Position Statement on Community Cats


Community cats are outdoor, unowned, free-roaming cats (Gyles, 2019). These cats could be friendly, feral[1], adults, kittens, healthy, sick, sterilized, and/or unsterilized. They may or may not have a caregiver who provides sterilization[2], food, water, and shelter on an ongoing basis. By this definition, the only outdoor free-roaming cats who are not community cats are those who have an owner. Note that there are usually local or state laws that define ownership even when these cats are not claimed or considered by residents to be owned. These outdoor-owned cats may become lost or abandoned and if unsterilized, will contribute to the population, one important reason for owned cats to be sterilized as part of comprehensive cat programming.

Community cats are found in all areas of the country and, depending on food supply, may gather in groups. No one knows how many community cats live in the United States, but estimates are in the tens of millions. Community cat issues are complex and varied, impacted by geography, climate, the presence of other animals including predators, past and current community cat programming, cultural norms, and numerous other factors. As such, multiple approaches, crafted to address the particular needs of a given community, are often necessary to affect a positive impact on cats and the communities in which they live.


The ASPCA supports humane, effective, and lawful strategies for humanely managing community cat populations for the specific purpose of decreasing the population size, with trap-neuter-return-monitor (TNRM) as the most important and effective approach for this purpose (see below for details). We recognize that different organizations and individuals may have goals other than population decrease such as the number of surgeries, decreasing shelter euthanasia, nuisance mitigation, etc. Additionally, resources and challenges vary by location, so population decrease may not be feasible at a given time and place. This document is designed to intentionally decrease the numbers of community cats because, in the long run, this will lead to better welfare and fewer problems.

TNRM is preferred for decreasing population size over other community cat programs because when done strategically and over time, it can reduce the population of community cats (Boone, 2015, Boone et al, 2019). Focusing on the reduction in cat populations can mitigate environmental, public health, and wildlife issues as well as improve cat welfare. Return-to-field (RTF) should only be employed in narrow circumstances when it gives cats who need to enter animal shelters or rescues (hereafter referred to as shelters) the best chance for live outcomes. RTF should always be done in conjunction with additional programming to reduce cat populations (see below for details). Relocation of community cats should always be a last resort option since it is time-consuming and costly to do properly and can be very difficult for cats to adapt to being moved to entirely new surroundings.

The alternatives to community cat programs, including trap-euthanize[3] strategies, have been shown to be impractical, ineffective, and often inhumane. Except for closed populations of cats on islands, attempts to eradicate groups of cats almost universally fail. Low-level removal of cats on an intermittent basis is ineffective at decreasing cat populations as removed cats are replaced through reproduction, the movement of other cats into the territory when resources remain available, and the addition of lost and abandoned animals who repopulate the vacated space (Campbell et al, 2011). Feeding bans are difficult to enforce and are ineffective at decreasing cat populations. For those cats who have become dependent on food provided by a caregiver, a feeding ban can be inhumane, as it often forces cats to subsist on insufficient resources.

The ASPCA does not support the management of cat groups in critically sensitive ecological areas and recommends engagement with government resource/park/wildlife agencies to find nonlethal solutions including relocation of community cats and adoption of friendly cats. The ASPCA also does not support the management of cat groups in areas where demolition or development is likely to cause harm or where cats are being subjected to harm or abuse and recommends the adoption of friendly cats and/or relocation of community cats under these circumstances. In both scenarios, after the cats are removed, exclusionary measures and deterrents should be put into place to prevent the immigration of new cats to the area.

Community cat programs may also raise legal issues, including those related to laws prohibiting the abandonment of animals or defining and creating obligations for animal owners and caregivers. Animal welfare organizations, in consultation with government agencies, should work vigorously to remove legal or policy barriers to community cat programs (Wolf & Hamilton, 2020). Before engaging in any community cat program, legal counsel should be consulted to ensure that the program’s activities are permitted under applicable state and local law.


Community cat programs should be considered as just one component of a multi-pronged approach to cat welfare issues in the community served. A comprehensive approach requires:

  1. That community cat stakeholder groups be engaged, and any program be implemented in partnership with other existing TNRM, RTF, and/or relocation programs, and with low-/no-cost sterilization programs for owned cats. Any cat program implemented in isolation is less likely to be successful and often will not efficiently utilize whatever resources are available to support cats, whether community or owned.
  2. Sterilization, which decreases nuisance behaviors and increases welfare. To achieve the primary goal of decreasing the overall size of the community cat population over a 5- to 10-year timeline, research has shown that a critical percentage of cats in a group, neighborhood, or other defined geographic location must all be sterilized within a relatively short time period (Boone et al, 2019).
  3. Serious consideration about if and when any free-roaming cat should even enter shelters for the best welfare of the cats. However, because it is often impossible to determine if a cat is socialized or unsocialized in the community, owned or unowned, decision-making is difficult. Ideally, community cats should not enter shelters unless they are ill, injured, an unmitigated nuisance, or are confirmed as orphaned and too young to be neutered and returned.
    1. The ASPCA estimates that 3.2 million cats enter the animal sheltering system in a typical year, events that may result in an opportunity for their owners to find them or new family to adopt them, but which also puts cats at risk of extreme stress, illness, and euthanasia.
    2. Therefore, it is the ASPCA’s position that unsocialized community cats are best served by focusing resources on TNRM and avoiding intake into shelters unless too ill, injured, or young to be returned (when appropriate alternative pathways are needed).
    3. Socialized community cats and kittens should not enter the sheltering system unless a prior determination has been made that the sheltering system has the capacity to foster, adopt, and/or transport without displacing other adoptable animals or compromising the capacity for care for all animals. Overtly friendly community cats are socialized and could be someone’s pet even in the absence of identification; therefore, substantial efforts to identify the owner should be made. When community cats do not enter the sheltering system, resources for TNRM should be available to provide needed services for these cats out in the community.
  4. Distribution of exclusionary devices (such as fencing and keeping garbage bins closed) and deterrents.
  5. Public education (McDonald et al, 2017, McLeod et al, 2019) concerning the humane reduction in populations of community cats.

Trap-Neuter-Return-Monitor (TNRM)

The ASPCA recommends focusing on humanely decreasing the numbers of community cats. The following guidance is based on modeling of community cat populations and understanding how cat numbers grow and decline over time (Boone, 2015, Boone et al, 2019, Benka et al, 2021, see also https://www.acc-d.org/population-modeling for details). Planning to invest more resources early in the TNRM process will maximize the population decline over time due to attrition (death, adoption, or movement to different locations). Additionally, monitoring existing cats over time is critical both to plan resourcing as well as to maintain a high percentage of sterilized community cats, decrease many types of nuisance complaints, and ultimately decrease the size of the population. Monitoring cats may be very informal, from someone keeping an eye on two or three cats in a lot or yard to a formal structure for who is feeding and documenting existing and new cats. Counting the number of community cats (and the proportion of ear-tipped cats) can be done in a structured way using predetermined, standardized walking routes and binoculars to identify ear tips more accurately from a distance. For organizations or individuals to plan resources more closely, document clear changes over time, and show impact over the years, a more robust counting approach like transect counts from the DC Cat Count will be needed. However, many organizations or individuals may not have the ability to perform this count in a standard and repeatable fashion. When that is the situation, less formal counts from caregivers or residents may be helpful in estimating the number of cats in a location. Additionally, these informal observations may be helpful in measuring the percentage of cats with ear tips to get an idea about how many cats may still need to be trapped and neutered.

Community members, especially caregivers and other neighborhood residents, are essential for actively observing and reporting new cats entering the geographic location throughout the process; after the initial resource investment, it is especially vital to continue to observe because if new cats are not promptly trapped and neutered, the population will quickly rebound, making population decline impossible (Nutter et al, 2004). The ASPCA is currently conducting field trials to evaluate the accuracy of this modeling in applied settings. Until field data is available, we recommend adhering to the best practices suggested by the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs (ACC&D, link above and highlights below).

Ideally, the management of community cats to humanely decrease population numbers should include trapping, scanning for the presence of a microchip, vaccination (at least against rabies where that disease occurs), sterilization, ear-“tipping” (surgical removal of the tip of one ear as a visible sign that the cat has been sterilized), microchipping (when feasible), returning the cat to the original location, and caregiver(s) or other community members observing and caring for the cat(s), e.g., ensuring the cats receive adequate food, water, and shelter and quickly identifying and making arrangements for new cats to be TNRM’d. In addition to a lower population and faster decline, monitoring also supports the welfare of the cats because the person who observes the cats can also identify cats in need of additional care. Sterilization not only prevents births, but also largely eliminates the objectionable spraying, vocalizing, and fighting behaviors of cats in the group. Additionally, unsterilized females in heat will attract unsterilized males; therefore, sterilizing female cats eliminates this form of immigration and nuisance. TNRM has been shown to be effective in decreasing cat populations over time when done less intensively (Spehar & Wolf 2017, Spehar & Wolf 2018, Spehar & Wolf 2019); however, it will take a longer time to see an overall decrease in cat numbers, may cost the same or more, and results in more kittens being born, which, due to their high mortality, leads to high numbers of kitten deaths (Boone et al, 2019, Benka et al 2021).

TNRM programs should include conversations with the cats’ caregiver(s) or feeder(s). Topics should include the benefits of TNRM for population reduction, plans for cats not thriving outdoors, explaining ear-tipping (and its link to sterilization), observing the group for any new, ill, or injured cats, and whom to contact for assistance. In the majority of locations, there is a feeder or caregiver who can be identified (see Hurley & Levy 2022 for the use of collars to find caregivers or feeders). These contacts can increase community support for TNRM, provide ongoing care and trapping for health issues, share best estimates of the number of cats who need to be sterilized, and watch for new cats to be promptly trapped and sterilized. TNRM programs should only be conducted if the environment is conducive to successful outdoor living and if there are no known threats by local residents to the cats. Recognition by animal control officers and shelter staff that an ear-tipped cat has already been sterilized allows for healthy cats to remain at or be returned to their origin, rather than be admitted to an animal shelter. TNRM programs or other local organizations should also assist with the installation of exclusionary measures or deterrents to limit cats’ presence in dangerous or critically sensitive ecological areas.

Return-to-Field (RTF)

If community cats must enter the shelter because of legal requirements or welfare concerns, programs like Return-to-Field (also known as Shelter-Neuter-Return), when done well (Appendix 2), can provide a prompt and live outcome to some of the millions of cats at risk in our nation’s shelters. RTF involves community cats who have been admitted to the animal shelter (brought in by animal control personnel or by members of the public) being returned to their point of origin after ear-tipping, sterilization, and vaccination. Recently, the term “Return to Home” has been proposed, since the cat’s home is in the community. Because this can be confused with adoption into a specific household as a companion animal, the ASPCA continues to use RTF.

At intake, a minimum set of criteria should be considered: whether the cat is or was owned, the cat’s exact location, duration of living in the community, and the presence of a caregiver or feeder. The use of RTF programs should never supersede robust and aggressive adoption programs for surrendered cats (ASPCA's Position Statement on Responsibilities of Animal Shelters) or comprehensive pathway planning for community cats who are ill, injured, or too young to be returned. That pathway planning should include prompt, humane disposition options for cats who cannot be adopted or returned. Socialized community cats should only be included in adoption programs when the shelter can manage their capacity for care and provide live outcomes for cats already in their care. Reasonable steps should always be taken to confirm that the cat does not have an owner. If RTF programs are used, they should be used as a mechanism to connect to residents in the community and engage them in TNRM, address neighborhood concerns, and involve them with additional solutions for community cats.

TNRM programs are preferred over RTF programs because:

  1. Services are provided to the cat without involving admission to and holding in an animal shelter, which bypasses these stresses for the cat and the potential for exposure to disease.
  2. The involvement of a caregiver or other person in the community increases the likelihood of success in achieving the goal of decreasing community cat populations. Providing a person to both monitor for new cats and support the well-being and safety of existing cats, as well as having a point of contact when issues or complaints arise, is critical for these concerns. Unlike TNRM programs, RTF programs rarely require that a caregiver be available to watch for new intact cats and provide care for the cat following release.
  3. RTF programs are designed to move cats who were admitted to a shelter back to their original point of origin. The goal of these programs is often to provide a live outcome for cats in shelters who might otherwise be euthanized as a primary focus; this goal alone will not address the underlying issue of uncontrolled breeding of community cats, high kitten mortality in the cat population, or ongoing welfare of the cats. Without also performing TNRM at the origin of the cats, RTF will not have any impact on decreasing community cat population size, and in the long run, it makes fewer resources available overall to support cats in the community. This will likely impede the ultimate goal of reducing the community cat population and related nuisance issues. Therefore, RTF programs should only be considered as one component of a multi-pronged approach to community cat issues. A comprehensive approach requires that RTF programs engage community cat stakeholder groups and be implemented in partnership with complementary strategic TNRM programs and low-/no-cost sterilization services for the public who own cats (Spehar & Wolf, 2020a, Spehar & Wolf, 2020b) as well as substantial return to owner efforts. See Hurley & Levy (2022) for additional ideas for shelters and community cat engagement.

Community Cat Relocation

Community cat relocation should only be considered as a last resort when the cats involved are at known risk, other community cat management strategies are unavailable, and relocation is permitted under applicable law. Relocation is resource-intensive and involves identifying a new location with a caregiver for the cat(s), trapping, scanning for the presence of a microchip, vaccination, sterilization, ear “tipping”, microchipping (when feasible), transportation, and finally, a carefully managed introduction to the new location. Cats being relocated are confined prior to introduction into a new territory or to an existing group of cats and then released into a barn, warehouse, or similar location following important guidelines to improve their chances of settling and doing well in the new location. Barn or working cat programs are examples of relocation and are a form of adoption for cats who, for behavioral reasons, are not suitable for more traditional home environments. These locations can be rural or urban, are commonly on private property, and involve caregivers who own that building/property and who are willing to monitor and provide basic care for the cats.

Information regarding a variety of Community Cat Relocation programs can be found at http://www.alleycat.org/Relocation


Our goal as described in this statement is to humanely and ethically decrease the numbers of community cats (Wolf & Schaffner, 2019). It is also critical for success to consider the goals of the organization(s) and community in determining what community cat programming is needed. (See https://www.sheltermedicine.com/library/resources/?r=shelter-intake-and-pathway-planning for more information on pathway planning.) One example where a goal may drive decision-making is if a fast reduction in numbers of cats is needed. This might look like: 1) communication with the caregiver(s) to maintain good relationships; 2) adoption of socialized, adult community cats and young, socializable kittens through existing organizations or informal networks if viable; 3) the availability of robust adoption programming in the community. In some situations, the adoption of socialized cats and young kittens is not a realistic community option due to resource limitations or lack of caregiver support, and these cats should ideally be TNRM’d without entering the shelter system; and 4) ongoing observations at the origin of these cats to maintain a low number of cats.

If community cats enter a sheltering organization, consistent and clear pathway planning is indispensable. This must include considerations about intake (including as much about the cat’s individual situation and location as possible) and a careful rationale for bringing the community cat into the sheltering system, efforts to determine if the cat has an owner, safe and low-stress housing availability, capacity for care and ability to meet the cats’ medical and behavioral needs, a strong adoption program, and written, planned criteria for prompt outcomes. Not all ill or injured adult community cats can be saved, and clear criteria for prompt euthanasia should be determined. Orphaned kittens too young to return may have several options including foster, adoption, or euthanasia depending on available resources. Finder Foster kits for community members to bottle feed and foster young kittens can give these orphans a viable pathway (see https://www.humananimalsupportservices.org/ and search on this term for explanations and examples). Options for young kittens with mothers include “leave them with mom until 6 weeks” campaigns (see https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/simultaneously-message-kitten-foster-recruitment-and-leaving-healthy-kittens-place for messaging and https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/5-tips-support-kitten-foster-caregivers-areas-high-shelter-intake for additional ideas).

A collaborative approach is key to the success of community-wide programs for cats at risk. All local shelters, rescues, and animal control agencies should be involved when possible. When local cooperation is sought but not achieved, it is still important to address and resolve potential active opposition to such programs. Often, seeking permission to conduct a pilot TNRM or RTF project to demonstrate potential impact is a good first step when local resistance exists. Consider these guiding questions to help determine your program approach:

  • What is the scope and goal of your program? For population decrease over time of community cats, see https://www.acc-d.org/population-modeling.
  • What is your relationship/reputation with the community? How well are you able to communicate directly with community members using culturally appropriate, understandable terminology, language(s), and literacy levels?
  • What is your relationship with animal protection organizations and community cat-interested residents in your community? 
  • What is your relationship with local government agencies (elected officials, municipal animal shelters, regional park districts, etc.)?
  • What other community cat stakeholders can you work with to find a person to feed and/or monitor (if one is not already doing both) for cats when they are TNRM’d? Other community cat organizations often have vital connections to the community and can identify feeders or caregivers. People who originally only fed the cats may be willing to provide ongoing care and monitoring once sterilization is performed and they know whom to turn to for help. In addition, if RTF is employed and only one cat is returned following sterilization, there must be access to low-cost options for sterilization of other cats in the group or location.
  • What other community cat stakeholders can you work with to determine if a cat has an owner, caregiver, or feeder?
  • What is the general level of acceptance of free-roaming/community cats in your community? Who will handle complaints from residents about cats being on their property? What resources will be available to those residents?
  • What efforts can you and other collaborators make to offer humane deterrents?
  • How safe are the cats in the specific neighborhoods where TNRM or RTF is being considered? Neighborhoods where cats are overtly harmed or endangered are not appropriate. Long-term cat-related conflicts or complaints, depending on the issues, also may not be safe locations for the cats in a TNRM or RTF program.
  • What other support programs do you have in place, (i.e., foster, socialization, etc.)? What is your plan for cat welfare needs you can’t address (e.g., euthanasia, leg amputations, etc.)?
  • What is the availability and cost of sterilization services including for owned cats?
  • At what age can your sterilization resources provide services for the kittens?
  • Is transportation for sterilization a limitation for owned or community cats and how could that be provided if so?
  • How might a cat food bank both support the retention of owned cats (so that they do not become community cats or enter shelters, increasing the load on those systems) and encourage new feeders or caregivers for community cats? Is one available?
  • Are there groups that can provide cat shelters (https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/4-tips-sheltering-community-cats-winter) for feeders or caregivers? This is particularly an issue if there are few existing shelter options and bad weather is common. 
  • What about weather? Cold weather is not necessarily unsafe for returning cats, though it is important to consider available shelter and food sources, and whether or not the weather is extreme or normal for that location. If the cat has just been sterilized, consider a lengthened surgery recovery period.
    • If you know where the cats take shelter, consider whether weather makes access to food and shelter difficult (e.g., snow high enough to block shelter entrances and exits; ability of feeder to make it to feeding location).
    • Can you work with a caregiver or feeder who can support the cat until the weather is better?
    • Can sterilization protocols be adjusted to only shave the cats minimally where necessary to cut down on body heat loss?

If RTF is being considered for friendly, healthy cats who would be suitable for adoption as a pet, consider the following to ensure the best welfare of the cats in the community:

  • Why are these cats entering the shelter system in the first place and what could be done at their original location to prevent this?
  • Are there barriers to TNRM that should be removed? Are additional TNRM resources needed?
  • Are the feeders/caregivers in the community willing to have cats in their care adopted rather than returned to them to maintain trusting relationships?
  • What is the adoption rate for existing cat programs for friendly, healthy cats? If the community’s adoption rate is low and can be improved, RTF should not be used as an alternative to a robust adoption program. See ASPCAPro.org for new ideas.
  • How are “healthy” and “thriving” being defined so these cats do well with RTF?
  • Age of the cat. Although returning cats at or older than 12 weeks of age is a minimum guideline for TNRM, other considerations regarding age should be taken into account for RTF. Kittens younger than 12 to 16 weeks of age (without their queen) may be returned using RTF if a known caregiver is available and has agreed to the time and location of return. Also, sometimes the best potential outcome for a queen and her young litter may be an RTF if the weather, location, and a caregiver are all conducive to success.

In addition to the guidelines referenced herein, additional key minimum guidelines for RTF programs are included in Addendum 2. See also https://humanepro.org/sites/default/files/documents/return-to-field-handbook.pdf for guidance on doing RTF.

Wildlife and Environmental Considerations

Despite vigorous debate between advocates of cats and advocates of wildlife, the desired outcome for each of these groups is generally the same – a reduction in the population of community cats. Fewer community cats will decrease predation and other concerns about their presence. The ASPCA believes that TNRM programs are the most effective, humane, and responsible ways to manage and lower the community cat population over time in conjunction with programs for owned cats, including easy access to free-/low- cost sterilization services, microchipping, and free collars and identification tags with the owner’s phone number. Ear-tipping of sterilized owned cats allowed outside without other visible identification is becoming increasingly common and accepted. It will also ensure that these already sterilized cats are not trapped unnecessarily.

While the challenges faced by wildlife are significant and complex, community cats are, at times, erroneously singled out as a convenient target. The existence of community cats is ultimately traceable to human activity, and communities bear responsibility for solving the problems they have created (see sections on TNRM and Other Resources for recommendations). Community cats are sometimes treated as wildlife under existing or proposed laws which strips them of legal protection and allows for much less humane management methods as well as limits the ability of caretakers to humanely control their populations. Cats, like dogs, are companion animals, and should never be classified or treated as wildlife. Even when the presence of cats is impacting wildlife, community cat programs, which have as their goal a humane reduction in cat population, remain a desirable solution to minimizing any actual (rather than perceived) threats to other species.

The ASPCA recommends a comprehensive assessment to determine the potential impact of any intervention, especially if it is designed to support area wildlife. For TNRM, without planning and assessment, the desired decline in cat populations will likely be impossible. Without a comprehensive assessment of all species in the area, it is quite possible to produce unintended and undesirable consequences for the remaining wildlife species and cause more harm than good. Some studies (Baker et al, 2008, Doherty & Ritchie, 2016) have specifically examined conditions before and after cat removal and have not shown an increase in breeding success or survival of the species of interest. Additionally, removing enough of any predator to decrease their population size is quite difficult (Palmas et al, 2020). If the removal of an introduced species such as cats is being considered, the specific goals and resources needed as well as all potential impacts to the ecosystem should be examined.


The ASPCA supports a focus on the specific goal of decreasing the population of community cats humanely, ethically, and legally. We encourage cat advocates, animal shelters and rescues, local governments (including elected officials, park/open space departments, and public health departments), and the public to work together towards this goal. While we continue our work to support robust programs that minimize shelter intake and maximize positive outcomes for cats, millions of cats in shelters and rescues remain at risk across the country. Community cats exist because of generations of human action and inaction; therefore, humanely addressing the needs of these cats, and implementing programs that help prevent their reproduction, and in the end, lead to fewer community cats, are the responsibility of the communities in which they live. Lawful TNRM is the best option to effectively decrease community cat populations. RTF (when done well and in conjunction with community outreach for TNRM) and, as a last resort, community cat relocation programs are additional tools requiring thoughtful consideration for their application.


Addendum 1 Reference List and Other Resources:


Baker, P.J., Molony, S.E., Stone, E., Cuthill, I.C., Harris, S. (2008) Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catuslikely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis, 150 (Suppl. 1), 86-99.

Boone, J.D. (2015) Better Trap-Neuter-Return for free-roaming cats: using models and monitoring to improve population management. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 17: 800-807.

Boone, J. D., Miller, P. S., Briggs, J. R., Benka, V. A. W., Lawler, D. F., Slater, M., Levy, J. K., Zawistowski, S. (2019). A long-term lens: Cumulative impacts of free-roaming cat management strategy and intensity on preventable cat mortalities. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 6 (July), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2019.00238

Benka, V. A., Boone, J. D., Miller, P. S., Briggs, J. R., Anderson, A.M., Slootmaker, C., Slater, M., Levy, J.K., Nutter, F.B., Zawistowski, S. (2021) Guidance for management of free-roaming community cats: a bioeconomic analysis. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612X211055685

Campbell, K.J., Harper, G., Algar, D., Hanson, C.C., Heitt, B.S., Robinson, S. (2011) Review of feral cat eradications on islands. Island invasives; eradication and management, p. 37-46.

Chu,K. & Anderson,W.M. (2007) U.S. public opinion on humane treatment of stray cats.  Law and Policy Brief, Alley Cat Allies, Bethesda, MD.

Doherty, T.S & Ritchie, E.G. (2016) Stop jumping the gun: a call for evidence based invasive predator management. Conservation Letters, DOI: 10.1111/conl.12251.

Gyles, C. (2019). Outdoor cats -- or community cats? Canadian Veterinary Journal, 60 (April), 349–352.

Hurley, K.F. & Levy J.K. (2022) Rethinking the animal shelter’s role in free-roaming cat management. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 9: 1-11. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2022.847081.

Lessa, I.C.M. & Bergallo, H.G. (2012) Modelling the population control of the domestic cat: an example from an island in Brazil. Brazilian Journal of Biology, 72 (3), 445-452.

Levy, J.K., & Crawford, P.C. (2004) Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 225(9), 1354-1360.

Little, S., Levy, J. Hartmann, K., Hofmann-Lehmann, R., Hosie, M., Olah, G., St Denis, K. (2020) 2020 AAFP feline retrovirus testing and management guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 22:5-30.

Meckstroth, A.M. & Miles, A.K. (2005) Predator removal and nesting waterbird success at San Francisco Bay, California. Waterbirds, 28, 2, 250-255.

Miller PS, Boone JD, Briggs JR, Lawler DF, Levy JK, et al. (2014) Simulating Free-Roaming Cat Population Management Options in Open Demographic Environments. PLoSONE, 9(11): e113553. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113553.

Nutter, F.B., Levine, J.F. & Stoskopf, M.K. (2004) Reproductive capacity of free-roaming domestic cats and kitten survival rate. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 224 (9), 1399-1402.

McDonald, J.L. & Hodgson, D. (2021) Counting cats: the integration of expert and citizen science data for unbiased inference of population abundance. Ecology and Evolution,22:4325-4338. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.7330

McDonald, J. L., Farnworth, M. J., Clements, J. (2018). Integrating trap-neuter-return campaigns into a social framework: Developing long-term positive behavior change toward unowned cats in urban areas. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, (OCT), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2018.00258

McLeod, L. J., Hine, D. W., Driver, A. B. (2019). Change the humans first: principles for improving the management of free-roaming cats. Animals, (8), 555. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9080555

Schmidt, P.M., Lopez, R.R. & Collier, B.A. (2007) Survival, fecundity, and movements of free-roaming cats. Journal of Wildlife Management, 71 (3), 915-919.

Palmas, P., Gouyet, R., Oedin, M., Millon, A., Jean-Jérôme, C., Kowi, J., Bonnaud, E., Vidal, E. (2020). Rapid recolonisation of feral cats following intensive culling in a semi-isolated context. NeoBiota, 63, 177–200. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.63.58005

Scott, K.C., Levy, J.K. & Gorman, S.P. (2002b) Body condition of feral cats and the effect of neutering. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 5 (3), 203-213.

Spehar, D. D., & Wolf, P. J. (2017). An examination of an iconic trap-neuter-return program: The Newburyport, Massachusetts case study. Animals, 7 (11), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani7110081

Spehar, D. D., & Wolf, P. J. (2018). The impact of an integrated program of return-to-field and targeted trap-neuter-return on feline intake and euthanasia at a municipal animal shelter. Animals, 8 (4). https://doi.org/10.3390/ani8040055

Spehar, D. D., & Wolf, P. J. (2019). Back to school: An updated evaluation of the effectiveness of a long-term trap-neuter-return program on a university’s free-roaming cat population. Animals, 9 (10), 768–782. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/9/10/768

Spehar, D. D., & Wolf, P. J. (2020a). The impact of return-to-field and targeted trap-neuter-return on feline intake and euthanasia at a municipal animal shelter in Jefferson county, Kentucky. Animals, 10 (8), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10081395

Spehar, D. D., & Wolf, P. J. (2020b). The impact of targeted trap-neuter-return efforts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Animals, 1–12. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/10/11/2089

Weiss, E., Slater, M.R. & Lord, L.K. (2012) Frequency of lost dogs and cats in the United States and the methods used to locate them. Animals, 2, 301-315.

Wolf, P. J., & Hamilton, F. (2020). Managing free-roaming cats in U.S. cities: An object lesson in public policy and citizen action. Journal of Urban Affairs, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/07352166.2020.1742577

Wolf, P. J., & Schaffner, J. E. (2019). The road to TNR: examining trap-neuter-return through the lens of our evolving ethics. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5 (JAN), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2018.00341


Return to Field/Shelter Neuter Return

Million Cat Challenge

The Million Cat Challenge was a program led by Drs. Kate Hurley, Julie Levy, and others as an alternative to euthanasia of healthy adult cats without known owners coming into shelters. There were five key initiatives for this program: alternatives to intake, managed admission, capacity for care, removing barriers to adoption, and Return-to-Field. This has become the Million Cat Challenge.

Feral Freedom

A specific public-private collaborative community cat program was implemented in Jacksonville, FL, in 2008 by First Coast No More Homeless Pets, Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services, and First Coast Humane Society. The program is a combination of TNR and RTF/Shelter-Neuter-Return programs in which cats are trapped, neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and returned to the field. Visit http://www.fcnmhp.org/feral-freedom/ for more information

Additional TNR/TNRM resources:



Addendum 2 Minimum Guidelines for Return-to-Field Programs (RTF):

For reference, the ASPCA defines RTF (Return-to-Field / Shelter-Neuter-Return) as a shelter program for community cats who have been admitted to the shelter. The ASPCA strongly recommends performing RTF in conjunction with outreach for TNRM to decrease community cat populations to address this underlying issue. RTF involves returning apparently healthy, mature (generally 16 weeks or older, no less than 4 pounds in weight) free-roaming cats back to the cats’ point of origin after the cats are sterilized, vaccinated, ear-tipped, and sometimes microchipped. These cats may or may not have a known caregiver.

RTF programs differ from TNRM (Trap-Neuter-Return-Monitor) programs in that the cats involved have been admitted to a shelter and RTF provides a potential life-saving option for cats who are not suitable candidates for the shelter’s already strong adoption program. TNRM programs provide services for community cats but don’t admit or shelter the cats and can reduce the population of community cats when sterilization occurs at a sufficiently high rate.

To be eligible for an RTF program, the cat must be unowned, ineligible or unlikely to be successful in an adoption program (unless adequate adoption resources are available in the community for cats already in the sheltering system), be able to be returned to the location where found, and appear to have been thriving in their previous environment without known threats to their safety. It is crucial that the exact “found” address be available and recorded as part of the intake process, and every effort should be made to identify whether or not the cat is owned, including scanning for the presence of a microchip, looking for other forms of pet identification such as a collar or identification tag, and placing “found” flyers within a few blocks of where the cat was found. If a cat qualifies for an RTF program, the services provided to the cat are similar to those of a TNRM program, e.g., vaccination, sterilization, ear “tipping”, and sometimes microchipping.

When considering the implementation of Return-to-Field programs, the ASPCA recommends these basic guidelines and offers several additional considerations. See also https://humanepro.org/sites/default/files/documents/return-to-field-handbook.pdf

Key Guidelines

  • Establish a description of what the RTF program is, how it will work, and how program success will be assessed. Program guidelines and policies should be established in writing. Program guidelines, policies, and logistics such as messaging and communication with local residents should be driven by the local community and legal considerations.
  • Humane deterrents should be available for any RTF program, and staff should be trained to respond to nuisance cat complaints, including discussing and troubleshooting humane deterrents with citizens contacting the organization with complaints or concerns about free-roaming cats. Talking points, scripts, and FAQs developed for internal use by staff will help ensure consistency in messaging and direction to the public. Handout materials for the public will also be helpful.
  • Make best efforts to agree on the location of critically sensitive habitat areas in your community, so that the protection of those areas can be taken into account when establishing appropriate locations for RTF programs.
  • Very specific information (from the intake process) about where the cat was found or trapped must be gathered at a minimum. A street address or cross streets with a description of the exact location is most vital (trapped at the corner of 1st and University, in the SW corner, by the dead tree). This information is critical for those transporting RTF cats back to their home.
  • Follow TNR Best Practices regarding trapping, ear-tipping, housing, transport, and return.
  • Ensure the RTF program is complemented by a vigorous adoption program in the sheltering system for friendly cats, as adoption is the preferred outcome for such cats.
  • Only RTF cats that, upon physical exam, appear to be thriving and healthy.
  • At a minimum, all cats in an RTF program must be vaccinated for rabies (at a minimum where that disease occurs) and be spayed or neutered with an ear tip.
  • Cats should NOT be considered for RTF who are:
    • not thriving outdoors,
    • declawed or blind,
    • previously indoor-only, or primarily indoor-only based on intake information,
    • unable to live on their own (for example, neonate kittens without a mother, a cat with a chronic condition that requires medication or other ongoing treatment, etc.),
    • suffering from an acute or chronic condition (eye infections, abscesses, amputations).

Addendum 3 Definitions for Community Cat Terms:

[1]Although “feral” is a well-defined term in biology and behavioral ecology (see below), in animal sheltering it is a term used to describe a cat exhibiting certain behaviors. “Feral cats,” as a subset of community cats, is a commonly used phrase generally referring to a cat who appears unaccustomed to close contact with people and, if taken to an animal shelter, is typically not a candidate for adoption into a home as a pet. In biology and behavioral ecology, feral refers to a domesticated animal who is now living wild or free and is not socialized to humans. Cats commonly referred to as feral or behaving in a feral manner may or may not actually fit this definition. Feral behavior can mask the social history of the cat. For example, a frightened cat may demonstrate frightened behavior indistinguishable from a feral cat one day, but with time to acclimate can show more social behaviors. The kittens of feral-presenting cats can typically be acclimated to humans, particularly but not exclusively if behavior modification is begun before 8 weeks of age.

[2] Currently, spaying or neutering with removal of the ovaries or testicles is the only option for sterilization which also removes the reproductive hormones. This removal dramatically reduces or eliminates nuisance behaviors (yowling, spraying, etc.) and improves welfare by preventing pyometra and decreasing fighting and roaming. In the next 6 to 10 years, non-surgical sterilization options will likely become available. Options for community cats should include non-surgical options that decrease reproductive hormones for the reasons above. Additionally, testing for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia (FeLV) is not recommended for community cats who are to be returned to the community (Little et al, 2020). Because spaying or neutering prevents mother-to-kitten transmission of FeLV and decreases FIV transmission by dramatically decreasing fighting, the limited resources of the animal sheltering system are better put toward sterilization instead of testing. Testing for cats up for adoption is more complex; see the Association for Shelter Veterinarians and Little et al, 2020.

[3] “Trap-Euthanize” (TE) is a program involving trapping and euthanizing community cats. This program may be implemented in response to complaints from local residents or conducted by wildlife officials or others in an effort to reduce or eliminate the community cat population. These programs are often opposed by the general public and are often seen as posing a significant risk for at-large or lost pet cats. TE is sometimes advocated for as a means of population control, but data does not support its long-term efficacy as the percentage of the cat population actually trapped and euthanized each year is typically too low to provide a reduction in the population. The ASPCA does not consider TE programs to be humane or effective options for addressing community cat issues.