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Rabies and Trap-Neuter-Return programs

Trap-Neuter-Return programs involve the caring capture, sterilization, and vaccination of feral cats. Those who have been vaccinated and neutered are marked with an eartip, and cats adequately socialized to humans get adopted into homes, while the rest are returned to their colony where a human caregiver often looks after their health and ensures that they receive adequate food and shelter.

Scientific studies show that TNR policies are the most humane, effective way to manage feral cat populations. Feral cats differ from stray cats, because they have never been socialized to humans. Trap-Neuter-Return programs give feral cats who cannot be adopted a chance to live out their lives without posing a disease risk to humans. TNR policies also protect feral cat colonies from the minimal risk of contracting rabies and prevent these cats from spreading the disease.

“Opposition to humane control of community cats via TNR is often based on a misunderstanding of rabies biology,” says Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Some species, such as dogs, can harbor a strain of rabies especially adapted to that animal. When this happens, the species can become a source of rabies virus that is maintained over time.

Cats have never developed their own strain of rabies. “There is no cat-adapted rabies strain that is maintained in the feline population,” says Levy. "All rabid cats are incidental victims and acquire their rabies infections from wildlife.” It’s rarely cats who spread rabies, she says, but unvaccinated wild animals such as raccoons, foxes, and bats. “Rabies will never be controlled or eliminated in the U.S. until effective programs to eradicate rabies in wildlife are carried out,” Levy says. Currently, 18 states are using oral rabies vaccines (ORV) to control rabies in wildlife populations. Learn more about Wildlife and Rabies.

Trap-Neuter-Return programs are part of the solution, says Levy. “In many communities, such as Gainesville, the feral cat TNR programs are the largest provider of rabies vaccines in the community.” Even a single dose of rabies vaccine can provide multiple years of protection.