Trap-Neuter-Return, the Program and the Clinic

cat being spayed
Dr. Becky Morrow of Frankie’s Friends Cat Rescue prepares a cat for spay.

“Are you using clumping litter?’ the clinic volunteer said into her cell phone as she completed paperwork to sign in the next cat. “Oh no, it won’t be months, it will be weeks,” she explained about the positive effects of neutering a cat to a caller who would be dropping off a cat at the clinic that day.

TNR, or “trap-neuter-return” isn’t an assembly line where cats are spayed and neutered and tossed back outside, but an integrated system of assisting both cats and people with managing population, health and welfare for stray, feral and rescued cats who live outdoors and even indoors. The program not only provides low-cost or in some cases free spay and neuter services but also provides ongoing support in trapping and transporting cats to and from the clinic, a basic exam, scan for microchip and rabies vaccination for each cat, adoptability assessment of its temperament and assurance that it has a caretaker if it is to be returned outdoors.

Cats end up living outdoors for many reasons. It’s long been a practice to “dump” unwanted cats and kittens in unpopulated areas or simply put them outside so they can “fend for themselves”. Cats can reproduce at an alarming rate even without the assistance of humans, so one litter of four kittens in the spring can become a dozen or more cats by autumn, and by the following autumn can be two or three dozen cats and kittens, with other strays or even owned cats joining the colony. Not only are the cats overpopulating, but successive generations are generally no longer nice pets but are technically “feral”, born outside of contact with humans and reverted to a wild state, difficult, but not impossible, to turn around.

A stray cat living outdoors nurses her kittens.Simply removing cats from an area overburdens the shelters they are taken to with cats who may not be adoptable and imperils the lives of all animals already in the shelter’s care, so typically, if they don’t pass a “temperament test” of being examined by skilled intake workers they are designated “unadoptable” and euthanized without a chance at the adoption floor. Alternately, killing colonies of cats in place with poisons, or trapping and killing them, both of which are practiced in many areas where stray/feral cats are considered vermin, is more frequently seen as an act of cruelty and protested. Studies have shown neither practice permanently reduces the populations of outdoor cats.

A TNR program, however, involves people who volunteer to identify each cat living in groups or colonies outdoors, trap it for spay or neuter and veterinary care, and then feed and care for it in the neighborhood or remove it as the situation requires. With a colony of cats without reproductive hormones and fed regularly most of the irritating issues of cats living outdoors are eliminated. There’s little left to caterwaul about, male cat spraying is vastly reduced, they hunt and kill far less because they are fed, and they can’t reproduce so new cats are only lost or escapes, dumped cats, or owned cats who roam outdoors, and the colony no longer grows with each season of new kittens. In fact, lost cats can be returned to their owners, friendly cats are often pulled for rehoming, and any kittens are generally kept indoors to be socialized and put up for adoption after spaying and neutering. If a cat becomes ill or is found to be injured, the colony caretaker will get that cat the veterinary care it needs.

Colony caretakers also tend to track the owned cat populations in their neighborhood and if a cat is found to need assistance or an owner needs to know about veterinary care the caretaker can provide that information. If a person is found to be keeping unaltered cats who are producing kittens, the caretaker will offer that person information on low-cost spay/neuter options and possibly even assist them in taking advantage of a low-cost clinic.

And the established TNR program is what gives these volunteer caretakers the assistance they need to be able to track and care for all these cats. In Pittsburgh a variety of TNR services are available at shelters, through independent organizations and even with mobile spay/neuter units, but the Homeless Cat Management Team (HCMT) has been established the longest to serve Pittsburgh and the nine counties surrounding Allegheny County, and the name will tell you the entire mission—managing homeless cats as a team. In 13 years HCMT has served 14,697 cats, and so far in 2013 has served 371.

The Homeless Cat Management Team (HCMT) Clinic

Cats in carriers and cages waiting for surgery.Clinics usually service a variety of owned, rescued, friendly outdoor and feral cats. All cats arrive in a carrier of some sort, ferals in a humane trap that will be used to hold them before the surgery and in recovery. Some people have only their own pet cat to be spayed or neutered, but others bring multiple cats, especially if they are managing a large colony or transporting cats for others. A resident from a northern community had been trying to manage a colony of cats that had developed from cats dropped off on his land—he trapped and transported ten cats to one clinic. A volunteer helped an elderly widower trap the cats his wife had been feeding before the colony grew larger and managed to trap all thirteen over the course of two clinics and one other spay/neuter opportunity. I transported cats for a woman in my community who had been rescuing cats from the streets, five to one clinic and six to another. All of this is organized when people call the hotline for information or to schedule their appointments, or people are referred to the organization in some way.

Preparation

Cats are kept in their carriers and handled as little as possible when awake to avoid escapes or injuries to the cats and to people, and all hands and surfaces are constantly washed with antiseptic to prevent infection or spread of disease if any is present.

At check-in each cat is given a number that goes on a paper collar around its neck and on paperwork attached to its cage. Each cat stays in its cage in a holding area until its time for surgery when the cat is given a sedative injection through the bars of its cage or carrier and left to fall asleep. It’s then shaved in the appropriate area and prepped for surgery, iodine swabbed on the surgery site, mask attached for isoflurane gas anesthetic and cradled in a v-shaped plastic holder with its front legs tucked around the side that will hold the cat completely still during the surgery. All this is done by veterinary technicians.

Surgery

“It’s basic health care,” said a cheerful Dr. Becky Morrow of Frankie’s Friends Cat Rescue who serves on the HCMT board and always volunteers for HCMT clinics as she spread and clamped a surgical drape over a female tabby.

Dr. Morrow demonstrates the use of the "spay hook".Dr. Morrow made an incision less than one inch long in the cat’s abdomen and then palpating with her fingers outside the cat she demonstrated the use of a specialized spay hook to pull the cat’s uterus and ovaries back through the incision. A spay incision can be as long as three inches; if necessary she will make a larger incision. “I like to use the hook because the incision can be tiny, which is best for these cats,” she explained. The remainder of the uterus, the muscle layer and skin layer are each stitched with absorbable stitches, and the exterior stitches are covered with a bit of surgical skin glue and tucked up inside so that the incision is not exposed. All this was done in a little over seven minutes while explaining each implement and each step of her work. Next cat!

Male cat neutering is much less complicated with two quick incisions in the scrotum, clamping the cord and blood vessels, snipping out the testicles and tying the cords. No stitches are required, and only the occasional cryptorchid or undescended testicle requires more serious abdominal surgery to remove it, which is also done at the clinic.

All cats are also given a rabies vaccine, antibiotics and pain medication.

Exam and treatments

Cats receive the rest of their exam after the surgery while they are still asleep from the anesthetic. After the surgery is complete the cat’s mask is removed, the cat is placed in a plastic bin and taken outside the surgery area for the next step. Volunteers pick up the cat in the bin and first give it the characteristic ear-tip that denotes it as a “community cat”, that it’s spayed or neutered and cared for by someone. For owned or indoor cats ear-tipping is optional.

Melissa Trax, a vet tech who is currently an adoption counselor at the Animal Rescue League and has regularly volunteered at clinics explained the procedure as she worked on a small black cat. Even stray and feral cats usually come in with names because their caretakers have been observing them prior to trapping, but this black cat had no name.

“Tipping is always done to the left ear,” said Melissa. “We snip it with scissors, then coat the incision with styptic gel and apply a clamp while we finish the rest of the treatment.

A cat's teeth are checked while it's still under anesthetic.“We check their ears for mites and check their teeth for problems or general condition,” she noted this cat was just getting his adult teeth so he was still young, “extend all their claws, run our hands over them looking for ticks and injuries, anything we can do because this may be the only veterinary treatment they get,” she explained, and ended her procedure with an application of topical flea treatment.

Cats are also scanned for microchips, and if any other issues are found, such as parasites or other wounds or infections, the veterinarians can administer treatment or prescribe medications.

Even prior to surgery other issues are found that need treatment. At various clinics, for example, an infected eye was removed from one cat, most of another cat’s teeth were removed, another cat with a twisted hind leg that wrapped up around her neck, likely the result of a birth defect rather than an accident, had the leg removed. An older cat was found to have a vaccination site sarcoma the size of an orange and so advanced that even if she had been someone’s pet the veterinary decision would have been that euthanasia was the most humane course. All cats are recommended to be kept indoors at least overnight, longer considering weather and other complications, but cats who have had more complex surgeries spend longer time indoors for recovery, and often will not be returned to life outdoors if an adoptive home can be found. A volunteer agreed to foster the cat whose leg had been removed.

While each cat is in surgery then being tended by volunteers, another group of volunteers is cleaning their carriers and cages with antiseptic cleaner and placing a “pee pad” in the carrier for the cat to rest on as it recovers, and the blanket the cat arrived with is used as a cover. Most cats are still “under” when they are placed in their carrier though a few are beginning to stir. All are placed in the recovery area, the girls’ containers on a heating pad so they can recover their body temperature. The use of isoflurane gas as an anesthetic allows for a quicker and easier awakening than other anesthetics used for longer surgeries.

Volunteer Melissa Trax cradles Chica to wake her up after surgery.One part of the paperwork that follows each cat is a post-operative chart where volunteers note the cat’s condition when they check on the cat every 15 minutes, touching their faces and pinching their toes for a reaction. Any cats who seem ill or sluggish are brought to the attention of a technician or a veterinarian for further investigation. I regularly saw Melissa holding Chica throughout one clinic, a little tabby cat who was extra sleepy but whose vital signs were fine, jostling her a little and pinching her toes.

When the cat is awake and alert its owner is called and is given post-operative instructions when they arrive to retrieve the cat.

Next move for the cats

Not all cats trapped from outdoor living end up back outdoors. Sometimes it’s obvious that a cat isn’t suited to living outdoors—it’s elderly, it can’t or won’t defend itself, it’s injured or impaired and can’t adapt, or it’s just really friendly and would make a great pet—and often the colony caretaker will bring these cats inside if possible and seek a foster or permanent home. And if possible kittens are trapped when young so they can be socialized, even before they are old enough for spay or neuter, and homes are sought for them as well.

Clinic costs and scheduling

About one in four HCMT clinics is strictly for feral cats and is free, the others are very low cost and include cats of all sorts. At all clinics every care is taken that would be at any veterinary clinic, and in addition so is every consideration for the comfort of cats being returned to the outdoors, even to the point of shaving the least amount possible for spaying during cold weather.

The clinic hotline is always available for questions or problems afterward, but these have been very few, even for cats who are back outdoors two or three days after surgery.

HCMT opened their own clinic with a matching grant from Animal Care & Welfare, and their free clinics are funded in part by the Fund for Ferals, plus donations from individuals and those who use the low-cost services offered by the clinic. (In April 2013, both organizations’ websites are undergoing updates; we will link those websites as soon as they are available so check back to learn more about these two organizations.)

All these actions together help to humanely reduce the populations of cats on the streets and keep them healthy. Most of it is done by volunteers, at least 20 per clinic, from the veterinarians and veterinary technicians to those who help trap and transport cats to all the others who make each clinic safe and successful.

Upcoming Clinic Information

The HCMT clinic in Tarentum.HCMT’s clinic is in Tarentum, and upcoming no-charge/ferals only clinic date is May 26. “Fast Track” clinics accept ferals, rescues and owned cats for surgery package cost as low as $30 for ferals, slightly higher for owned cats with other vaccines and treatments available, also at low cost. The dates for Fast Track clinics are April 14, May 5 and June 16.

For either clinic you need to call a hotline and leave a message to schedule an appointment and a volunteer will return your call with instructions. Visit www.homelesscat.org for information, instructions and the hotline number.

In addition, Pittsburgh’s three shelters offer feral and low-cost spay and neuter services, and City of Pittsburgh residents qualify for up to five free spays and neuters at participating veterinarians and clinics, including HCMT. Many other shelters and rescues in and around the city also offer low-cost clinics. We’ll be covering them in the near future as well, and encourage other organizations to use the calendar to post clinics and other opportunities for animals in the Pittsburgh area.

Below you can see a gallery of images from a clinic.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Colony caretakers also tend to track the owned cat populations in their neighborhood and if a cat is found to need assistance or an owner needs to know about veterinary care the caretaker can provide that information. If a person is found to be keeping unaltered cats who are producing kittens, the caretaker will offer that person information on low-cost spay/neuter options and possibly even assist them in taking advantage of a low-cost clinic.

Visit Trap-Neuter-Return and the Homeless Cat Management Team in Pittsburgh to read the rest and see lots of photos.

gray and white cat nursing two gray kittens outdoors
A Stray Cat with Her Kittens

The issue of feline overpopulation

Cats left in colonies will produce as many kittens as their bodies will allow if left unaltered, leading to disease and suffering and way too many kittens who then go on to produce more kittens.

It’s not likely, but a cat can have up to five litters in a year, bearing 6 or more kittens per litter over the course of as many as ten years, which adds up to about 300 kittens from one female cat in the course of her lifetime, not to mention the kittens her kittens produce.

More realistically, say she only has three litters of four kittens per year as Mimi did, that’s still a dozen new kittens, and even with an average 50% survival rate, that’s 60 kittens born over five years. Now add in all the kittens that those surviving kittens produce in addition to their mother, and it’s just out of control.

Ever-expanding colonies are also often the targets of abuse and “extermination”. Shelters are already full of cats who need homes, so rescue is unlikely.

The Homeless Cat Management Team offers the “Trap-Neuter-Return”, or TNR, service for feral cats which is an internationally-recognized method of helping to solve these problems by stopping the cycle of kittens and overpopulation. They just can’t produce any more kittens—and they don’t engage in the most annoying feline behaviors, such as spraying, calling for mates, caterwauling and fighting, noisy and odorous activities that often turn people against cats and colonies of strays and ferals.

stray black cat
Stray black cat.

This service is now available for household pets or even cats simply kept outdoors if they are owned by a person. This is intended to reduce stray and feral populations in colonies, cats who aren’t owned by anyone, so before registering for the clinic you must first register as a colony caretaker. For more details on the process of registering yourself as a colony caretaker and registering for a clinic, please visit the Homeless Cat Management Team’s website at www.homelesscat.org. You can also find other clinic dates and information on how you can help feral cats in many other ways.

If you’re not near Pittsburgh and you’d like to find out if there is a TNR organization near you, visit the Feral Cat Organizations listing on the Humane Society of the United States’ website. You can also find information on the Alley Cat Allies’ website under Make Connections. You can find yet more resources on the ASPCA website under TNR and Colony Management.

You don’t need to manage a colony top help feral cats. You can donate to, assist or even start a local TNR program in your area. The HSUS’s article What You Can Do to Help Feral Cats covers finding local organizations, listing options and how to pursue helping or starting a local organization, and they also have a Program Fund that you can donate to in order to assist them in helping local organizations form and operate.

Alley Cat Allies is all about assisting colony managers, and you can also donate to this organization in order to help the larger effort of local organizations.

And Alley Cat Allies has what I think is the most comprehensive information on just what feral cats are and how to care for them, including several articles on winter care, outdoor shelters, feeding and providing water in winter and avoiding hazards from chemicals like road salt and anti-freeze.

In addition to the articles, they also have a Video Library that demonstrates how to trap ferals, how to care for them, the clinic procedures and even how to speak to the public about feral cats.

You’ll also find information on other topics, such as feeding strays and ferals, letting your cat mix with strays and ferals and legislation around the country and in Canada regarding their treatment.

Here are the quick links to the sites above:

Alley Cat Allies
Alley Cat Rescue
HSUS Feral Cat downloadable handbook

It’s difficult for we who love cats not to think of each of them as potential companions for us, but true feral cats were never pet cats and while they can be tamed they are a few generations removed from human contact and they’ve adapted to life without the assistance of humans. The TNR program stops the cycle of reproduction and provides them with vaccinations and care that help to protect the larger society of all cats, but the intent is not to provide them with ongoing veterinary care as we do our indoor cats, or to find them permanent homes.

That’s not to say that feral cats can’t come in. I’ve seen some feral cats who’ve been brought in to shelters for various reasons, usually because a colony was threatened by abuse or extermination, and I even rescued a single cat from a feral colony years ago, my little Moses who was near death from starvation, literally laying down and not moving she was so far gone. She was young and learned to live in the house, and she and I enjoyed nineteen years of a close and loving relationship, but I could never pick her up, she was terrified of other people though she was timid and never acted out.

A friend adopted a rescued feral from a shelter where she volunteered, and MacKenzie mingles with the other cats but has her rules, especially the one about not being put in a carrier or she’ll offer to slice open your hand, and other clever cat tricks.

Find a low-cost clinic near you

Spaying and neutering surgery can be done for as little as $25.00. Please check my Shelters, Assistance, Spay/Neuter page for opportunities in Pittsburgh and links to local shelters and spay/neuter clinics plus a searchable database to find the clinic nearest you anywhere in the United States and parts of Canada.


Browse some rescued cats and kittens!

cats for adoption


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