TNR and rethinking our concept of “home”

It’s International Homeless Animals Day, a day that, for the past 25 years, has been highlighting the crisis of companion animal overpopulation and its solution: spay/neuter. In most of Canada today, this crisis is centred around our most popular companion animal – the cat.

When many of us hear about cat overpopulation, we picture an overabundance of cats in animal shelters and not enough families to adopt them – a situation that can have tragic consequences, including the risk of euthanasia. The number of cats needing homes rises as new litters of kittens are born and eventually surrendered to shelters. What most people don’t tend to understand is that, based on the sheer number and reproductive rates, the overall contribution of unowned free-roaming cats to cat overpopulation is much greater than owned cats, and this is what needs to be curtailed. But what’s the best way?

If a shelter is bursting at the seams with cats in need of adoption, and healthy-looking unowned cats are continuously brought in, does it make sense for the shelter to keep accepting them and risk overcrowding the entire animal population, leading to stress, potential illness and resulting euthanasia, while reducing the likelihood that potential adopters will find their feline companion?

An approach that has been successful in addressing this situation in some communities is called “return-to-field”. When free-roaming cats who are healthy and thriving in their outdoor home are brought to a full shelter, there is a better way for the organization to use its resources than to take them in and house them. They can provide medical treatment, including vaccination and sterilization surgery, a microchip or tattoo, and then return them to their home location where the cats have a better chance of survival than in a full shelter. They won’t contribute to the overcrowding that overextends shelter resources and makes it much less likely that the cats’ welfare needs will be met. Back in their territory, they will be less prone to fighting, roaming and mating behaviours associated with intact cats and, best of all, they will no longer contribute to an increasing feline population. For some of us, this approach may involve shifting our view of what a “home” is – perhaps to align more closely with the view of the unowned cat.

The concept of return to field is related to TNR, or Trap, Neuter, Return. TNR is the only humane, effective solution to managing and eventually eliminating populations of unowned, free-roaming cats. If we want to reduce the impacts of these cats, including wildlife predation, TNR must be done right. In brief, it’s important to understand that any well-intentioned person who is thinking of taking a few cats to be sterilized once in a while is not likely to make any impact on a community-wide scale. Effective TNR requires solid planning, sufficient resources and community-wide support.

Cooperation is an absolute necessity for a project of this scale and complexity to be successful. Thus, it’s essential to bring together all the people affected by cats, regardless of whether they’re concerned about the nuisance or the cats’ well-being. Working together towards common, stated goals is the first step. Not all situations are the same; each community will need to develop a custom approach, with collaboration, coordination and buy-in from all stakeholders, including the public. There are also the many volunteers to coordinate – TNR requires diligent caretakers to oversee colonies of cats, providing them food and monitoring their health, in addition to trapping cats when it’s time for their spay/neuter surgery.

Because cat populations are fluid, free-roaming owned cats will interact with unowned cats. As well, irresponsible owners may abandon cats in areas where outdoor populations already exist. Thus, a TNR program must be carried out in combination with public education initiatives regarding the importance of early sterilization of owned cats (cats can become pregnant as early as four months of age) and the illegality and cruelty of abandoning animals.

It’s important for TNR advocates to get buy-in from local government, and municipal bylaws should be written to support both current and future TNR efforts. For owned cats, promoting responsible guardianship is key, including the need for permanent pet identification so lost and stray cats can be recovered, cat licensing, incentivizing sterilization, limiting free-roaming and prohibiting abandonment. However, such requirements should exempt free-roaming colony cats, whose caretakers are not really “owners” in the same sense, and for whom the policy objectives are different. Caretakers should not be punished for feeding their charges. They should be allowed to provide feed to the colony in a way that does not attract wildlife or encourage immigration of new cats to the area. Colony cats should not be counted as “owned” if bylaws include a limit to the number of cats a resident can keep. Similarly, returning cats to their colony or neighbourhood after vet care should not be considered “abandonment”. Smart municipalities support TNR because it addresses public health and safety concerns as well as reducing cat-related complaints.

With regard to actually devising a TNR population management program, there are a number of best practices to follow:

A TNR initiative should be geographically targeted to areas where the highest concentration of free-roaming cats exist or areas that are important to vulnerable wildlife.

It’s important to get one population or colony under control before tackling subsequent ones.

Start by addressing the resources in the area, such as food sources, prior to tackling sterilization. If there is abundant, freely available food, immigration of other cats into the area can thwart any decreases in population that could be achieved through spay/neuter efforts. Caretakers should provide the sole stable food source to colony cats, on a set schedule.

A minimum of 65 or 70 per cent of the population should be sterilized, understanding that population stabilization and reduction will be achieved faster with as rates approach 100 per cent. Progress towards the sterilization target and other goals must be monitored and must guide the next trapping targets.

TNR efforts should be coupled with vaccinations (particularly rabies), parasite treatments and a general health check. The sterilized cat should be marked with the universal sign of a left ear tip and preferably another form of permanent identification and, once recovered, returned to their home territory and monitored. Friendly strays and kittens who are young enough to be socialized can be integrated into homes or adoption facilities, where space exists. That said, it’s important to stay focused on meeting the project’s sterilization targets rather than diverting resources towards fostering and adoption, or population control will not be effective.

A long-term commitment to the program (on the order to five years or more, depending on the population) is essential to produce a decline in the population – the ultimate goal of TNR. As a result, continued funding is essential for lasting success. All of this requires many volunteers, including caretakers and vets and, of course, funding sources.

Relocation of cats or colonies is not an easy process and should not be undertaken lightly. Cats are very strongly bonded to their territories. Any attempt to relocate them will mean confining them in their new home for weeks while they build confidence that resources will be sufficiently provided by the caretaker. Otherwise, they are likely to leave in search of their previous home. Relocation may be necessary to protect important wildlife habitats.

Readers interested in learning more about TNR can find online resources from organizations with fantastic expertise in the area, such as PetSmart Charities.

If you want to learn more about advocating for accessible spay/neuter services in Canada, please explore our Accessible Spay/Neuter toolkit here.