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Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Return Program Ignites Controversy Among Vets

I am a life long cat lover. I am continuously amazed by the ability of cats to adapt to almost every environment on earth, and...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Dec 4th 2008


I am a life long cat lover. I am continuously amazed by the ability of cats to adapt to almost every environment on earth, and to survive and reproduce (although not truly thrive as individuals) without the help of humans.

Feline adaptability and survival skills have led, unfortunately, to a tremendous amount of suffering in cats. Enormous populations of feral cats live in every town and city on the fringes of society. Thomas Hobbes wouldn’t have hesitated to refer to their lives as nasty, brutish and short.

Cat advocates in the United States have largely embraced trap-neuter-return (TNR) as a means of alleviating feral cat suffering. TNR programs attempt to stabilize feral cat colonies by catching cats, surgically sterilizing them, and returning them to the environment.

TNR has not been universally accepted by animal welfare experts. Some people point out that TNR programs have failed to achieve a measurable reduction in feral cat populations. And an exchange of letters to the editor in the October 1, 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAVMA) drew attention to another possible shortcoming of TNR programs: inadequate postoperative pain control.

Feral cats are completely unaccustomed to handling by humans. To safely perform any form of medical treatment on a feral cat, the cat must be anesthetized. This means that oral pain medications generally are not administered after surgical sterilization. Most cats in TNR programs receive a solitary injection of pain medicine at the time of surgery and are released a few hours after they wake up. The author of a letter to JAVMA pointed out that this is, definitively, inadequate.

Is there a solution? Perhaps. Some pain control medicines are flavorless and can be administered in food to a hospitalized cat–if the cat is willing to eat while hospitalized. Some are, but many aren’t. To provide pain control in this fashion would require that feral cats stay in the hospital for several days after surgery–something that many feral cats would find exceptionally stressful.

Like so many issues surrounding feral cats, the provision of adequate pain control during TNR programs is an ethical minefield. I suspect that this controversy will prove to be as intractable as the problem of feral cats.