8 Steps to Trap, Neuter, and Return Feral Cats
It started off slowly at our house. One day a big, beautiful, orange male cat appeared, and he chose to stay around. We weren’t sure if he had been dumped off in the area or if he was a feral cat. He seemed sweet and very friendly when we approached him. We allowed him to stay around the house. We fed him and provided a comfortable spot for him on our front porch.
A few days passed. Three adult female cats joined him. Shortly after that, seven new kittens appeared. Since we knew we didn’t want additional kittens, we knew we had to humanely trap each of them and get them spayed or neutered. We borrowed two traps and teamed up with a neighbor and set a plan for our very own Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) initiative.
I had some experience with this from my days running a rescue organization and working with their feral cat program. I thought trapping this many cats at my home would be very challenging. However, within a month of starting our TNR mission, all the cats were trapped, examined by the vet, neutered or spayed, provided shots, and given a clean bill of health. The process could have even been quicker, but we had to let the kittens mature a little before the surgery.
Based on my experience, here are the steps to successfully TNR feral cats:
1. Acquire a humane cat (animal) trap
You can purchase these for around $60 from your local home improvement store or online. You can also borrow one from your vet, local animal shelter, or county animal control office, but they may ask for a refundable deposit. If you buy a humane trap, you'll have one handy if more cats show up later. If you don’t think you’ll need it again, donate it to a local rescue group.
2. Find a suitable location and set the trap
Place the trap on level ground -- a driveway, porch, or other area. Leave it where the cats like to congregate or receive food. The trap will have at least one door, which is kept open and secured by a small rod placed in a hole at the top of the cage.
3. Load the trap with food
Provide some smelly wet cat food, tuna, or sardines on a paper plate inside of the cage, as far back as possible. Be sure to place it behind the foot plate that triggers the trap. Don’t place any food outside of the trap. Cats take the path of least resistance and will always select food outside of the trap.
4. Cover the trap and leave the area
Place a large towel or lightweight blanket over all parts of the trap, except the entry door. The cover will turn the trap into more of a “safe cave” for the cat. It will also help keep them calm and protected from the weather.
Once the trap is set, leave the area and wait for the cats to enter and trigger the trap. Sometimes this happens quickly; other times it takes many hours. Check the trap periodically, but do it from a distance.
5. Check the trap
Once you see the door has closed and the trap has been triggered, gently lift the cover and peek inside. Likely, it will be the cat you were trying to trap. Sometimes, it’s another animal like a raccoon, opossum, or skunk. If you catch another critter, don’t panic! The wild animal will be more afraid of you than you are of it. Quietly and gently open the trap door, step back, and let the animal run away.
6. Take the cat to the vet
Schedule a time with your vet near the time you are setting the trap. You'll usually have your best luck trapping a cat in the early evening, late at night, or early morning. Research local veterinarian’s offices or spay/neuter clinics in your area to see who is equipped to handle feral cats, and see if they offer low cost or free services. Our spay/neuter clinic, for example, is partially funded by the state and will take any feral cat in before 9 a.m. during weekdays. If you don’t know where to start, contact your local rescue organizations and animal shelters.
7. Rest and recovery time
Once the spay/neuter surgery is over, you'll need to bring the cat home to recover. It will take a few hours for the anesthesia to fully wear off, and then a day or two for the cat to fully recover. Leave the cat in the trap during this time. Or, better yet, bring a crate with you to the vet’s office when delivering your feral cat. After the surgery, the vet can place the cat in the crate for you. This will make the trap available sooner for the next cat, and the crate will provide more room for the cat during recovery.
8. Team up with a friend or neighbor to do it all again
This process worked extremely well for our initiative: I would trap the cat and take him to the vet, and a neighbor would pick the cat up from the vet’s office and would allow the cat to recover in her garage. Our teamwork sped up the process, and we split the cost of the clinic visit and surgery. It also worked well because she lives two doors down and the cats had already gotten used to being fed at both of our homes.
Yes, both of us had been feeding and looking out after the cats for a couple of months without the other knowing it.
If you follow these steps, you should have success with your own TNR initiative. The colony of feral cats we maintain are all happy and healthy, and they never wander too far.
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