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Don DeBold (donjd2 - Flickr)

Usually the spay-neuter message is aimed at people who need to have their pets surgically altered.  But often the cats that we see clearly do not have owners.  Volunteers and organizations are using an approach that solves several issues at the same time.


Stray cats are a concern in many communities. The problem is three-fold, because the free roaming felines may be feral, stray or simply owned pets whose owners do not keep them confined.

Stray cats are usually cats that have been socialized to humans. They may be living on their own, or on handouts from kind-hearted humans, or simply lost – or left behind when the owner moved away. These cats, if caught, may be adoptable into new homes with loving owners.

Feral cats are essentially wild. They are fearful around humans and have learned to survive on their own. A feral cat has very little chance of being socialized enough to become anyone’s pet. These cats tend to engage in behavior that disturbs their human neighbors, such as yowling, fighting and spraying to mark their territory.

Most communities have tried to deal with the issue by catching them and taking them to the local animal shelter. Since feral cats have almost no chance of being adopted, they end up being euthanized. Still, problem solved – right?

As it turns out, trapping and euthanizing feral cats does not effectively reduce the feral cat population, due to something called the “vacuum effect”. That’s a term biologists use to describe what happens when a group of animals is permanently removed from an area. Other members of the same species move into that area and the problem remains unresolved.

The most effective solution seems to be Trap-Neuter-Return or T-N-R. Feral cats are caught, spayed or neutered, and then returned to the area where they were caught. Since most of their undesirable behavior was related to mating, they become better neighbors. They have been surgically altered, so they do not continue to reproduce. They are also healthier because they are vaccinated at the time the surgery is performed. And because their group, or colony, remains in place, other groups do not move into their area.

For more information about Trap-Neuter-Release or T-N-R, check out or

T-N-R has proved to be an effective and humane method for improving the lives of feral felines - and their human neighbors, too – when we’re speaking of pets


Mindy Norton has been “Speaking of Pets” on Alabama Public Radio since 1995.
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