TNR & Return-To-Field: Alternatives To Euthanizing Free-Roaming Cats
In 2018, over 5 million cats and dogs were admitted to shelters in the U.S., and over 700,000 of them were euthanized. Although this is a huge improvement from over forty years ago (when about 13.5 million cats and dogs were reported to have been euthanized annually) most cats being euthanized in shelters today are healthy. However, a lack of space in shelters, sometimes compounded by behavioral problems, are leading shelters to “euthanize” cats who have no underlying diseases or other problems. Fortunately, shelters are finding alternatives that address these issues, including two increasingly popular options:
- Trap-neuter-return: an approach which encourages communities to trap stray cats, take them to be neutered and vaccinated, and then return them to the place they were found.
- Return-to-field: a very similar approach to trap-neuter-return but the cat has been involved with a shelter at some point in the process.
In both situations, the cat would not be returned to their original location if it was considered to be too dangerous, and instead they would be left somewhere more appropriate, but this was very rare.
To assess the effectiveness of these strategies, this study focused on the private, non-profit organization, Alley Cat Advocates, and the nearby animal shelter, Louisville Metro Animal Services, both located in Jefferson County, Kentucky. In 2009, Alley Cat Advocates began a two-year trap-neuter-return program in the hope of neutering 2,000 cats, focusing on one main zip-code area of Jefferson County. They found that there were not enough stray cats to reach their goal and therefore looked further afield into neighboring zip code areas. In total, they neutered 1,200 cats in the two year period. Interestingly, Louisville Metro Animal Services found that the number of cats they euthanized was down 47% during the two years.
Possibly spurred on by this result, it was sanctioned that trap-neuter-return would be the official method for dealing with the community cats in the local region. Soon after, Louisville Metro Animal Services decided to implement their own return-to-field program which would run alongside the work of Alley Cat Advocates. Over the next eight years, Louisville Metro Animal Services led an intensive return-to-field program, meaning that any unneutered stray or feral cat in good health and normal weight that had been taken into the shelter was neutered, vaccinated, and then returned to where they had been found unless they were considered to be of an adoptable nature.
By combining the efforts of Alley Cat Advocates and Louisville Metro Animal Services, Jefferson County sterilized 24,697 cats from 2012 to 2019. To help understand whether this was a successful period for Jefferson County, the article compares their results to eight other communities across the U.S. which implemented similar programs.
The number of cats being euthanized by Louisville Metro Animal Services dropped by 94.1% over an eight-year period from when the program began in late 2011. This exceeded the drops reported by the other eight communities once their programs had finished. Additionally, Louisville Metro Animal Services reported a 42.8% drop in feline admissions over the eight-year period which, again, exceeded the eight other communities across the United States. The number of adoptions also increased by over 20% in Jefferson County during the eight-year period, this may have been a result of less stray and feral kittens being born.
Despite similar programs taking place over the U.S. and all showing a decline in euthanasia rates, the programs in Jefferson County exceeded the rates of the other programs and this could be for a number of reasons.
The program in Jefferson County (a combination of trap-neuter-return and return-to-field) used a red-flag cat model, which meant that Alley Cat Advocates also targeted areas outside of the original regions if feral or stray cats had been found nearby. This gave them new areas to focus on and meant more cats would be sterilized. In addition, the program ran for a longer period of time than the other eight communities and also covered a larger land area, home to a substantial proportion of the population. The paper notes that it would have been interesting if data had been collected about the welfare of the cats after they had been returned to their original location, then we may have a better understanding regarding the long-term effectiveness of both programs.
Overall the article is very encouraging and shows that a growing number of shelters across the U.S. have made a reduction in the number of cats being euthanized after using trap-neuter-return and return-to-field programs. The results in Jefferson County show that the two programs work together well and could help to reduce the number of cats being euthanized in other shelters even more. Companion animal advocates, especially those fighting the hard battle of helping stray and feral cats, will surely find the results encouraging.