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Spay Neuter Programs Help Feral Cats and Their Neighbors

By Virginia Messina

Feral cats are domestic cats who have never been socialized to humans. With a little help, they can live happy and healthy lives.

Throughout North America and the world, thousands of animal rescuers work to make lives a little bit better for feral cats through TNR (trap-neuter-return) programs. Oct 16 is "National Feral Cat Day", a celebration of these cats and the people who help them.

Feral cats live outdoors, avoid human company, and tend to congregate in colonies where they often form deep bonds with other cats. Through TNR, they are humanely trapped and brought to veterinarians for health evaluations, and to be spayed or neutered. TNR is an essential part of the effort to help ferals stay healthy since it ends the breeding cycle and stops behaviors associated with mating.

And since nearly 100 percent of feral cats brought to animal shelters are killed within 24 hours, TNR programs are widely regarded as the only way to protect these cats. Organizations that endorse TNR include the ASPCA, Petsmart Charities, the Humane Society of the United States, and the American Animal Hospital Association.

Spay and Neuter Help Feral Cats Stay Healthy and Happy

Louise Holton, co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, and founder of Alley Cat Rescue, is a pioneer of the feral cat movement in the United States. She was among the first advocates to speak out in support of managing feral cat populations humanely as opposed to trapping and killing the cats. “As long as feral cats have a source of food and some shelter from the elements, they can live long and happy lives outdoors,” she says.

Feral cats should be returned to their home environment only if they are assured of continued care and feeding, though. If that isn’t possible, cats are sometimes relocated to a safer environment—often a barn home where they receive food and shelter in exchange for rodent control. Most feral cat advocates try to trap kittens while they are still young enough to be socialized and adopted.

Is it inhumane to release cats into an outdoor environment? Phyllis Becker, who coordinates the Feral Cat Program for Olympic Mountain Pet Pals, a non-profit organization located on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, says “Ideally, every cat should have a cozy home with a family. But that’s not possible for most ferals who wouldn’t be happy living with people.” She points out that there are few shelters that can take in feral cats, so releasing them back to their colony is the best option.

Ear Tipping is an Essential Part of Successful Feral Cat Programs

While feral cats like to remain elusive, one thing makes them stand out; they usually have the tip of their ear removed. Ear tipping, which is done under general anesthesia while the cat is being fixed, is a way to identify which cats in a colony have been spayed or neutered. It’s especially important in colonies where many of the cats look alike and there is the risk of re-trapping a cat who has already been fixed.

Although ear tipping is widely used now, Holton remembers that it wasn’t always accepted by all who worked with feral cats. “When I first traveled around the country in the early 1990s promoting TNR, there was tremendous opposition to ear tipping. But none of the other ways that people used to identify the cats—which included ear tags and tattoos—worked nearly as well.” Holton notes that ear tipping has been used throughout the world for four decades now and is an important part of the success of TNR programs.

Feral Cats Make Good Neighbors

Humane control of feral cat populations is a win-win situation. Feral cats who are no longer reproducing are healthier and they don’t fight. TNR keeps their numbers under control, and it keeps shelters from being inundated with feral cats and their kittens.

Studies show that ferals have a preference for rats and mice (and for cat food and leftovers from human meals) over birds. Experts say they have little impact on songbird populations, which are more likely to suffer from habitat loss and human-related problems. Feral cats do, however, have an impact on rodent populations—which is good news for the cats and their human neighbors.

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