What is a Trap-Neuter-Return Program?

An enormous community of homeless, free-roaming cats exists right under our noses in the midst of towns, cities, and rural America. Hidden in the shadows of dark, desolate alleys, foraging in the dumpsters of iconic restaurants, and fighting for scraps and handouts, feral (wild) cats exist beyond many people's concerns or awareness. The tattered-eared feral cats, including abandoned domestic cats, manage to live day-to-day on mice, rats, birds, and other small animals, and trash-bin goodies. The lucky ones rely on the kindness of strangers — the caretakers of Trap Neuter Return programs.

Cat Lying Down On Plant
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Dodging predators and humans who think of them as pests, feral cats have tough lives that are much shorter on average than those of domesticated cats. Trap Neuter Return (TNR) programs aim to save as many of these cats as possible.

What is a trap-neuter-program?

TNR is a non-lethal, humane service overseen by animal welfare organizations and independent agencies that sterilizes feral cats, vaccinates them for rabies, then returns them to their habitat. Communities across the U.S. are finding out that TNR programs are the way to go.

Unfortunately, many animal control agencies have historically used lethal methods to control feral cat populations. But thanks to organizations like Best Friends Animal Society, the practice is on the wane in America. In stark contrast to "old" methods, TNR makes it possible for a feral cat colony to contain a relatively stable number of sterilized cats who cannot breed.

The point of TNR is to render cats unable to reproduce, but the bigger picture benefits are far-reaching for the cats and the communities in which they live. Ultimately, trying to manage and control the feral cat population is an ongoing commitment reflected in the TNR programs adopted throughout North America. There will always be more cats to fill the void since cats are prolific breeders, and people will continue to abandon their domestic cats whose next generation will be feral. But long-term, through the efforts of TNR, there will be less of them.

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TNR, at it's best, is the only humane program on the table to deal with the feral cat problem. And many kind-hearted private citizens fuel the programs with their commitment and dedication to helping homeless cats. Not only do the caretakers trap the cats in neighborhoods all across the country so they can be sterilized and vaccinated by a veterinarian, but they also provide food, water and shelter for them. In the most effective programs, kittens and friendly cats are culled from the colonies and sent to foster homes to be socialized, then adopted into loving, forever homes. And that's a wonderful offshoot of the TNR programs!

Why do trap-neuter-return programs exist?

Lethal control, once the prevailing wisdom in dealing with free-roaming cats, is a proven failure. Antiquated and appalling to animal lovers and most of the public, rounding up feral cats and euthanizing them was the norm for decades. TNR programs developed from a need for systemic change in animal control policy and they exist today as the only viable alternative to the perpetual cycle of killing homeless cats. Of course, every cat deserves a loving home where they are protected from the harsh realities of the street, but until people stop abandoning domestic cats, leaving them alone to fend for themselves, TNR programs will exist as a way to curb the growth of the feral population while keeping them fed, sheltered, and as safe as possible.

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The benefits of trap-neuter-return programs

Some of the many benefits of TNR, according to Best Friends Animal Society, are:

  • TNR improves the lives of feral cats since neutered males stop fighting for territory and females no longer must endure the mental anguish and physical trauma of multiple pregnancies and countless kittens.
  • Programs reduce shelter admissions, lessening operating costs, and increasing shelter adoption rates since more cages open up for adoptable cats.
  • Creating safer communities and promoting public health by reducing the number of unvaccinated cats.
  • Sterilizing community cats reduces and often eliminates nuisance behaviors such as urine spraying, which helps people live more harmoniously with the cats.

How to participate in a trap-neuter-return program

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers an online course on how to become a Certified TNR Caretaker. The course guide is downloadable. It's a helpful learning resource for those interested in hands-on involvement in a TNR program or anyone interested in how to help feral cats.

How to bring a trap-neuter-return program to your neighborhood

If you would like to bring a TNR program to your neighborhood, visit Alley Cat Allies to learn about their TNR programs. Among other ground-breaking initiatives over the years, Alley Cat Allies work with shelters to implement systemic change, transparency, and accountability within the U.S. animal control system to end the killing of cats. Starting in 1990 with a colony of 54 cats who lived in an alley in Washington, D.C, Alley Cat Allies has grown into a global resource for tens of thousands of cat caregivers, advocates, nonprofit groups, and volunteers with 650,000 supporters worldwide — all helping millions of cats.