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A teacher at the high school, your boss, the clerk at the grocery store—people all over the world care for outdoor cats every day. Like them, you’ve discovered cats in your community, and you want to help them.

The cats you are seeing are feral cats. Feral cats are domestic cats. Like pet cats. The difference is that feral cats have had little or no contact with humans, and so they are fearful of us and cannot be adopted. They have a home—the outdoors.

And, there is a simple way you can help them: Trap-Neuter-Return. This program ends reproduction, stabilizes feral cat populations, and improves individual cats’ lives. The behaviors and stresses associated with mating— pregnancy, yowling, and fighting—stop.

What is Trap-Neuter-Return?

  1. Trap: Humanely trap all of the cats in a colony (a group of cats living outdoors together).
  2. Neuter: Take the cats in their traps to a veterinarian or clinic to be neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped (a universal symbol indicating they have been neutered).
  3. Return: Return the cats to their original outdoor home.

This guide will help you help cats effectively and humanely.

Since 1990, Alley Cat Allies has helped hundreds of thousands of individuals and local organizations worldwide improve the lives of feral cats by providing guidance on how to implement Trap-Neuter-Return, and educating communities about the benefits of the program. This guide will show you how easy it is to help cats in your community. Armed with your new knowledge, you will be able to join thousands of other people working to improve the lives of feral cats!

Five further notes before you continue.

  1. Only use a humane box trap to trap a feral cat. Never use darts or tranquilizers to attempt to catch a cat. These methods are dangerous and stressful to the cats. Nets are also not recommended for the same reasons. Refer to our equipment list for recommended box trap models.
  2. NEVER attempt to pick up a feral cat, particularly to put her in a carrier or trap. No matter how sweet she seems, handling a cat who has never—or not recently—been touched will frighten and stress her. She may struggle to get away and harm you in the process. With no vaccination records, she is bound to be killed or put into quarantine. Use the correct trapping practices outlined below and ensure the safety of both you and the cat.
  3. Keep in mind that your trapping will be most effective if you employ targeted trapping. Learn more about Targeted Trapping, a trapping approach that allows for complete results. 
  4. Feral cats are fearful of people in general. This fact should influence every choice you make when trapping. They may feel even more frightened and threatened when faced with a new experience, like being trapped and transported to a veterinarian. This is true for cats who normally act docile around their caregivers as well. Feral cats will not communicate their needs (if they are hurt, in pain, or frightened). Instead, they will thrash about when in their carriers or they may simply “shut down.” It is essential that you stay quiet, calm, and conscious of the cats’ well-being during your trapping ventures.
  5. No trapping effort is exactly the same. A colony’s location—a college campus, a warehouse, a farm, an alley, a small business parking lot— will have unique elements for you to consider. Use your discretion to determine any additional steps to those provided in this guide, and tailor the basics to fit your colony’s situation. For instance, you may need to work with college administrators, connect with other caregivers, or ensure you have enough traps and vehicles for a large colony.

Before You Trap

Familiarize yourself with the Trap-Neuter-Return process and plan your trapping day in advance. Throughout all of your trapping endeavors, plan ahead to ensure the safety and well-being of the cats and reduce your own stress. 
  • Coordinate with other caregivers who may be feeding the cats, and prepare the cats for trapping by feeding on a schedule and in a designated feeding area. 
  • Determine how many traps and neuter appointments you will need to schedule after assessing the colony. 
  • Determine a safe, temperature-controlled location where you will be able to hold the cats after surgery while they recover. 
  • Gather and prepare all of the appropriate equipment and understand how it all works ahead of time—and practice! It is important to test all traps, to ensure that the trip plate works.
  • Withhold food 24 hours before trapping, and you are ready to start trapping.

Go to our Before You Trap section to read these details in more depth.

  • On the day-of, prepare the traps by lining the bottom with newspaper, tagging with a location description, and baiting. 
  • Set the traps and watch them from afar. 
  • Once a cat is trapped, cover the trap - this will help keep the cat calm. 
  • Ahead of time, learn how to deal with particularly hard-to-trap cats. 
  • After securing the traps in your vehicle, head to the veterinarian or clinic for surgeries that day or the following day.

Go to our Trapping section to learn more about these steps. Watch Alley Cat Allies’ trapping video for a run-through of a successful trap-day.

  • After surgery (learn more about the surgery in our veterinary section), keep the cats in the trap at all times.
  • Transport the cats safely back to your secure, indoor location where cats will be in a temperature-controlled environment, dry, and away from danger. 
  • Monitor the cats for any illness. 
  • For your safety and the cats keep them in their covered cages at all times. 
  • Feed the cats eight hours or so after surgery and return the cats, following the guidelines in the Post-Surgery section. 
  • Return the cats to the exact location where they were trapped. 
  • Clean the traps.

Go to our Post-Surgery section to understand all of the steps you must take after the cats visit the veterinarian or clinic.

People and Cats

A key part of carrying out Trap-Neuter-Return is to establish a friendly dialogue with neighborhood residents and address any possible concerns. Go to our People and Cats section and our Community Relations Center to learn more.

Next Step: Before You Trap