• Dr. Jennifer Green

Outdoor Cats: It’s Hip to be Tipped

By Dr. Jennifer N. Green

Have you ever noticed cats outside with the end of their left ears removed and wondered what it means? Well, you have found a TNVR (trap-neuter-vaccinate-return) or RTF (return to field) cat. That ear tip means that the cat has been sterilized, vaccinated, and lives in that area. So why are we ear tipping these cats? As always, let’s start at the beginning. Hopefully, at the end of this discussion, you, too, will have a new understanding of free-roaming (outdoor) cats and all of the opportunities we have in our community to improve their lives and our communities.

I personally have four cats, and they have their bedroom and a million toys. I consider myself fortunate when one of them picks me for kitty snuggles. So, I guess you’d call me a cat person. I think cats are amazing, entertaining creatures, and I have a strong passion for our indoor pets and our outdoor friends. How did we come even to have cats start to join our families?

According to archeologic findings, our modern cat may have begun to join our daily lives over 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. As humans began to settle after the development of agriculture, wildcats were attracted to these population centers as snakes and mice could be found around trash and human food storage. These opportunities for consistent food sources are suspected to be the driving conditions for wildcats to become domesticated by people eventually.

Through their domestication process, which most likely focused on a people-friendly disposition, our present-day house cat still maintains a very strong independence streak, allowing them to survive without constant reliance on their human caretakers. Over the last three generations, cats have transitioned from their traditional mouser roles to full-time house cats that enjoy hanging out in the windowsill or on the couch or, like my house, on the kitchen countertops getting into trouble.

That history indicates outdoor cats are not an unnatural phenomenon. Still, with increased urban development and thus greater and richer food sources, we seem to be noticing outdoor cats more.

So, are all outdoor cats the same? The short answer is no; there are many types of cats you can find outside. If you see a cat outside, it could be: 1) an owned pet that some just let outside, 2) a free-roaming community cat that enjoys visiting multiple peoples’ homes throughout the week, or 3) a feral cat, which is essentially like a wild animal (think raccoon, squirrel, bird).

You can figure out what kind of cat by judging its reaction to you. An owned cat or free-roaming cat is more likely to approach people, whereas a feral cat is not socialized to people and will avoid almost all human contact out of fear of people (like any wild animal). This does not make feral cats bad; they are just part of the natural environment and find people scary.

Many opponents to feral cat colonies cite the impact of other wildlife populations (birds) and disease potential (rabies, parasites). As already stated, cats have been a natural member of the outdoor population for their entire lives; and studies have demonstrated that feral cats are not a significant contributor to disease spread to humans. A fact about cats, though: they are prolific breeders. They can reproduce as early as four months of age and give birth in a little over two months. Cats are also induced ovulators, which almost guarantees they will become pregnant after mating. Females will mate with multiple males, which results in litters of four to six kittens. Female cats can also become pregnant while nursing a litter of kittens. That can quickly add up to a lot of kittens! Increased access to food sources and natural physiology set up a potential powder keg of feline overpopulation; add in Florida’s temperate weather to make our area a perfect literal breeding ground for cats. With all of these new cats in the community, how can we make a productive impact on this population?

The traditional approach to the outdoor cat population has been to trap these cats and take them to animal control facilities or shelters. These cats do not thrive in confinement and are extremely fearful and unhappy indoors. With minimal options for adoption, these cats have been euthanized by the millions. The trap and kill method has not reduced the feral cat population. Years of research worldwide and including the University of Florida, have determined that the best approach to reducing the feral cat population is through intense TNVR or RTF programs. With these programs, cat colony caretakers and animal control agencies, respectively, humanely trap outside cats to bring them to spay/neuter clinics, partner veterinary clinics, or shelters with surgery services. There the cats are sterilized, receive vaccinations (including rabies), and receive an ear tip. Once fully recovered, these cats are returned to their locations. By doing this, future litters are prevented and stopped the vacuum effect (a phenomenon that occurs when cats are removed from an area and new cats migrate into the area due to lack of competition for resources).

Organizations are making progressive choices throughout the world to have a real, humane impact on outdoor cat populations. In 2018, HHS received a grant from Rachel Ray and Save Them All to launch an ambitious project to sterilize 500 free-roaming/feral cats and have them returned to the field instead of impounded at the shelter. We partnered with the City of Daytona Beach Animal Control, who worked along with Concerned Citizens for Animal Welfare to trap cats needing surgery. From September 2018 through February 2021, over 1,200 cats have been brought in for the Daytona Beach RTF program! This program not only has provided a humane, sustainable solution for the cats involved but has also saved the citizens of Daytona Beach over $24,000 in the year 2020 alone!

Collaboration with Daytona Beach Animal Control and other partners has been a major contributing factor to Halifax Humane Society reaching No Kill’s status in the year 2020. Ninety-two percent of the animals that entered the shelter in 2020 were successfully adopted or transferred out, which is amazing progress. In contrast, ten years ago, the majority of animals entering the shelter were euthanized. By working with local animal control agencies and providing access to spay and neuter services for the community, we have provided a real solution to pet and outdoor cat population concerns.

Realistically, there may be cats that cannot be returned to areas due to safety concerns for the cats, so what is the solution there? The answer lies in working cat programs. We discussed earlier that cats started out as mousers, so the goal of working cat programs is to relocate cats to areas that need cats to work. Our pilot program, Working Whiskers, aims to relocate outdoor cats at barns, stables, auto garages, junkyards, shipyards, railyards, wineries, vineyards, warehouses, etc., to work as organic pest control. I want to conclude by encouraging you to help continue this great work and progress.

Here are a few ways you can get involved:

• Check with your local animal control agency if you have outdoor cats in your community to seek resources for RTF services,

• Adopt a Working Whiskers cat if you have a business that could use organic pest control (check out our social media pages or call the shelter for more information),

• Be active with your local government to encourage humane and lifesaving (and tax dollar saving) initiatives for controlling feral cat populations,

• Make sure your own pet cat is sterilized, microchipped, and kept indoors.

Further Reading

Driscoll, Carlos A.; Juliet Clutton-Brock; Andrew C. Kitchener; and Stephen J. O’Brien. 2009. “The Taming of the Cat.” Scientific American 300, (6): 68-75.

Alley Cat Allies Website

Maddie’s Fund- University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine

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