How Trap, Neuter, Return Helps Community Cats

by | Jan 31, 2022

HAP blog readers, I’d like you to meet Jeffrey. 

As cozy as he looks here, he wasn’t always the chubby, spoiled house cat who adores his bed and snuggling with his humans. Not at all. Four years ago, he took up residence on our front porch in the bitter cold of December, huddled on a chair against the elements with dirty feet and sad, wary eyes. He was known to bite and bolt quickly – instincts he honed as an outside cat for the first year of his life where kindness wasn’t often on the day’s schedule, especially as a pesky outside cat scrounging in trash cans and causing a ruckus in alleyways.

Four years ago, my partner and I worked to transform this feral boy from a suspicious, distrustful cat to an indoor one who enjoys the comforts of home with his parents and cat siblings. It was hard work that made us question if we were equipped to help him. We had to slowly gain his trust through first just sitting near him as he chowed down outside. We then made our porch a makeshift shelter from the elements, providing food and fresh, unfrozen water in the dead of winter. Slow and steady is the way to go with feral and semi-feral cats. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since those days. Jeffrey happily snuggles on my lap and is even picky about the types of wet food he’ll eat at lunchtime – a process that took close to a year before he acclimated well to indoor life, as seen below.

However, the focus of this blog isn’t only to gush about Jeffrey, the feral turned friendly. Instead, I’d like to share what I learned throughout the process of helping and loving this formerly outdoor cat with you, so you can also lend a hand to help the Jeffreys of the world, even if they don’t become cuddly, indoor cats.

It’s no secret that feral and stray cats are in dire straits. Outside cats can be prone to disease and infections, fighting, and overpopulation without human intervention. Unaltered male cats may challenge each other over territorial disputes, leading to wounds that can get infected quickly outdoors. Unspayed female cats are able to reproduce beginning at six months, and produce an average of 1.5 litters with four kittens each annually. These cats are just doing what comes naturally, and part of the reason there are so many of them is because everyone tends to believe outdoor cats are “someone else’s problem.”

With an estimated 32 million feral cats living in the U.S., there is no time like the present to help these community cats. So, how can you assist?

Introducing Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR).

You may have heard of trap, neuter, return (TNR) programs before, but here’s a refresher. As part of TNR, cats are humanely trapped and taken to a vet to be neutered (if male) or spayed (if female), effectively stopping the breeding cycle and helping to prevent cat overpopulation. Feral or stray cats will also be given a rabies and FVRCP vaccine, which is a “three-in-one combination vaccine protecting cats from rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and panleukopenia (also known as feline distemper).” Cats taken in for TNR will also be given an ear tip. Ear tipping is where a tiny section (3/8”) of the top of their (typically left) ear is clipped while they’re under anesthesia and is a painless procedure. 

This ear tip indicates a cat is a community one who has already been fixed and vaccinated, so rescuers can see at a glance which cats have already been helped and which cats still need to be seen. Ear tipping is also a time saver, as a cat with an ear tip in a trap can quickly be let out as opposed to taking an unnecessary trip to the vet to determine if they’ve been fixed.

Jeffrey sports an ear tip too, as we weren’t sure if he would like indoor life during our first few months of knowing each other. We wanted to be sure people knew he was neutered and vaccinated if he ever ended up in a TNR trap outside. However, the comforts of a regularly scheduled meal every day, baseboard heat, and pets won him over pretty quickly.

Steps for TNR

When we first met Jeffrey, we knew he probably wasn’t fixed and would benefit from that surgery along with a veterinary check up and vaccinations. Luckily, as a cat cafe volunteer who had heard a bit about TNR before, I knew of the concept and reached out to friends and acquaintances who had participated in TNR previously. I’ll outline what I learned in the steps below.

Step #1: Understand that the person or rescue to help may be you.

With so much going on in the world and everyone’s lives, it’s easy to think a community cat problem or stray cat that keeps showing up on your porch are issues for another person to handle. The important thing to remember is that cat rescues, shelters, and volunteers are also extremely busy in their own lives in the cat world since there is such an overpopulation of cats, and their personal lives. 

Rescues and shelters may also be dealing with staffing issues due to COVID-19 and the toll rescuing takes on one’s mental health, and overwhelmed trying to help every cat and kitten they’re contacted about. Despite shelters and rescuer’s best efforts, it’s impossible for a select few or very small group to help every single community cat. The good news is this is where you come in. You can help and be a hero to that one cat that needs it!

Step #2: Determine if the cats are already receiving help or have dedicated caretakers or rescuers.

The last thing you’d want to do is disturb a happy cat colony that is being well cared for by caretakers. Make sure you ask around and check out social media, perhaps even making a post yourself, to ensure you aren’t duplicating efforts of a rescue group or other like-minded individual. You may also be able to find local TNR programs and organizations that can help you and provide assistance throughout this process.

Step #3: Have a plan.

TNR isn’t something you should do on a whim. Read as much as you can about TNR and how it works. Do your research. Again, a local rescuer or shelter may be able to help guide you, but the internet and blogs like this exist for a reason. 

Make sure you know where you can take a trapped cat, such as a local spay/neuter clinic or veterinary hospital, before you attempt to trap a community cat. You can also call ahead and see what the clinic’s schedule is for the week or month to determine when the best days to catch your furry friend (or frenemy) may be.

Speaking of that trapped cat, do you have a trap to first catch and then transport the cat in? Do you know how the trap works and how to set it? Will the trap fit in your vehicle as you transport the cat to the clinic? If not, do you have a friend or family member you can contact to use their truck or larger vehicle? How will you pay for the services offered by the vet? Are there low- or no-cost spay/neuter clinics near you, or can you partner with a rescue or shelter through a grant they’ve received to help offset costs? Can you start a fundraiser within your own community to help pay for TNR? You’ll have to consider these questions and more before you scoop that cat up off the street.

Alley Cat Allies has a great guide to get you started here.

Part of your plan should also include where you can keep the recently fixed cat overnight. The cat “should be left in the trap or carrier in which they were placed in after surgery and should be kept in a warm, draft-free area such as a bathroom, spare bedroom, basement, or climate-controlled garage at about 70 degrees. Because cats cannot regulate their body temperature while under anesthesia, you must make sure they don’t get too warm or too cold overnight.” Be sure to monitor your temporary furbaby every hour or so to make sure they’re okay and don’t need any emergency medical attention.

The Camden County Animal Shelter Spay/Neuter Clinic Sheet has more info on surgery recovery here

Always listen to the advice provided by the veterinarian and staff at the clinic or hospital to ensure proper care and recovery of the cat.

Step #4: Take action.

If you’ve done your research and have contacted a clinic or vet’s office for an appointment to get your community cat fixed, well done! You can now start the process armed with the knowledge of what you can do to help not only this one cat, but also the cat community and shelters and rescues in your area. Remember to have patience with the cat and the people who assist you in this new endeavor.

Alley Cat Allies has an entire section on cat care to help.

Check out these resources as well for more info:

Neighborhood Cats – 7 Steps of TNR

Alley Cat Allies in Action

PetFinder – How to TNR Feral Cats

Once the cat has safely recovered from their procedure (typically about 24 hours after their procedure, barring any issues), they are ready to be returned to the area where you found them. It’s recommended that you don’t simply release the cat from your front door into the unknown, but instead take them back to the area they call home. You wouldn’t want to be dropped off in an unfamiliar place after surgery, and neither does the cat.

Step #5: Repeat, educate, and assist!

Congratulations, you’ve helped a community cat live a better, healthier life. If you’re so inclined and know the area where there are more community cats, you can help them, too. Perhaps you can coordinate with others to provide general caretaking for these cats, setting them up with shelters with straw for warmth (never blankets as they freeze and can freeze to a cat and make it even colder), food, and water (which should be kept warm in the winter to prevent freezing). Get others engaged in your efforts by sharing your experience and helping those who want to be involved. 

We all have to work together to help with cat overpopulation while caring for cats who were left behind or dumped by former owners, or left to their own devices as completely feral furballs. Cats can’t advocate for themselves. We can help!

I understand that everyone does not have the time, means, or money to help community cats in their area. But even helping in small ways makes a huge difference. Whether you share a rescue’s post on social media, volunteer at a rescue or cat cafe, foster, donate time and money in other ways to help rescued or feral cats, or are inspired to do more or unique things to help felines in your area, it matters. We can’t help every Jeffrey in the world, but we can all help one through the process of TNR. We can’t all turn a blind eye to the plight of community cats, and change can start with you.

Ready to make an immediate impact? 

If you want to make an immediate difference for the community cats and organizations who help them before getting involved in TNR efforts yourself, please consider donating to a local TNR organization, rescue, or shelter in your area. I’ve listed some local to the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania area below.

*This article is not sponsored by or affiliated with any of the organizations listed above. They are just a few organizations I know of through my volunteer work with community cats and cat cafes. There are so many deserving organizations that could put your donation to great use in their TNR and rescue efforts.

Read more about HAP’s regional, state, and federal initiatives to advance the protection of all animals by empowering people to affect change through education, policy, and community action:

State and Federal Initiatives

Regional Initiatives


Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University.

Abhi Nadendla is a blogger at HAP and has been volunteering at the organization since late 2022. She is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and loves spending her free time helping out at animal shelters.

Hannah Lewis is a grant writer and blogger from Pittsburgh’s North Side who has been with HAP since 2020. In addition to writing and advocating for animals, she enjoys hiking, cooking plant-based meals, bouldering at her local climbing gym, and curling up with a good book and her long-haired cat, Freyja.

Kelly Frantz has recently joined the HAP family as a blog writer. She is passionate about animal protection and is excited to educate the community about animal welfare.