Community Cats are a Community Effort

Cats are the #1 animal killed in animal shelters. Millions of them are killed each year—in fact, studies show that 70% of cats brought to animal shelters are killed. Seven out of 10 cats!

But there is a way to stop the killing and save cats’ lives: Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR).

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is essential to reduce euthanasia in animal shelters. While every animal control issue is important, it’s virtually impossible to save all of the healthy cats in a community without TNR (or policies that support the public doing TNR).

In TNR, hard to catch cats can require additional effort - like using a drop trap.

With TNR, hard to catch cats can require additional effort – like using a drop trap.

Many of the cats being killed in animal shelters are members of the outdoor cat population, commonly referred to as community cats (or feral cats, alley cats, stray cats, street cats, neighborhood cats, etc.).

This is how it usually goes with community cats. You see a cat around outside, a couple neighbors put out food or water for the cat—but she doesn’t really belong to any one person. No one purposefully acquired her (adopted or purchased her) and put her in your neighborhood. She just showed up—or was there when you moved in. But the neighbors look out for her—and may even enjoy her hanging around. She probably has the added bonus of keeping rodents away. Maybe she is even the mascot of your block.

But then someone new moves in down the street. And they see the cat for the first time. Maybe they think the cat is lost, and needs help finding her way home. Maybe they think she is a stray who would be better off adopted into a home. Or maybe they just don’t like cats and don’t want her around their house.

When they call animal control, a few things may happen.

1. Most commonly, an animal control officer will come to your neighborhood and set a trap for the cat. And if they catch the cat—they will take her to the animal shelter. (Or animal control may offer to lend your new neighbor a trap, so that they can trap the cat—and bring her to the shelter when they trap her.) The point is, the cat is trapped and brought to the shelter.

Because the cat is “unowned” or stray, animal control may or may not have a mandatory stray hold period for the cat. Some states set the minimum number of days required for a stray hold, in other places, it’s determined at the local level. Hold periods are designed to prevent animal shelters from killing animals who are truly lost, while their owners are looking for them. Even with these stray hold periods, some animal shelters do not hold cats that they believe are unowned because they don’t believe anyone is looking for them, so they kill them upon intake.


In an animal shelter setting, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a scared cat and a feral cat.

Problem is, if an owned cat is an indoor-outdoor cat, it may not be all that unusual for a cat to spend the night out, or even two. It may not be until the third or fourth day that an owner starts searching for their cat. By that time, their cat may have already been killed. If the cat isn’t that happy to be in a trap, and is perceived to be a feral cat, she may have been killed on intake. This can open animal control to some liability issues.

2. In some cities, animal control only responds to calls involving injured cats or cats suspected to be rabid. Other cities or counties don’t deal with cat issues at all. In these cases, the person will be given referrals to local animal groups that might help or simply be told that the city can’t help.

3. And in some (fantastic!) places, animal control will explain and assist with TNR—a practice whereby community cats are humanely trapped, neutered by a veterinarian, vaccinated against rabies, eartipped, and returned to the location where they were trapped.

Baltimore City is one of those fantastic places. The city adopted TNR as law in 2007. Today Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, Inc. (BARCS) and Community Cats of MD, Inc. jointly run the city’s TNR program. Even better, Baltimore cat caregivers can get free spay/neuter and vaccination services through these organizations. For this initiative, Baltimore has received much needed assistance from national TNR experts, Best Friends Animal Society and PetSmart Charities. In 2013, PetSmart Charities donated $1 million to fund Best Friend’s partnership with BARCS to implement a TNR program.

By offering free or subsidized spay/neuter services, many more cats have been sterilized than if the financial burden was placed entirely on caregivers. But TNR is about more than sterilizing cats (though that’s a big part of it). Baltimore’s TNR program has been so successful over the years because it approaches the issue of community cats from all angles. Baltimore includes education for community members, training for people interested in participating, and support for existing caregivers.

Community cats truly are a community issue.

Support For All Animals’ Community Cat documentary, that profiles Baltimore, Maryland’s nearly 10-year-old Trap-Neuter-Return program. Learn more >>

Liz CircleElizabeth ‘Liz’ Holtz is For All Animals’ director of legislative affairs. She is an animal rights attorney and lifelong animal advocate. Liz manages For All Animals’ coalition efforts to pass state laws that protect animals—like strengthening anti-cruelty laws—and defeating laws that harm animals—like ag-gag laws. She also oversees For All Animals’ Attorney at Paw program, which provides assistance to advocates interested in passing laws and ordinances that protect animals on a local level.