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Are TNR Programs for Feral Cats Ethical? Facts & FAQ

Written by: Ashley Bates

Last Updated on February 6, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

cat neutering II

Are TNR Programs for Feral Cats Ethical? Facts & FAQ

TNR, or trap, neuter or spay, return, programs are pretty common these days. Feral cats are trapped, fixed, and set free to roam in many populated areas. These efforts are put in place to reduce homelessness and the reproduction of the feral feline population.

Several facilities offer these services of “trap, neuter or spay, return”, aiming to decrease the population by ethical means. But just how ethical is the TNR program? Is it something we should be doing? TNR programs might have concerns related to the process, but overall, it seems to be a better answer than euthanasia. Let’s see what the opposers and supporters say—and why some folks aren’t into the concept at all.

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A Brief Description of TNR Programs

Cat homelessness is an epidemic across the world. Regardless of where you live on the map, you probably know several stray cats in your area. Numbers might even be astronomical if you live in a populated neighborhood.

The homelessness of cats is the fault of humans who committed to their care and then, at some point, tossed them out with no regard for them. These cats are left to the elements of nature to feed, take shelter, and heal themselves without any help. Of course, cats never asked for this.

To combat homelessness in cats, TNR programs were developed so that feral cat communities could live freely among their species in the wild without the ability to reproduce. Reproduction only further adds to homelessness and out-of-control cat populations.

Before TNR programs, euthanasia was a popular method to eradicate such problems. Many folks, including many cat lovers, feel this is inhumane. So, this program really set the bar for what we can offer these cat communities.

a group of stray cats going inside a trap
Image Credit: Bykofoto, Shutterstock

What Exactly Is a TNR Program?

TNR stands for “trap, neuter or spay, return” and it was designed to prevent the feral cat population from spreading. It is a very ethical alternative to euthanasia and is gaining much traction in the veterinary community.

Basically, a community member would start to feed a single or group of feral cats in their area. Once they gain their trust, they can guide them into a crate or trap and transport them to the vet for medical attention.

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The Argument of Ethics

In terms of the TNR, the argument is that cats are trapped against their will in an unknown setting, and someone is spending money to sterilize the cat but still releasing it back out into the general population.

And some people are just not convinced it’s worth it, causing an upheaval of opinions on the subject.

gray striped cat trapped in a cage

Why Do Some Oppose TNR Programs?

Typically, people are opposed to TNR programs due to financial implications versus productivity. Some would argue that even though most TNR cats receive vaccinations against disease, some can still spread certain illnesses even after being spayed or neutered.

So it is controversial, to say the least.

TNR Programs Don’t Eradicate Disease

Some feline diseases are sexually transmitted. Others are more likely to spread among competing hormonally-charged cats—resulting in fighting and injury. Community food sharing is also a transmissible point of contact (swapping blood, saliva, nasal discharge, and sneezing.)

Certain vaccinations can protect your cats against contracting illness. But it’s not always a surefire way to prevent it.

Some common diseases cats pass back and forth include:
  • Feline Infectious Peritonitis
  • Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
  • Feline Panleukopenia
  • Feline Leukemia Virus
  • Feline Calicivirus
  • Feline Bartonella

Also, cat scratch fever affects over 22,000 people in the United States alone annually. Most of the affected population are children under ten. While recovery is often possible, cat scratch fever does not come without its negative impacts.

Vaccines can help, but it doesn’t eradicate overall group-borne illness.

scratch on a man's hand made by a cat
Image Credit: osobystist, Shutterstock

Attachment to Homeless Cats

Another reason TNR can sometimes come under fire is that people who trap the cats often form attachments. It can be nerve-wracking and frustrating to start developing relationships with feral cats, as you never know when they will wind up missing.

Some cats are so wild that you cannot win them over, no matter how you try to tame them. However, many warm up very quickly to domestic settings. If a feral cat is getting to know you, naturally, a bond and level of trust will develop with the animal.

Once this trust is established, and you opt for spay or neuter surgery, it might even create dependence on humans. So, if you wanted to release your cats back into the community, the likelihood of them living under your porch or visiting your back deck is pretty close to a guarantee.

You have to be prepared for the possibility that that cat will continue to choose you and expect food and attention from you. If you are in a predicament where you cannot save every cat or adopt them, this can be emotionally taxing for many people.

But regardless of the qualms, the positives outweigh the negatives in the scenario.

Some Argue the Release Is Cruel

Some folks argue that releasing a cat that you have trapped back into the wild is cruel. They feel you should be committed to finding them a forever home. That is not in the cards for some people.

Due to schedule conflicts and other daily life events, you might not have the time to find every homeless cat in your neighborhood a new home. So you have to know that when you take feral cats into the TNR program, you will release them back out into the wild to fend for themselves.

feral calico cat
Image Credit: Twinschoice, Shutterstock

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Who Pays for TNR Surgery?

If you’ve ever owned a pet, you just know how expensive spay and neuter surgery can be. So, who exactly is footing the bill for this surgical procedure?

TNR programs are typically grant-funded. In October of 2016, TNR programs were started for volunteer veterinarians who performed these surgeries for no pay. Luckily, it is no expense to the person bringing the cat in. So, you can do a good deed without offering financial support upfront.

However, you might need to pay for additional services if you request them, such as vaccinations, microchipping, and other medical procedures. While you have to pay for these, you typically do so at a very discounted price.

Exact terms will vary based on state and location. So, if you have any specific questions, we recommend reaching out to a location near you to clear up confusion and answer specific questions about their policies.

What Do TNR Programs Entail?

TNR programs require that you trap a feral cat by ethical means and bring them in for surgery and care. Most of the time, locations will spay or neuter as needed, vaccinate, deworm, and sometimes even microchip the cats to be released.

Microchipping is an elective procedure you will have to pay for if you take in a feral cat. But if you have a special attachment to the kitty, it might be an added piece of mind knowing your information exists on the chip. From that point, if the cat was scanned, you will be contacted.

veterinary surgeon checking bandage on cat stressed after spaying
Image Credit: Motortion Films, Shutterstock

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What Is an Alternative?

The cruel and unfortunate reality of TNR program alternatives is euthanasia. Not only are feral cat populations diseased, sickly, and often malnourished, they also pose a threat to humans due to issues like cat scratch fever. Often, feral cats find themselves in a much tougher position.

Euthanasia is one of the most common methods of getting rid of feral cats. Of course, this sadly means the death of that animal in an effort to control the population. In the United States, over 800,000 cats are euthanized every year.

Another really alarming statistic is that 45% of all shelter cats are also euthanized eventually. So often, cats have a better chance on the street than in rescues or shelters, awaiting homes.

TNR programs were developed for this very reason. Folks wanted cats to be able to continue to live in their feral communities while having the inability to reproduce. This process cuts down on the number of births without causing harm to the cat.

While this might seem like the Good Samaritan thing to do, folks worry that it still will do nothing for the diseases that feral cats can transfer throughout cat populations and even transmit to humans.

What’s Your Stance?

Only you can decide if you would like to use a TNR program to fix homelessness in your area. People choose the TNR program for a multitude of reasons. Most commonly, animal lovers feel very attached to and emotionally invested in frequent furry visitors.

However, not everyone can take care of a cat in their home for many reasons. So, these programs offer free vet services to care for problems associated with unwarranted breeding. Also, if you feed homeless cats, they will likely come back time and time again.

If you have other cats in your home, especially those who sometimes visit the outdoors, it’s an excellent safety precaution to spay and neuter strays. This will prevent any transmission of illness or injury to your cats.

So, after getting all the information on both sides of the coin, do you think TNR programs benefit the feline population?

two feral cats
Image Credit: JancickaL, Pixabay

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TNR programs might have concerns related to the process, but overall, it seems to be a better answer than euthanasia. When it comes to eradicating illness, humans will have to continue to help cats fight—and there’s no answer quite yet.

However, with routine spay and neuter, plus vaccines, we can definitely reduce the number of feral cats born yearly—and the number of diseases spread therein.

See also:

Featured Image Credit: Anna Pecherskaia, Shutterstock

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