Publications| Cats and the Law

Ordinances that claim to support Trap-Neuter-Return sound good—and are sometimes good—but they are actually sometimes harmful for community cats. Sometimes feral cat advocates contact their local lawmakers under the mistaken impression that their community must pass a TNR ordinance. But if feral cat caregivers are not struggling with opposition from animal control officers or hostility from neighbors, it is usually preferable not to pursue an ordinance.

Well-intentioned ordinances, like those that purport to support TNR, can cause more harm than good if they create regulations and restrictions—and subsequently, penalties and liabilities against caregivers and TNR providers—where there were none.

The most problematic TNR ordinance provision is mandatory registration. Mandatory registration means that feral cat caregivers are legally obligated to register with animal control or another local government agency and include personal information about themselves and sometimes even the location of the cats they care for. People who fail to register but continue to engage in TNR could be fined or even prosecuted for breaking the law.

These volunteers who open their hearts and wallets to care for cats are the core of an effective TNR program. Feral cat caregivers care for outdoor cats but are not the cats’ owners. Caregivers neither create nor maintain the stray and feral cat population. Rather, they are Good Samaritans stepping forward to help the community.

Registration is not necessary for successful TNR programs. It is burdensome and time-consuming and will cause residents to cut back on neutering feral cats. Mandatory registration deters feral cat caregivers from their important volunteer work because they are apprehensive about revealing who they are and where the colonies are located. Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded. Alley Cat Allies has documented numerous instances of caregivers being subjected to verbal harassment, physical coercion, job loss, and eviction, and instances of the colonies of cats being killed.

Despite these concerns, there are some cases where TNR ordinances are needed. If feral cat caregivers in your community are already facing harassment from animal control officers or negative ordinances like feeding bans, brief ordinances that simply communicate the city’s support are best.

For example, the Washington, D.C. ordinance underscores the city’s commitment to TNR and does not regulate the actual practice of TNR. It states that the animal control agency “shall promote: (1) the reduction of euthanasia of animals for which medical treatment or adoption is possible; and (2) the utilization of trap, spay or neuter, and return practices as a means of controlling the feral cat population.” This brief statement of the city’s policy and goals is very helpful in encouraging TNR.

Sample Trap-Neuter-Return Ordinance Provisions

If your community needs a TNR ordinance to protect caregivers from harassment and penalties, the ordinance should include these key definitions and provisions to best support cats and caregivers. These components include important protections for impounded feral cats, such as mandating the return of cats to their colony, as well as protections for caregivers.


  1. “Eartip” means a mark identifying a feral cat as being in a TNR program, specifically, the removal of approximately ⅜ of an inch off the tip of the cat’s left ear in a straight line, while the cat is anesthetized.
  2. “Feral cat” means a cat that is unsocialized to people and typically avoids contact with humans.
  3. “Feral cat caregiver” means any person, who in accordance with a good faith effort to trap, neuter, vaccinate, and return the feral cat, provides volunteer care to a feral cat.
  4. “Feral cat colony” means a group of feral cats who congregate, more or less, together as a unit and share a common food source.
  5. “Owner” does not include a person caring for a feral cat as a feral cat caregiver.
  6. “Trap-Neuter-Return/TNR” means a nonlethal approach to feral cat population control where feral cats are humanely trapped, sterilized and vaccinated, eartipped, and then returned to the location where they were originally trapped.

Additional Provisions:

  1. TNR shall be permitted, and feral cat caregivers, organizations, and animal control, are allowed to carry out TNR.
  2. An eartipped feral cat received by animal services or local shelters will be returned to the location where it was trapped unless veterinary care is required. An eartipped cat trapped by animal services will be released on site unless veterinary care is required.
  3. Feral cat caregivers are empowered to reclaim impounded feral cats without proof of ownership.
  4. A feral cat caregiver who returns a feral cat in conjunction with TNR is not deemed to have abandoned the feral cat.

Remember, the primary goal is to implement TNR in your community. An ordinance is only one tool among many to achieve this objective.