Trap-neuter-return: The solution to cat overpopulation?

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It’s likely Little Dan has never seen a cat trap before. 

Little Dan, a young male tabby, was born behind a Tri-Cities business into an established cat colony. He’s probably never been socialized to humans. 

His feeders aren’t sure how many cats are in the colony – some have counted 16, others 20. A few of the regular cats have names and several are pregnant. 

Little Dan is the first of his colony to be trapped. The next morning, he goes to the vet for the surgery to be neutered. That evening, he’ll be released back to the patch of brush he knows as home with a tipped ear to mark him as sterilized.

Are trap-neuter-return programs the best way to control feral cat populations?

Melinda Maiden will likely return to the spot several times to try and trap the others in the colony before they reproduce. What likely began as a handful of cats has bloomed to nearly 20, and this isn’t an isolated incident – feral cat colonies are a problem all across our region, according to those involved in the animal welfare community. 

Maiden has been running her nonprofit organization, Operation Johnson Kitty, for about five years. So far, she’s trapped nearly 100 cats this year. 

Maiden says it’s easy for cat populations to get out of hand – she said typically, a female cat can get pregnant up to four times a year. She’ll have an average of four kittens with each pregnancy.

Without intervention, a couple of cats could surge to a colony of dozens within a year or two.

“We trap, we neuter and we return,” Maiden said. “A lot of people have issues with the returning part – they want us to do something else with them.  This colony is their home, there isn’t anything to do with them than return them to their home.”

Some point out that returning the cats to their homes still leaves them outside. Cats without a consistent food source need to hunt to survive, so they turn to the local wildlife for food. 

Matthew Cameron with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency said cats kill indiscriminately, which is why they can be a problem in the wild. 

“(The cats) have to catch and kill just to survive,” Cameron said. “They don’t have a home where an owner is feeding them keeping them satisfied so they have to go out and catch and kill or scavenge everything that they eat. 

“They don’t differentiate so they can go out and catch songbirds, protected wildlife and even some that are threatened or endangered species. They don’t know, they just want to catch and kill, that’s just wired into them, that’s just what they do.”

Knoxville passed a trap-neuter-return program earlier this year, replacing a previous protocol to euthanize feral cats. 

Advocates of TNR programs argue that euthanasia doesn’t work – they point to what’s known as the vacuum effect.

The idea is that an area gets established as a colony for one reason or another, be it a reliable source of food or hunting ground. When cats are taken from that colony and euthanized, feral cats in surrounding areas repopulate the colony, according to those working in the animal welfare community. 

“When you remove the cats and you don’t get them all, and you’re never actually going to get them all, they go into overdrive and they repopulate quicker,” said another advocate, Jessica Rogers. “By trapping, spaying and neutering them and returning them in a couple days, you’re stabilizing those numbers and so the same colony is staying present and dying off of natural causes over time.” 

Johnson City doesn’t have a law specifically concerning feral or community cats on the books, but some question whether trap-neuter-release is consistent with the state’s policy on rabies control.

The Tennessee Department of Health’s rabies control manual states that “a dog or cat is considered currently vaccinated only if the initial vaccination was administered at least 28 days previously,” for domestic animals.

For feral cats managed by TNR programs, they are released back into the wild within a day or two of receiving vaccinations.

However, the manual also notes that the single-approved vaccine for feral or wild animals is an oral medication that only works for coyotes and raccoons. 

TNR in action

Rogers helps the community with TNR programs through another nonprofit organization, Ziggy’s Second Chance Network. She said that the issue with feral cats has been around for a long time in our area. 

“I think the animal welfare community has always thought we can rescue our way out of the overpopulation problem and we can’t,” she said. “Super low-cost, heavy-volume spay/neuter is what’s going to fix the saturation problem in northeast Tennessee.”

She said she’s trapped in colonies of up to 100 cats – mostly for low-income families who can’t afford the time and money it takes to spay and neuter the cats. Some are feeders of feral colonies, and some started with a handful of outdoor cats that got out of control quickly.

“A few ladies that we’ve worked with had a female cat that they were wanting to get fixed, they realized it was $75, and so before they could collect that, they had a litter of kittens,” she said. “Then they’re having to fix one cat a month. If you do the math on that, if you have a couple litters of kittens, by the time you’re donig one cat a month, it’s just repopulating quicker than you can get it under control.”

Margaret Mitchell Spay and Neuter Clinic in Abingdon works directly with several TNR programs in our area. Unlike a full-service veterinarian’s office, the clinic only provides spay/neuter and vaccination services. 

Clinic director Dr. Jennifer McCall-Kendall said the clinic has performed more than 130,000 surgeries since opening in 2005 – that works out to about 13,000 surgeries in a year, 1,000 in a month and anywhere from 50 to 100 surgeries per day. 

The clinic takes appointments for domestic pets, but they make exceptions for feral cats. During a regular operating day, McCall-Kendall said feral cats go through a careful process after domestic patients to reduce the spread of any disease.

“You can only trap a feral cat one time,” she said. “We try to work with our schedule to make sure we always accommodate those when they’ve been trapped and somebody has them.” 

The cost of a new solution

While a visit at a private vet can result in a $200 bill for a single animal, TNR programs work with community members to get low-cost spay/neuter surgeries for pets. Rogers said the low-cost programs range from $50-$85 in our region, which still adds up when a cat colony gets involved. 

Maiden said she asks her clients to pay what they can per surgery – be it $10 or $80. Donations and grants fuel her organization to help her pay for the surgeries, which also includes pain medication, vaccines and flea preventative. 

“There’s 15 to 16 cats here,” she said. “That’s over $1,000, even with the reduced rate. Most people cannot afford that.”

Since the programs performing the TNR services are fronting the cost, they rely the most on donations to provide the service to the community. 

The future for ferals

Maiden or Rogers never disclose where they are trapping cats. 

Maiden said part of the reason is to keep people from dumping more cats into an established colony. She said cats that are dumped are often not accepted into a feral colony, so the cat is left to fend for itself, and often the cat will die. 

“We find over and over again that cats that are used to being fed inside, who are used to living indoors, will not make it outside,” she said. 

She added that she doesn’t disclose locations in order to keep the cats safe as well, as some would seek to harm them. 

She stressed that those who can no longer care for a cat should bring it to the animal shelter. Until then, she and others will work to continue their efforts and reduce animal suffering. 

“There’s the positive thing of you’re extending their life,” she said. “You’re reducing their risk of being killed, run over because they’re not going to roam, they’re not going to reproduce, they’re not going to get all these kinds of illnesses, so that’s excellent. You know that they’re going to have a longer life. 

“But I am a little sad every time I have to let them go.”

Visit or to learn more about local TNR efforts.

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