to stabilize the cat population. Even so, if there were enough sanctuaries to house every feral cat in the country, it might be considered a viable option. Unfortunately, statistics make it clear that this is an unrealistic goal: there isn’t enough room or money to build and maintain sanctuaries for the millions of homeless cats in this country.

Relocation, a method specific to feral cats, has also been used by animal welfare groups. Unfortunately, just like the methods described above, while there have been some successes, it too is generally ineffective. For one thing, it puts the vacuum effect into motion. For another, it causes undue stress to the truly feral cat, because they’re being uprooted from the only home that they know.

Now that we realize that shelters have only been impacting a tiny fraction of the total population through euthanasia … shelters can set euthanasia aside as a tool to control cat populations and focus on other alternatives.

Dr. Kate Hurley, a veterinarian and the director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program

(For an insightful and poignant article from the viewpoint of an animal shelter worker, please check out: For Community Cats, A Change is Gonna Come)

Why Should We Try TNR?

Alley Cats Allies, one of the leaders in the TNR movement, provides a comprehensive list of reasons to try TNR, which I’ve summarized below:

TNR stabilizes feral cat populations.
TNR relieves feral cats of the constant stresses of mating and pregnancy.
“The obvious benefit of Trap-Neuter-Return to the cats is that the females don’t go through cycles of producing more and more kittens. Their health is actually improved,” says Rich Avanzino, longtime director of the San Francisco SPCA and current president of Maddie’s Fund.

For other health benefits of spaying/neutering, check out my article: Spay/Neuter Awareness.

TNR stabilizes feral cat populations.
TNR reduces and/or eliminates undesirable mating behaviors such as roaming, yowling, spraying, and fighting.
As proof, Alley Cat Allies refers to a 2002 study conducted by researcher Julie Levy, DVM, wherein caregivers reported that cats tended to roam less and display fewer mating behaviors after being spayed/neutered.

Alley Cat Allies also refers to a study of conducted by biologists Dr. Jenny Remfry and Peter Neville, wherein feral cats
were found to be more affectionate towards each other and spend more cooperative time in groups after being spayed/neutered.

TNR stabilizes feral cat populations.
TNR gives the opportunity to feral cats to live longer, healthier lives.
TNR provides feral cats with protection against rabies.
As proof, Alley Cat Allies refers to an 11-year study of the impact of TNR on feral cat colonies at the University of Florida, wherein 83% of the cats in managed TNR colonies had been residing in those colonies for more than six years.
TNR stops wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars.
Americans want humane solutions—they want TNR.
Over time, through TNR, fewer cats will be breeding and contributing to population growth. Fewer cats means a decrease in the demand on taxpayer dollars. As an example, Alley Cat Allies refers to San Francisco, who in 1993 became one of the first American cities to embrace TNR. Instead of city funds being spent on killing, money “is now being used to protect the animals, to basically support the colony caregivers and to provide the surgeries so that we don’t see the wasted dollars and the waste of life.”

This said, Forgotten Cats cautions that TNR works only if entire colonies are stabilized. Trapping 95% of the cats in a colony will not stabilize the colony. In addition, Best Friends notes frequent monitoring is an invaluable component of successful TNR programs to ensure new cats who join the colony are identified, so that they too can be sterilized, vaccinated, and ear-tipped. In other words, TNR works best when there is an ongoing dialog and careful planning within a community. This is one reason for my TNR series.

The cats live in the neighborhood—they will be there whether they are cared for or not. Trap-Neuter-Return establishes a point of contact for concerns about the cats and for resolving any community concerns.

Alley Cats Allies

If you wish to support Trap-Neuter-Return right here in Lincoln, Nebraska, check out organizations that provide it. The Cat HouseHusker Cats, and Joining Forces Saving Lives always needs volunteers, donations, and those willing to foster and/or adopt. Help them out today! To get involved on a more national level, check out the Community Cats Movement.

This article first appeared February 2016 at LAA Pet Talk.


TNR Defined

Best Friends: TNR is the Key

Cat House: TNR Explained

Feral Cat Project: TNR Defined

Forgotten Cats: TNR

Husker Cats: Feral Cats

Neighborhood Cats: What is TNR?

Old & New Methods

Alley Cats Allies: Case for TNR

Best Friends: TNR for Cats

Cat Overpopulation Spawning New & Innovative Ways

Community Cats Change is Gonna Come

Reasons for TNR

Alley Cats Allies: Case for TNR

Best Friends: TNR for Cats

Forgotten Cats: TNR

What if all the Cats in the World Suddenly Died?


Culling Cats Increases the Feral Population

Effect of High Impact Target TNR

Evaluation of the Effect of Long-Term TNR

Food Intake of feral cats

Island’s Feral Cats Kill Surprisingly Few Birds


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