Veterinary Involvement Critical in Reducing Feral Cat Population

April 6, 2010

Unsterilized free-roaming cats—whether they are pet cats who are allowed outdoors, stray cats who are friendly but don't have a home, or feral cats who are unsocialized—are the major contributor to the cat overpopulation problem in the United States.

The exact number of feral cats in the United States is unknown, but projected to be up to 50 million, producing an estimated 147 million kittens annually.¹ The majority of feral kittens do not survive to adulthood. Sadly, more than half of the 3-4 million cats who enter shelters annually in the United States are euthanized, and of those deemed feral, almost 100% who enter shelters are euthanized because they cannot be adopted as pets.

What can we do?

Cat hiding in brush
Veterinary professionals can take an active role in addressing the feral cat overpopulation issue.
Christine Jensen/The HSUS

So, how do we, as veterinary professionals, help put an end to this tragedy? Many of us are already helping address the companion animal overpopulation problem by educating our clients about the importance of spay and neuter, promoting adoptions from shelters, offering low-cost services for spay and neuter, or volunteering for events such as Spay Day.

But the plight of feral cats still lacks the attention of many veterinary professionals, perhaps because they are unaware of the extent of the problem or because they do not view these "unowned" animals as patients in the traditional sense. The good news is that the involvement of more veterinary professionals will substantially reduce the number of feral cats and improve their quality of life.

Trap, neuter, return

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is a non-lethal, free-roaming cat management strategy that has gained momentum in the United States over the past two decades. Non-lethal management of free-roaming cats is favored by The Humane Society of the United States,² the American Association of Feline Practitioners,³ the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,4 the Cat Fanciers' Association,5 and many other animal welfare organizations.

TNR stops reproduction without causing harm to the cats,6,7,8,9, reduces the population immediately through the removal of kittens young enough to be tamed and over the long-term through natural attrition, improves the cats' health, decreases nuisance behaviors and complaints, and reduces predation on birds and other wildlife.

TNR involves first trapping the free-roaming cats on a property using humane live traps. Traps are preferred over other types of carriers because they are safer for the cats, the handlers, and veterinary personnel. Once trapped, the cats are brought to a veterinary clinic where they are sterilized, vaccinated, and ear tipped (usually the left ear) for easy visual identification of sterilization.

Once the cats have recovered from the surgery, they are returned to their original location, provided they would not be in imminent danger (for example, the empty building they live in will be demolished). Because there is no one formula which will universally apply to all situations involving feral cats, the need for dialogue and collaboration between cat and wildlife advocates is critical when predation by feral cats in a specific location is an issue.

Get involved

If you are interested in improving the lives of feral cats in your community, there are several ways to get involved. You can offer your services to spay and neuter feral cats for free, or at a low-cost rate, at your hospital or participate at a mash-style clinic.

Feral cat groups would welcome your support and participation on a periodic or regular basis. You can also contact your local animal care and control agency or humane society to find out how you can volunteer to provide spay and neuter services for feral cats through their programs.

For more information on feral cat care, read Keeping Feral Cats Healthy.

1 Levy, JK and PC Crawford. Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2004; 225: 1354-1360.
2 The Humane Society of the United States' Position on TNR. Accessed at on 4/5/2010.
3 American Association of Feline Practitioners Information Brief: The 2004 American Association of Feline Practitioners Position Statement on Free-Roaming, Abandoned and Feral Cats (modified on 7/8/2008). Accessed at on 4/5/2010.
4 The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Position Statement on Feral Cat Management, Accessed at on 4/5/2010
5 The Cat Fanciers' Association Guidance Statement on Feral Cats, Accessed at on 4/5/2010.
6 Remfry J. Feral cats in the United Kingdom. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1996;208:520–523.
7 Zasloff RL, Hart LA. Attitudes and care practices of cat caretakers n Hawaii. Anthrozoos 1998;11:242–248.
8 Slater MR. Understanding and controlling of feral cat populations. In: August JR, ed. Consultations in feline medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia: WB Saunders Co, 2001;561–570.
9 Scott KC, Levy JK, Crawford PC. Characteristics of free-roaming cats evaluated in a trap-neuter-return program. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002;221:1136–1138.