How to save & take care of a kitten and feral cats - an advocacy tool kit

How to Implement an Organizational Trap-Neuter-Return Program

Guide/How-to| Feral Friends Network, Trap-Neuter-Return

Feral cats require a different kind of care because they are unsocialized to people and are not candidates for adoption. Many organizations recognize their unique needs, and offer information about how to improve the lives of stray and feral cats. Others want to go a step further and launch their own Trap-Neuter-Return programs. These groups understand that the best practice is to neuter, vaccinate, and allow feral cats to remain in their original habitat along with their colony members. Alley Cat Allies’ guidelines will help organizations interested in adopting this humane, life-saving program implement one that is effective and sustainable.

Because every community faces different circumstances when it comes to implementing a Trap-Neuter-Return program, there is no single formula for successthough there are basic common denominators. One town may already have a flourishing feral cat care model in place. Another community may face an uphill battle, with punitive laws or public perceptions that are obstacles to implementing a program.

Most effective programs include some element of the seven steps outlined and explained below. Though none are required, consider each one and how it applies to your organization and locale before moving forward.

Benefits of an Organizational Trap-Neuter-Return Program

Through Trap-Neuter-Return, cats are humanely trapped, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered. Stray cats (cats socialized to humans) and kittens are adopted into homes, and healthy adult feral cats are returned to their outdoor homes, where their lives are greatly improved without the strains of mating behaviors and pregnancy. Another important component of a Trap-Neuter-Return program includes outreachpromoting organizational services and educating the public about humane methods of cat care.

For an organizational program, it is important to understand that Trap-Neuter-Return involves straightforward steps that result in significant, measurable, and positive outcomes for the cats, the community, and your organization.

Organizations realize positive benefits after implementing Trap-Neuter-Return, including:

  • Improving the cats’ lives;
  • Stabilizing coloniesreproduction stops and litters are not born;
  • An immediate reduction in calls from neighbors about behaviors associated with mating, including spraying, caterwauling, fighting, roaming, and breeding;
  • Resources previously spent on ineffective removal and/or lethal services are spent on non-lethal, life-saving, positive, publicly-supported initiatives such as subsidized neuter services, adoption, and outreach programs; and
  • Positive public reaction, fundraising platforms and partnership opportunities, media exposure, and support from staff, volunteers, other like-minded organizations, and the community at large.

Seven Recommended Considerations for Trap-Neuter-Return Program Implementation

1. Gather baseline statistics and assess your community.

  • Gather statistics.
    Statistics are an invaluable measure of progress. Take time to collect a baseline of facts and figures about your organization prior to implementing your Trap-Neuter-Return program, and update them at regular intervals (at least once a month) after the program is fully implemented. You can then track the impact that Trap-Neuter-Return is having on your community’s animal services system in both the short- and long-term.

    Document the following every month:

    • The number of outdoor cat-related calls
    • The specific concern (noise, smell, kittens, animals on property, sick animals)
    • The specific location of the cats in the community
    • The number of cats picked up/accepted by your organization
    • The number of cats your organization adopts out
    • The number of cats killed (if applicable)specify how many were feral out of the total
    • The number of cats spayed or neutered and returned to their outdoor colonies
    • The number of people who contacted your organization looking for animals to adopt
    • The total amount of your budget spent caring for stray and feral cats, and the amount that this care costs per cat
    • The cost of spaying or neutering one male cat; one female cat; average per cat
    • The percentage of employee/volunteer turnover
    • The number of Trap-Neuter-Return volunteers
    • Community supportin dollars and in number of participants (for all programs, not just Trap-Neuter-Return)
  • Assess your community.
    Because every community faces unique circumstances, your Trap-Neuter-Return program will be built around the information you gather as you assess the needs, availability of resources, and potential roadblocks to success. Identify and understand the following areas before moving ahead:

    • Need
      What programs are currently in place for stray and feral cats? Are any feral cats in the community part of neutered/vaccinated colonies? Have they been neutered?

      Use your gathered statistics and local connections to determine the appropriate approach for your organization to take. If there is already a thriving feral cat group, you may consider working with them to provide services they require, such as a subsidized neuter clinic and a volunteer pool. If there are only nascent groups, you will want to build partnerships and possibly contribute to program management. If there are no programs currently in place, you will have to build one from the ground up.

    • Current Level of Support
      What is the general perception of cats within the community? How involved is the community with feral cats and with your organization?

      Use your research on cat-related calls, as well as other avenues that might help you gauge the public’s support for feral cat related programs. These could include the success level of other groups’ current programs (funding, volunteers, supporter base) as well as any possible media coverage of feral cats (and if it is positive or negative in tone).

    • Potential Roadblocks
      Are there punitive or misinterpreted laws on the books that threaten or penalize caregivers or put cats unnecessarily at risk?

      These and other potential roadblocks can actually be turned in your favor as educational opportunities. Take advantage of these situations to promote the need for humane care and mediate with disgruntled groups to get to the source of and properly address their problems.

2. Build your “people power.”

  • Hire or appoint a feral cat coordinator.
    Having a staff member/volunteer responsible for feral cat protocols and information within the organization is a great way to jump-start a Trap-Neuter-Return program. This person would be responsible for educating the rest of the organization on protocols, including how to respond to the public regarding feral cats. This person would also:

    • Create and implement humane protocols for feral cats.
    • Educate and train volunteers/staff on Trap-Neuter-Return protocol and trapping techniques.
    • Create and manage local trap depots so that residents can borrow traps for use in Trap-Neuter-Return.
    • Determine target areas for Trap-Neuter-Return based on phone calls from the public.
    • Coordinate targeted trapping events and neuter appointments for feral cats.
    • Communicate with neighborhoods in order to educate, identify caregivers and feral cat colonies, coordinate trapping, and organize volunteers.
    • Process all feral cat intake paperwork from clinics. Manage database of feral cats that have gone through clinics.
    • Develop and maintain relationships with community feral cat volunteers and other organizations.
    • Plan and host community outreach and training meetings or workshops.
    • Procure necessary equipment for Trap-Neuter-Return program.
    • Identify and apply for appropriate grants and other funding mechanisms to carry out Trap-Neuter-Return and offer services for caregivers of outdoor cats.
    • Evaluate the success of the Trap-Neuter-Return program through statistical analysis.
  • Volunteers
    Recruit and train a volunteer base willing to help with Trap-Neuter-Return. Potential volunteers can be found by: working with other local feral cat groups and colony caregivers; returning calls from the public about feral cats; and recruiting through your public education efforts.Learn more about successful recruitment of volunteers. Emphasize that there are many different roles for volunteers, including trapping, neuter clinic support, fostering, and administrative tasks.
  • Partnerships
    Partnerships with other organizations can guarantee your Trap-Neuter-Return program’s success.

    Work with local animal control or animal services to support and implement the Trap-Neuter-Return program. Progressive and compassionate animal control officers have the ability to educate the public during their interactions about feral and stray cats and refer residents to workshops and local neuter resources.

    If you are collaborating with other animal organizations, be sure to: encourage participation of key stakeholders; establish the project leaders; involve each organization in discussing the plans; and keep everyone informed of the program’s progress.

    Working with feral cat caregivers and other concerned citizens is a key ingredient. Often they know the details that you need about coloniesthey have been on the ground, doing the hands-on work.

3. Set policies and establish a trapping plan.

  • Set policies.
    Launching an organization-sponsored Trap-Neuter-Return program is just one element in your new, comprehensive humane approach for cats. If you operate a shelter, then our Toolkit for Shelter Transformationcovers the steps shelters must take to best serve the cats and the public.
  • Establish a trapping plan.
    Once you have the research and support in place, you can get down to creating a trapping plan. Use your data to identify colonies and map their locations. Use your connections with caregivers and volunteers to put your trapping plan into practice.

    • Step-by-Step Trap-Neuter-Return
      Learn all you can about the actual process of Trap-Neuter-Return. Read our How to Conduct Trap-Neuter-Return Guide and watch our video, Trapping Cats: How to Trap an Entire Colony.
    • Pilot Program
      Once you have these preparations in place, consider implementing a pilot Trap-Neuter-Return program before attempting to address the entire community. A pilot program focuses Trap-Neuter-Return on no more than one or two neighborhoods. Pilot programs are designed to be successful with the minimum commitment level of resources and volunteers. They are also a good way to get buy-in from government officials, if that is a goal of your organization. Providing assurance that the program will be tested first and modified as needed has persuasive power. If the pilot works, it is more likely that an expansion program will be supported.
    • Targeted Trapping
      Targeted trapping is a method of trapping, neutering, and vaccinating an entire colony at one time before moving on to the surrounding colonies in a specific geographic location. This method is inclusive of all cats in the neighborhood, because it provides opportunities for residents to get their indoor cats neutered and vaccinated at a reduced cost. Including these cats helps reduce the chances of future colonies being created. Targeted trapping allows you to focus your work judiciously and accomplish more in the long-run. Learn more about targeted trapping.

4. Determine a funding plan.

We often hear from organizations claiming they do not have money to institute a Trap-Neuter-Return program.

In the case of pounds and shelters, when they stop trapping, holding and feeding, killing, and disposing of stray and feral cats they realize substantial budgetary savings. But savings from implementing Trap-Neuter-Return programs are not limited to pounds and shelters alone. Other organizations dealing with adoptions, for example, will also see cost savings as Trap-Neuter-Return reduces kitten littersand therefore also reduces resources spent on adoption.

  • Use Savings to Invest in New, Humane Programs
    For shelters, the money saved across almost every budgetary line item can be allocated for providing humane servicesincluding a Trap-Neuter-Return program, but also subsidized neuter services, adoption, and outreach programsfor cats.
  • Fundraise around your new approach
    Improving your organization’s services by introducing Trap-Neuter-Return means that you are gaining a new fundraising platform. The public and foundations will be more interested in supporting your organization when they hear that you are adopting a more humane approach for cats.

Check out, and for grant opportunities. Many of these grant programs are interested in hearing about a focus on the feral and stray cat population or on increasing neuter availability. For other fundraising suggestions, read our Fundraising Guide.

5. Set a veterinary care plan.

Feral cats require a special veterinary approach that takes into account their unique needs and the fact that they are unsocialized to humans. For Trap-Neuter-Return to be successful, you must have a veterinary care plan in place with professionals who are comfortable with the specific methods and procedures necessary to provide appropriate care for feral cats. Read our Feral Cat Veterinary Care Guide to determine exactly what you must have in place.

Then, determine your ability to provide neuter services.

If your organization has a clinic on site, provide subsidized or low-cost neuter services for stray and feral cats. Some organizations set aside one day a week specifically for feral cats. If possible, offer weekend neuter services to allow feral cat caregivers to trap when most convenient. For help, access our Spay and Neuter Clinic Information. For more hands-on information visit the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project and Humane Alliance.

If your organization does not have a clinic, convince local veterinarians to provide subsidized or low-cost neuter for feral cats (even if only offered one day per month). It may be necessary to subsidize expenses and/or purchase supplies for use on spay days. Consider assisting with paperwork and intake procedures

6. Organize a community outreach component to educate the public, promote services, and build support.

The majority of callers reporting outdoor cats are looking for help. Callers can’t ask for services that they do not know are available. And they also may not understand all of their options.

  • Take advantage of every opportunity to educate.
    Share educational materials and information about: feral cats and their life in colonies outdoors (that they are not candidates for adoption); humane ways to deter cats from unwanted areas such as gardens and play areas; Trap-Neuter-Return; and your organization’s response to feral cats through:

  • Promote your organization’s services.
    When discussing your organization’s approach for feral cats with the public, explain:

    • Trap-Neuter-Return and its benefits to the community and the lives of the cats.
    • That you will be providing tools and support to community volunteers to help you implement Trap-Neuter-Return.
    • In the case of shelters, your policy of no longer picking up or accepting stray and feral cats.
  • Share important information about cats.
    Be aware that some community members will want the cats to “go someplace else” after they have been trapped. Educate the public about the vacuum effect and the failures associated with relocation of feral cats. Indicate that cats will not be removed from areas where they currently reside. In some cases it may be necessary to gently remind people that it is illegal for any individual to harm a cat, as stated in your state’s animal anti-cruelty laws.

IMPORTANT: Even in the best case scenarios relocation can be very dangerous for cats and ineffective. Relocation is stressful for cats and since community cats are not socialized to people they can be unpredictable. Community cats bond to their outdoor homes and will try to go backin some cases cats have died in the process, when people misguidedly believe that their life will be better someplace else.

Read more information that you can share with the public about how to deter cats from areas where they are not wanted.

Go to our shop to purchase brochures with this and other information to distribute in your community.

  • Build community support by including the public in your programs.
    Purchase a supply of traps to lend out to the public. Consider charging a refundable deposit to ensure that traps are returned. Learn how to use the traps and become familiar with trapping techniques. Learn more about Alley Cat Allies equipment suggestions for feral cats. Include information about how to trap feral cats with each trap, and always make sure people borrowing traps sign an agreement stating that the traps will be used only for the purpose of Trap-Neuter-Return. Show borrowers how to set the traps before they leave your facility.

7. Evaluate the progress of your Trap-Neuter-Return program.

Using the baseline statistics that you gathered prior to the implementation of the program, determine the impact Trap-Neuter-Return is having in your community. Refer to the tracking statistics posed under the “Gather Baseline Statistics” section above. Compare and contrast the statistics prior to the program and after the program has been established.

Be sure to continually measure your success. Accurate statistics will help identify areas that need improvement. Adjust the program accordingly, and demonstrate the effectiveness of your changes.

Our experience has shown that by taking into account these seven guidelines, organizations can implement a successful Trap-Neuter-Return program that improves the lives of cats and in helping improve your community. You will be joining a movement that values cats’ lives and paves the way for the expansion of humane care for cats.