I have recently received some questions about feral cats, what TNR is and why we do it so I thought I'd do a little FAQ post to try and explain. If you have any questions not addressed here, please ask in the comments or in an email!
Disclaimer: These answers are based on my experiences. Others might have different opinions and experiences.
Questions about Feral Cats
Q: What are feral cats?
A: There are some different definitions of feral cats, but for our purposes they include any cat who lives outside completely separate from humans. They do not trust humans and can usually fend for themselves pretty successfully. Feral cats can live long, happy lives and deserve to be treated with respect as a wild animal, rather than a pest. Cats are very interesting creatures because they remain so close to their wild selves. Some ferals could have been born in a house but turned feral after being dumped and no longer trust humans. Others were born outside and for some quirk of their personality decide they would rather be house cats! Kittens born to feral cats, if caught early enough (typically before 8 weeks), can be perfectly sweet and normal pets. Another name for this type of feral is "community cats".
Q: Why don't you try and find them homes?
A: While it is possible to turn an adult feral cat into a pet, it is not recommended unless the cat has made some clear signs it is friendly and could be trusting of humans. A truly feral cat will find being confined to a house and living in the company of people extremely stressful. Cats are very territorial and resistant to change. Socializing a feral adult is a long and trying process, and when there are so many pet cats in need of a home in shelters and rescues, it is not responsible to try and rehome ferals when they can be happy and healthy where they are. As I will try to make clear in the coming weeks with stories and pictures, these cats actually have it pretty good at Dove Pond.
Q: Don't they disturb the natural wildlife?
A: To an extent, but at Dove Pond the cats are very well fed by neighbors. If you keep them with tummies full of cat food, it's less likely they're going to be hunting for wildlife. The animals they might still kill would be mice and rats who cross their paths. For centuries cats have been used as pest control and living near a feral colony could be beneficial in that respect. Also, through vaccinating we are limiting their ability to spread disease, and neutering lessens their temptation to wander and disturb other areas and creatures.
Q: Do they spread disease?
A: Potentially, but TNR is aimed at reducing that possibility. Rabies shots are given to every trapped cat, and I also give mine vaccinations for panleukopenia (feline distemper), calivivirus, and feline viral rhinotracheitis, and sometimes FeLV. None of these diseases, besides rabies, is dangerous to humans.
Q: What do feral cats look like?
A: They look like regular cats. They don't usually look dirty or disheveled like a house cat who got lost outside might. Remember, this is their life, the colony is where they are most happy, so they take care of themselves like your pet cat does.
Q: What do feral cats act like?
A: When they are with their colony away from people they act a lot like pet cats do. They play with each other and pounce and chase leaves and sometimes fight. They will usually run and hide when humans come near unless they are used to the presence of that particular human. Feral cats will never run up to someone to be pet or eat out of your hand. If one does, it's time to find a home for him! At Dove Pond the cats did get used to me after a while and I could observe them in person. If I brought anyone along with me, however, they acted very differently.
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Questions about TNR
Q: What is TNR?
A: TNR stands for Trap, Neuter, and Release. Sometimes it is also called TNVR, the V standing for vaccinate. TNR is a tool to maintain and control a feral cat colony. It involves trapping individual cats, sterlizing them, snipping off the very tip of their left ear, giving them vaccinations against rabies and other diseases, and then returning them to the colony.
Q: How do you do TNR?
A: There are a few steps involved how I do it (others may do it differently).
1. Identify the cats. This is as important as any other step. I try, through neighbors' stories and pictures as well as a wildlife camera, to get as precise a picture of the colony as possible. I name all the cats and put them into a spreadsheet with a physical description and any other details I can find.
2. Set up a feeding station. Make sure you're the only one feeding the cats, and then feed them the same time every day. On the day you want to trap, withhold the food for a few hours, then start trapping when they are expecting you there and will be hungry.
3Trap. I set up some humane live traps with tuna or sardines as bait. Because my current cats are so well fed, they don't usually go into traps for normal cat food. Last year I waited in another yard where I could see the traps. The cats went into them pretty easily, although some were smarter than others! There will probably be some very wily ones who may never willingly go into a live trap. For these you can use drop traps but I have not used one yet. Maybe this time! Once the cat is trapped, usually in the evening, I bring them back to my garage, leaving them in the trap with a small litter box and some water until morning
3. Vet time! I bring all the ferals to the Texas Coalition for Animal Protection (TCAP). I go to the one near Alliance in Fort Worth but there are others. I get there around 7am to get my place in line. TCAP does feral surgeries for free if you get their ear tipped, but they only do 12 a day so you have to get there early to be sure you get in. Once they open and the paperwork is filled out, I leave the cats there and pick them up around 3-4 in the afternoon.
4. The cats get to stay in a kennel in my garage for 24-48 hours of recovery time. Sometimes there are slight complications in the surgeries which require them to stay longer. The kennel is big enough for two cats to stay together, which they like. I try to trap them in pairs so they have a friend. They get food and water and a litter box, which they are pretty good at learning how to use.
5. Release! I take the whole kennel in the back of my car back to the colony and let them go! It's fun seeing them run off back home!
Q: Are you paid for this?
A: No one is paid to TNR. It is a labor born out of love for animals. However, I am extremely lucky that my neighbors appreciate what I'm doing and they have been known to send me little presents! They also donate a lot of the money needed to accomplish this goal. I could not do this without them, and these cats have them to thank for the good lives they live.
Q: What does it cost?
A: It varies. At TCAP the surgeries are free, but you must pay for vaccines, pain meds, and potential complications. The breakdown follows, "*" noting the services that I consider mandatory:
*Pain med injection: $5
Common surgery complications: $10-40
Uncommon complications (such as kittens, trips to a full service vet): hundreds
Other costs include supplies like food, litter, towels, traps, my wildlife camera, kennels, beds, and litter boxes, and gas. I have set up a Go Fund Me site if anyone would like to help with costs! https://www.gofundme.com/dove-pond-feral-cat-project
Q: Are there other ways of controlling feral cat populations?
A: Yes, some feral colonies are relocated, and others are euthanized. There are problems with relocating feral cats because they are so territorial. If they aren't relocated far enough they will just return to where they know. If they are moved far enough away they become more vulnerable to environmental dangers. They may not know where to find shelter, food, and water. They could be perceived as a threat to existing feral cats and other wildlife and be hurt or killed. And then the area they were removed from could soon be filled with another colony. If it is a good place for feral cats to live, there will always be feral cats living there.
For the other method, I just do not advocate euthanasia for healthy animals. Properly maintained, a feral colony can be happy and healthy and quite fun to watch and have around. It is impossible to trap every single feral cat in the area, so euthanizing them as population control is frankly pointless.
Q: What happens when you trap a feral cat?
A: They freak out. There's no way around it. Sometimes they will hurt themselves, though usually just a little scratch here and there. I, or a helper, am always present when the traps are set so someone can run over and cover the trapped cats with a towel. Once covered they calm down very quickly. You must remember they are most stressed in the presence of humans so there is no point trying to comfort them in the traps, at the vet, or during recovery. They are most happy left alone.
Q: Will you TNR every cat in the colony?
A: Most likely not. The goal to maintain the colony is 75%. This will reduce the chances of diseases spreading and limit its growth to a manageable degree.
Q: Why did you stop last year?
A: TNR can be a very tiring and trying process. It is a lot of work and cannot be carried on indefinitely. But the main reason I stopped when I did was the weather. The cats have to recover for a few days in my garage and it is just too hot in there once summer starts arriving. It's important to note that I am not the caretaker of this colony, I just come in and work on TNR. The neighbors on their street are the ones that feed the cats. The cats are still fed and monitored even when I am not there trapping.
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Questions about the current colony
Q: How many cats live there?
A: Twenty is my best estimate at this time. There are many subgroups of cats within the colony so the total number is always in flux. I have trapped and fixed 15 cats so far, including all of the ones that are permanent in the area. The ones I still have yet to get are all wanderers.
Q: What are the main dangers to feral cats here?
A: Coyotes, cars, and people. In many places, humans are hostile to feral cats and will resort to shooting or poisoning them. Luckily these guys live in a very hospitable environment. I did lose one female I TNR-ed last year to a car. There could be more I've lost, but she's the only one I actually saw.
Q: How did you get involved with this colony?
A: I am a pet sitter in the area and some of the neighbors around the pond contacted me to see if I could help. They were rightfully worried that the colony population might be getting out of control. I had never done TNR before, but I wanted to learn. I love cats, and I love learning new skills!
Q: Do you like doing this?
A: Sometimes! It's hard work, but it is very rewarding. Sometimes what I encounter isn't very nice, but I know in the end I'm helping these cats live in the best way they can. It is also fun getting to know their individual personalities. I get an up close view of creatures I would never have seen. It has also been very rewarding connecting with my neighbors and seeing how generous and kind they are.
Feel free to send along any other questions you'd like answered!
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