Written by Becky Robinson
Veterinary school curriculum is finally catching up. Students at some universities are learning about Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) —a critical program for saving the lives of feral, or “community,” cats that is already being carried out in thousands of communities.
TNR involves humanely trapping feral cats and bringing them to a veterinarian who neuters, ”eartips,” and vaccinates them before they’re returned back to where they were trapped. Feral cats are domestic cats, but they are not socialized to people and live outdoors in family groups called colonies. They’re protected under anti-cruelty laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Veterinarians put the “N” in TNR—TNR can’t be carried out without supportive veterinarians. For TNR to expand to even more communities and save even more lives, veterinarians must be trained and be comfortable with the protocol necessary for treating feral cats.
That’s why Alley Cat Allies is on a mission to educate veterinarians about TNR and outdoor cats. Last week I traveled to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to speak to classes in the College of Veterinary Medicine about TNR and how veterinarians can help make this program more accessible. When the students learned how easy it is to support TNR, they were eager to get involved and make communities safe places for cats to live.
TNR is already transforming animal shelters across the country as they stop impounding feral cats since they aren’t adoptable, and focus their resources on TNR and on adoption efforts for the socialized animals in their care. TNR is also transforming animal control departments. More than 330 municipalities have officially endorsed TNR, and that number is growing.
Even in communities where shelters and animal control directors are on board, veterinary support is still a critical link in the chain to make TNR feasible. In some cities, compassionate residents are committed to carrying out TNR, but the lack of affordable or accessible spay/neuter resources significantly slows their progress. In some areas, TNR volunteers must drive hours to find a veterinarian who will spay/neuter feral cats. This isn’t fun for the driver—or for the cats—but speaks to the dedication of this movement.
Veterinary medical protocol for feral cats requires a unique set of procedures, but any veterinarian who takes the time to learn them can treat feral cats. For example, feral cats must be sedated while they are still in a trap; they cannot be handled while conscious. This avoids unnecessary stress for the cat and keeps both the cat and the veterinary staff safe. It’s a simple protocol, but a critical one. After the cat is spayed/neutered, the veterinarian must “eartip” her while she’s still under anesthesia. This is an essential component of TNR. The veterinarian removes the tip of the cat’s left ear to indicate that she has been spayed and vaccinated before she is returned to her colony outdoors. Vaccinations are also considered a standard element of TNR.
Compassionate veterinarians are a requirement for successful TNR programs, but the specific role they play can vary. In some areas, veterinarians hold a one-day clinic every month where community members can bring in humanely trapped feral cats to be neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped for a low or no cost. But some veterinarians get even more involved.
Jeff Newman, DVM, in Arlington, Va., started the nonprofit Caring Hands Animal Support and Education (CHASE), which implements TNR projects everywhere from the Northern Virginia suburbs to the marshy, isolated Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Dr. Newman, other volunteer veterinarians, and veterinary technicians not only spay/neuter hundreds of feral cats during these intensive projects, but Dr. Newman often goes out in the field to trap and return cats himself. Torrential rain and storms don’t stop him.
Dr. Newman will share his experiences firsthand in January when he joins Alley Cat Allies in presenting at the North American Veterinary Community Conference in Orlando, Fla. We’re excited to speak to veterinary professionals about how they can support TNR. I’m hopeful that some of the veterinary students I spoke with last week at the University of Illinois—and some of the professionals we connect with next month—will launch their own feral cat clinics. I don’t expect all of them to travel by boat to a tiny island and trap cats for days on end. But I think, at the very least, they’ll provide accurate information to people who have questions about feral cats. And sometimes, that’s all it takes to save a life.
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