New Survey Reveals Widespread Support for Trap-Neuter-Return
Regardless of the precise number of pet cats in the U.S. (a matter of some debate), this much is clear: Americans love their cats. And not just those they keep as pets, which are lavished with a dizzying assortment of toys, beds, scratchers, and all manner of indoor-living accommodations. We love our “community cats” too. Indeed, results of a national survey commissioned late last year by Best Friends Animal Society, reveal overwhelming support for the trap-neuter-return (TNR) method of managing the population of unowned, free-roaming—or “community”—cats.
In the first of two questions, respondents were asked to indicate their preference from among three options for managing community cats: “sterilize and vaccinate healthy stray cats, and return them to where they were captured (sometimes called trap-neuter-return);” “impoundment by shelter staff, followed by lethal injection for any cats not adopted;” or “do nothing/leave stray cats alone to fend for themselves.” Among the 1,011 respondents, 691 (68.3%) chose TNR, compared to 242 (23.9%) who chose lethal injection. Just 78 (7.7%) indicated that the best option is to do nothing.
The second question asked respondents which one of six factors most influenced their response to the first question, with the following results: health/welfare of the cats, (36%) public health (32%), cost (16%), environment/conservation (10%), property rights (4%) and “other” (1%).
To some, these results might be surprising. After all, the issues upon which 7 in 10 Americans agree seem to be increasingly few and far between. On the other hand, previous surveys have found that the public strongly opposes lethal roundups of community cats,  and, more generally, lethal methods as a means of population control.  Moreover, 9–26% of the public regularly feed “stray” cats at least occasionally. [3-6]
It’s little wonder, then, that programs focused on saving the lives of these cats are so popular.
Lives Saved: A Measure of Public Support
The survey findings correspond very well with what Best Friends sees in communities across the country, where community cat programs generally receive overwhelming support from residents and elected officials eager for a humane, more effective alternative to traditional lethal roundups. Indeed, a positive response at the community level is a key factor in the success of our Community Cats Projects (CCPs), public-private partnerships of Best Friends with PetSmart Charities, Inc., and local municipalities. Of the thousands of cats sterilized, vaccinated, and returned to their “outdoor home” through these large-scale, highly focused programs, only about 20% enter the programs by way of shelter intake. The other 80% are found through community calls and neighborhood canvassing efforts.
Such programs are successful because they reflect the values of the communities they serve (and tapping into a desire previously unmet).
Likewise, the support for TNR expressed by survey respondents extended across various demographics, including age, gender, race, education, income, and more. (Of course one must interpret such findings with caution, as the sample size associated with each group is relatively small, and can be non-representative.)
Framing the Survey Questions
Although it’s estimated that nearly three-quarters of the cats who enter our nation’s animal shelters each year are killed, and that most of these are community cats, it’s doubtful that this is common knowledge. For this reason, we prefaced the first question with the following statement: “Suppose that most of the stray and ‘feral’ cats entering your local animal shelter were killed there, either because they’re not adoptable or because the shelter needs the space for other animals.”
We thought it was important to frame the question in this way so that respondents had a clear understanding of the context (one all too common in many communities) in which their hypothetical decision was being made—without pushing them in one direction or another. Had we omitted this statement, it’s likely that some (perhaps many) respondents would have assumed that adoption rates for community cats are higher than they actually are. As a result, the impoundment option would likely have been more appealing. Not only would this have led to results based on inaccurate information, but we would also have had no way of knowing the extent to which this factor influenced responses.
Framed as they were, however, the three options offered represented very distinct real-world choices, each with very clear implications.
And respondents’ support for TNR would likely have been even higher had those implications been made more explicit. Consider, for example, the economics involved. Although no comprehensive economic analysis comparing TNR to other options has been conducted, it’s clear that the costs associated with lethal roundups are hardly trivial. And, of course, “doing nothing” comes at its own cost (e.g., impoundment of unwanted litters, responses to nuisance complaints, etc.). At a time when so many communities are struggling with tight budgets, how many people would really be willing to pay for cats to be impounded, cared for during whatever holding period is required by law, killed, and then disposed of?
The results of our national survey confirm those of previous surveys and also reflect the experiences of those involved with TNR efforts across the country. For years now, Best Friends has said that, in most situations, TNR is the best available option (a claim supported by plenty of science). And, as the results of this survey indicate, the public agrees.
1. Chu, K. and W.M. Anderson, Law & Policy Brief: U.S. Public Opinion on Humane Treatment of Stray Cats, 2007, Alley Cat Allies: Bethesda, MD.
2. Karpusiewicz, R. AP-Petside.com Poll: Americans Favor No-Kill Animal Shelters. 2012. http://www.petside.com/article/ap-petsidecom-poll-americans-favor-no-kill-animal-shelters
3. Johnson, K. and L. Lewellen, San Diego County: Survey and analysis of the pet population, 1995, National Pet Alliance.
4. Johnson, K.J., L. Lewellyn, and J. Lewellyn, National Pet Alliance survey report on Santa Clara County’s pet population, in Cat Fancier’s Almanac1993. p. 71-77.
5. Levy, J.K., et al., Number of unowned free-roaming cats in a college community in the southern United States and characteristics of community residents who feed them. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2003. 223(2): p. 202–205. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.223.202
6. Lord, L.K., Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2008. 232(8): p. 1159–1167.
Peter J. Wolf is the Cat Initiatives Analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, one of the nation’s largest animal welfare organizations and a leader in the development and operation of community cat programs. Peter’s role involves the application of research to a range of communications- and policy-related projects. Peter is also the founder of Vox Felina, a blog featuring in-depth analysis of science and policy issues related to the management of free-roaming cats.