Fall 2011 Magazine

Cat Chat

FREE-ROAMING CATS AND THE TNR SOLUTION: PetSmart Charities to Support Community Efforts

By Nancy Marano

The number of free-roaming or feral cats in the United States varies depending on who does the counting. The most likely estimate is somewhere between 50 and 100 million cats. It's a huge range but how do you count what you don't see? Free-roaming cats live everywhere in the cities, in the country and in the suburbs. They are cats who never lived in a home, never belonged to anyone and don't want to. But they are also strays who wandered away from their homes or were discarded. Many strays attach themselves to colonies for safety and company. The problem is that without some intervention from humans these colonies continue to grow exponentially. Spaying and neutering becomes a necessity.

Bryan Kortis, former Executive Director of Neighborhood Cats and currently a project manager with PetSmart Charities, spoke recently at the New Mexico Humane Conference. He discussed the latest studies on free-roaming cats and PetSmart Charities' way of supporting communities in large scale, targeted trap-neuter-return (TNR) projects.

Free-roaming cat studies

The most recent studies comparing domestic cats to free-roaming cats show similarities and a few important differences.

There are 73 million owned cats in the United States and close to that many free-roaming cats. 50% of each group is female. 85% of owned cats are sterilized while only 2% of free-roaming cats are. Each group has approximately 1.5 litters per year and each cat has approximately 4 kittens per litter. This means an increase of 33 million cats per year for the owned cat population and 147 million per year for the free-roaming cat population. Kitten mortality in the free-roaming cat population is quite high. Almost half of the kittens of free-roaming cats die before they are two-months-old from natural causes or trauma. It is easy to see from these numbers that free-roaming cats are a major factor in cat overpopulation. This means they also comprise a large portion of the euthanasias at animal shelters because free-roaming cats are picked up by animal control. They are not domesticated, cannot be placed in homes and are euthanized at higher rates than domesticated cats

Common characteristics are found among cats who are trapped in various colonies of feral cats during TNR. Of the females brought in during trapping, only 2.3% are sterilized and 15.9% are pregnant at the time of trapping. Few of the cats, only 0.4%, is sick enough to be euthanized. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is found in the free-roaming cat population at the same rate as in the owned cat population. Free-roaming cats who live in colonies are basically healthy.

Surveys concerning free-roaming cats have been conducted in various neighborhoods. 43% of the people surveyed say they've seen free-roaming cats in their neighborhood. 26% either feed or have fed these cats but few have ever trapped the cats and taken them to the veterinarian. When TNR is explained to them, 77% agree that this is a good thing to do. When asked about laws that would prohibit free-roaming cats, 49% agree there should be such laws, 16% are neutral and 34% disagree with such laws. A slightly higher percentage of respondents either disagree with laws that would outlaw free-roaming cats or have no opinion on it.

Surveys also asked people whether they thought free-roaming cats should be left in their colonies or euthanized as nuisances. 81% of respondents thought the cats should be left in their colonies. When told that free-roaming cats may only live two years because of the difficulty of outdoor living conditions, 72% still believed they should be left in their colonies.

These surveys form the basis for policy decisions in communities across the country.

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)

TNR basically means safely and humanely trapping the feral cats in a colony. Once trapped, the cats are taken to veterinarians who sterilize and vaccinate them. They are treated for parasites and ear-tipped for identification. After a short recovery period, the cats are released back into their colony. Young kittens or people-friendly cats are kept and put up for adoption. A caretaker, usually the person who was feeding the cats before, makes certain there is clean water, food and a water-proof shelter for the cats. The caretaker monitors the colony for any health issues and watches for any new members so the newcomer can be sterilized, too. If the cats are sterilized, the colony will eventually disappear due to natural attrition. TNR is proving to be the most effective way of controlling the feral cat overpopulation.

Many nuisance problems caused by feral cats are diminished or eliminated by the use of TNR so people in the neighborhood are more willing to allow the colony to exist. Some of the problems TNR lessens are the number of sick cats, the number of cats loitering at people's homes wanting to mate with their cats, fighting males, urine-marking and the rodent population in the neighborhood. Also, established colonies will defend their territory to protect their food source. This stabilizes the colony.

Eradication of colonies, previously the preferred method of solving the feral cat problem, does not work. Eradication isn't cost effective and it doesn't achieve the desired result. The cats are removed but the food source, whether rodents or dumpsters, remains. A new group of cats then moves into the same area and the problems begin again.

PetSmart Charities® Targeted TNR Projects

According to Kortis, the tide has turned in favor of doing TNR on a large scale. Like Maddie's Fund, and some other large funders, PetSmart Charities is looking for community-wide, collaborative projects to support. They believe this gives the biggest bang for the buck and makes the projects more successful because of community commitment and the community's stake in project goals.

PetSmart Charities® funding for targeted TNR grants, ranges from $10,000-$100,000 annually and, ".is intended to provide funding, strategic planning and mentoring for a comprehensive TNR program for free-roaming cats. The goal is to build a program that is community-wide in scope, effective in reducing the local feral and stray cat population, efficient in the use of resources, measurable in impact and sustainable over a period of years to come."

A "targeted area" means a defined geographic area. In a large city like New York or Chicago, this could be a few blocks or a zip code. In rural areas or smaller towns the targeted area might be the whole town. Feral colonies must have at least 20+ cats for TNR to have a measurable result. Measureable result doesn't mean the number of surgeries performed or a hypothetical idea of what the impact has been. You must be able to prove there are fewer complaint calls to local animal control about nuisance behavior and the intake of kittens six months and younger at shelters must decrease. There needs to be before and after colony numbers and a system of colony maintenance. It is best to get community acceptance of the project so everyone involved understands what is to be done and why.

These grants are a wonderful resource to assist feral cat caretakers. They will enable feral cat groups to make a positive difference for free-roaming cats in their community. Grant recipients receive ongoing mentoring, during the term of the grant.

Free-roaming cats are a fact of life. But with work by community groups dedicated to making feral cats' lives better as well as expertise and financial support from large funders, the dispute over feral, free-roaming cat may be solved.

For further information on TNR and the PetSmart Charities® Targeted TNR grants see:
Information on grants and work in communities
PetSmart Charities Free-roaming Cat Spay/Neuter Program
Neighborhood Cats
Tree House Humane Society
Feral Cat Project
Information on models for TNR projects:
Fiscal model for TNR

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by three cats, Sammy, Callie and Max. Callie and Max are new additions to our family. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America.

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