The first step in trapping is creating a plan. Review the steps below and contact the ARL's TNR Coordinator if you have questions. Having this knowledge and a plan will help you remain calm while trapping, ensuring the safety and lowered stress level of the cats.
Five things to Keep in Mind About Trapping
- Only use a humane box trap to trap a community cat. Never use darts or tranquilizers. If you need to borrow traps, contact the ARL's TNR Coordinator here.
- Never attempt to pick up or handle a conscious community cat – even a kitten. You risk injury to yourself and the cat. (Note: a cat with no vaccination record could be killed for rabies testing if a person is bitten; so it is important that you do not attempt to pick up or grab a community cat as it can be detrimental to the cat and yourself.)
- Do what you can to trap all cats and kittens during your first trapping session. This is important because the more times cats are exposed to the trapping process, the more suspicious they become of traps. We can help you with making the traps look ‘different’ – i.e. put a blanket over part of it; put it in a bush or new location, etc. Ultimately, the goal is to trap all cats in the colony, including any new ones.
- Community cats are very cautious of people. This should influence every choice you make when trapping. They may feel even more frightened and threatened when faced with a new experience such as this one (caged and transported). Community cats will not communicate their needs (hurt, in pain, frightened), instead, they will thrash about when in their traps or they may simply shut down. It is essential that you stay quiet, calm, and conscious of the cats’ well-being during your trapping ventures.
- Every trapping effort is different. A colony’s location – a college campus, a warehouse, a farm, an alley, a small business parking lot – will have unique elements for you to consider. Use your discretion and common sense to determine any additional steps to those provided in this guide, and tailor the basics to fit your colony’s situation. For instance, you may need to work with college administrators, connect with other caregivers, or ensure you have enough traps and vehicles for a large colony.
STEP 1.1 - Assess the cats and their environment
Communicate with Neighbors
If there are signs of other caregivers, such as food or water bowls, leave a note with your contact information. Include in your note that you are there to help the cats, not to remove them. If you find other caregivers in the area, coordinate your efforts – their cooperation could be critical for success and for providing on-going care for the colony.
Educating members of the community is an important part of conducting Trap-Neuter-Return. Introduce yourself as the person to contact if there are questions or concerns. Neighbors are likely to support your TNR efforts if they know the benefits of it. Many people are not aware that community cats can live and thrive outdoors, instead they may see the cats as a nuisance. If this is the case, download and print the PDF below with information about cat deterrants if they prefer to keep cats out of their yard. This document offers solutions for cats digging in gardens, trash cans, walking on cars and more.
Keeping a log of the cats in your colony will greatly help your trapping efforts. We have created a document that you can download and print to help with your tracking. You'll be able to include details such as size, color, unique features, etc. This will also be helpful if you are coordinating with other caregivers in the neighborhood so you can compare and ensure all cats are trapped and accounted for.
Before you start trapping, establish a set time and place to feed the cats every day. Feed out of unset traps for one to two weeks prior to the trapping day to get cats used to seeing and walking into them. Do not put food anywhere else but inside the trap. Remove the back door or secure the door of the trap so it stays open. Feed the cats as much as they can eat in a 30-minute period and then pick up the food. Consistent daily feeding will help your trapping efforts and you'll likely be able to trap multiple cats at a time.
Stray vs. Feral
During your colony assessments, determine if the cats are stray or feral. Stray and feral cats differ in their socialization level to people – stray cats are friendlier toward people and feral cats are more wary of people. This will help you prepare for what you will do after trapping and neutering – will you be looking for adoptive homes for the socialized cats or returning all of the cats to the colony? It's possible that you'll come across owned house cats that have been let outdoors or have put outdoors to live (not acceptable) and they should be evaluated and rehomed if needed. Declawed cats should never live outdoors. Note the cat’s socialization level on the tracking sheet. It can be difficult to discern a cat’s level of socialization by just looking at them. Observe the cats’ appearance and behavior using the quick tips below as a general guide.
|Likely to approach you
||Will not approach you
|May approach food right away that you put down
||Will wait until you leave before approaching food that you put down
|Likely to be vocal
||Will be silent
|May look disheveled
||Will appear groomed
|May be seen at all hours of the day
||May be more active at night or only come out at night
STEP 1.2 - Prepare for Special Scenarios
Kittens and/or Nursing Mothers
You may come across kittens and/or nursing mothers in your trapping efforts. There are many factors for you to take into account before you decide what your plan of action will be, including the presence of the mother, the kittens’ age, and your own resources. If you decide to include kittens and/or nursing mothers in Trap-Neuter-Return, it is important to use the proper traps to ensure their safety. You will also want to ensure you get all of the kittens to a nursing mother so you do not leave one behind.
Ill or Injured Cats
Plan ahead to ensure you can provide immediate care to, and make decisions about, an ill or injured cat. Have the phone number on hand of a veterinarian who works with feral cats and whose practice will be open while you are trapping. When you find a veterinarian that is willing to work with feral cats, please let the ARL know so we can add to our referral list.
Step 1.3 - Prepare Veterinarian for Spay/Neuter Surgeries
The ARL will do spay/neuter surgeries for TNR cats in Des Moines or you can contact your own veterinarian. Here’s information about the ARL’s TNR Operation CatSnip program and questions to ask your veterinarian.
You should schedule the appointments to occur as close to the day of trapping as possible (preferably trap the day before or the morning of the appointment); the number of reservations should equal the number of cats you plan to trap. To schedule an appointment with the ARL contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
||Ask for the exact charge for spaying and neutering, vaccines, and all other treatments. Some clinics provide many services for a flat rate. Others itemize all of the services that they provide, including flea, deworming and ear mite medication, if needed, and may charge additionally for any treatments related to surgery, such as anesthesia and pain medication. Ask if these treatments are optional and then decide which services to request. Alley Cat Allies strongly recommends that all cats being sterilized be given pain medication unless there is a medical reason not to.
||Microchip the cats in your colony so if one gets picked up and taken to a shelter or veterinarian office or animal control agency they will be able to get the cat back to you (the caretaker) and thus, back to the colony.
The ARL will microchip all community cats to the street/neighborhood the cat lives in; so if the cat is picked up by someone or animal control, the cat can be returned to its community.
||Find out if the clinic understands the unpredictable nature of trapping cats. You may intend to trap six cats, but only end up trapping four. Conversely, you may think there are six cats to be trapped and then end up discovering a seventh. It’s important that the clinic be flexible in order to accommodate a few more or less cats than you expected.
||Ensure that testing for FeLV and FIV is not a requirement. Alley Cat Allies, and the ARL, follows the best practices based on research conducted by veterinary experts, and research indicates that there is no greater incidence of disease in community cats than there is in pet cats – the average rate of infection is 3% to 6% of both pet cats and feral cats.
Test results are not a diagnosis and tests can produce false positives, so we do not recommend euthanizing cats who test positive unless they are symptomatic, (i.e. Ill beyond recovery).
||The ARL will provide a rabies vaccination (if the cat is old enough); and FVRCP vaccines (feline distemper). The caretaker should ask their veterinarian to provide these vaccinations.
||Kittens can be safely spayed or neutered if they are healthy and weigh two pounds. If possible, withhold food for 24 hours prior to your surgery date/time. If you have them trapped but aren’t sure if they have eaten or not, still bring them in for your spay/neuter time as you may not get them to go back in the trap.
|Pregnant or In-Heat Females
||The ARL will spay a pregnant female or a female in estrus (in heat) and we are experienced in the procedure. Caretaker should ask their veterinarian if they do also.
||You will need to pick up your cat/s the same day; but then confine them in your garage, barn, basement, etc. for 24-48 hours before you let them out into the community again. If you don’t have a place that this would work and be safe for the cat, the ARL can loan you a large crate for confinement during this 48-hour period. The ARL will provide after care instructions for you.
||Eartipping is an effective and universally accepted method to identify a neutered and vaccinated community cat. It is not harmful to the cat’s hearing. The ARL will ear tip all community cats brought in.
||The ARL uses dissolvable sutures so no follow up appointment is needed and we will remove all items they attached to the cats, such as tags, bandages, collars, or other items that either may have identified them in the clinic or been part of their medical care.
Step 1.4 - Prepare Your Equipment
Test all of your traps before your trapping day to ensure they are functioning properly. Put a label on each trap with your name, phone number and information about what you are doing, for example:
You should weigh each trap and permanenty affix the weight to the trap. This is important so the vet/clinic can weigh the cat while inside the trap. The cat's weight will determine the amount of anethesia that is administered so it's important this is accurate. Avoid putting any blankets inside the trap, but straw is okay to line the bottom of the trap.
Plan to use a vehicle that comfortably fits all the traps inside its climate-controlled area. You may be able to stack traps on top of one another, as long as you have a way to secure them so that there is no way for them to fall or tip over. Just be sure to use a puppy pad or folded newspaper between the traps to protect cats in lower traps.
Your trapping kit should include the following. Download a PDF of this list and use it as a checklist while you are preparing your kit.
- Traps. You should have one trap per cat plus a few extra in case additional cats are trapped that you did not account for.
- Bait, including several large pop-top cans of tuna, mackerel, sardines or other smelly fish that is tempting to the cats, preferably oil packed so that it does not dry out (if you don’t bring pop-top cans, be sure to bring a can opener)
- Wet Wipes or paper towels for easy cleanup.
- Forks or spoons (to scoop out the bait).
- Newspaper to line the bottom of the traps, and tape or clothespins to hold it to the trap floor, if necessary (especially on windy days).
- Trap labels with room for the date, cat description, exact location where the cat was trapped, and room for any observations, such as noticeable injuries.
- Trap covers that are big enough (i.e., beach size towels, blankets or sheets – cut to size) to fully cover the top and all four sides of each trap after cats are caught. One cover per trap.
- Carabiners, twist ties, or pipe cleaners to secure the doors of the traps closed.
- Trash bags for tuna lids, used plastic ware, etc.
- Thick gloves to wear for your safety and comfort while carrying cats in traps.
- Pen or pencil and clipboard for notes.
- Vehicle liners such as cardboard, large plastic trash bags, a plastic shower curtain or towels. Puppy pads also work well if the cats have “accidents.”
- Bungee cords to hold traps securely in place in your vehicle during transportation.
- Patience. Trapping can be time-consuming and, at certain moments, a bit stressful. If you remember to stay calm and follow the plan that you’ve devised, you will be successful.
- A friend for your safety and peace of mind is an option to take along on your trapping adventure (but not required). A cell phone and a flashlight are also suggested for these reasons.
Step 1.5 - Prepare Holding/Recovery Area
- Choose an indoor, dry, temperature-controlled (about 75 degrees) and safe overnight holding/recovery area for use before and after the cats’ surgeries.
- Some examples of acceptable locations include bathrooms, basements or garages.
- Make sure it is quiet and inaccessible to other animals.
- Ensure that all entries in and out (doors, windows, ceiling tiles, etc.) are closed at all times in the unlikely event that a cat should escape the trap.
Step 2.1 - Setting Up the Traps
You've done all the prep work and now you're ready to start trapping! Do all your set-up and preparation away from the colony site – remember, feral cats are generally fearful of people. Trapping will also go more smoothly if you don’t disrupt the cats’ feeding area. Throughout the entire trapping process, clinic stay, recovery and return, you should make the environment around the cats as calm and quiet as possible. This will help minimize their stress.
Twenty-four hours before trapping, withhold food, but always continue to provide water. This will ensure that the cats are hungry enough to go into the traps. Remind other caregivers and neighbors to withhold food as well.
On the day of trapping, prepare all of the traps:
- Count all of your traps and record how many you have.
- Line trap bottoms with newspaper, and tape or clothes pin it down if it’s windy. Do not put blankets in the traps because it will not allow the vet to get an accurate weight of the cat. Lining the bottom of the trap with with straw is fine.
- Before baiting, ensure the trip plate is functioning properly.
- Bait traps. Place about one tablespoon of bait at the very back of the trap, so that the cat will step on the trigger plate while attempting to reach the food. You may choose to put the food on a safe disposable container (such as a plastic lid or paper plate). Drizzle some juice from the bait in a zigzag pattern along the trap floor toward the entrance. Also place a tiny bit of food (1/4 teaspoon) just inside the entrance of the trap to encourage the cat to walk in. Do not use too much food at the entrance of the trap. The cat must be hungry enough to continue to the trip plate, and ideally cats should have a relatively empty stomach for at least 12 hours before surgery. Surgery can still be done if cat has eaten less than 12 hours.
- At the colony site, place traps on level ground – the cats will not enter an unstable or wobbly trap. Make sure they are not placed on a hill where they could tip or roll over when cats enter them. Ensure that metal traps do not sit on particularly hot or cold pavement (those temperature could make the metal painful to the cats’ paw pads when they touch it).
- On your already prepared trap labels, fill in the exact location where you are setting the trap. This will make return much easier.
- Set the trap and move away from the area.
Be patient. Keep an eye on the traps at all times for the safety of the cats and to make sure your equipment is not taken or tampered with. Observe from a location far enough away that the cats will not be disturbed, but close enough so you can still see all the traps.
It is never acceptable to leave a cat trapped in a trap for very long waiting for you to come back. You should never trap overnight or in extreme weather when you aren’t able to watch the trap 100% of the time.
Step 2.2 - Collecting the Traps
Once cats are trapped, calmy approach the traps.
- Cover the traps with trap covers. A blanket or sheet can be used also.
- Do not open the traps or release cats once trapped – even if it appears that the cats are hurting themselves. Feral cats may thrash around after being trapped. Do not be alarmed by this – it is completely normal. Covering the trap will calm them down almost immediately. Remember, never try to touch feral cats or let them out of the trap.
- When trapping an entire colony, use your best judgment about moving the trapped cat since the other cats might scare, thus disrupting the trapping. Wait to move the trapped cats until the other cats are not around. Or when setting out your traps, partially cover the back end of the traps, which will provide the trapped cats with a bit of security until you can cover them fully. Keep in mind that these are guidelines and some situations will call for you to deviate from them. For example, if a cat is severely thrashing around you may need to go ahead and cover the trap and remove it from the area, or if you are trapping in cold weather, cats should be covered and moved to a warm location (like your car) as soon as they are trapped. IMPORTANT: It is possible for a cat to die from hypothermia or heat stroke when confined to a trap outside. A simple guideline – if it is too hot or cold outside for you, then it is too hot or cold for the cats).
- Count your traps again before leaving the trapping area to ensure you don’t leave any traps behind.
Transport Cats from the Trapping Site
Safely transport the cats to the ARL, veterinarian’s office, or to the holding area which you should have already prepared.
The cats should be returned to you in the same covered traps in which they were brought to the clinic, with clean newspaper inside. You will receive medical records, including rabies vaccine certificates. Be sure to save these for your file.
Cats can be returned 24 hours after surgery once they’re clear-eyed and alert, unless advised otherwise by their veterinarian. The clinic may ask you to make exceptions for cats who are slow to recover, need continuing post-operative care, or have specific issues. You may also want to consider holding cats longer in freezing weather, as anesthesia drugs may impact their ability to regulate temperature. However, it is always the goal to return the cats as soon you can “rapid return” is associated with better outcomes, and confinement for feral cats is extremely stressful.
- Let the cats recover in the covered traps 24 hours in the climate-controlled and quiet recovery area you have prepared. When cats are recovering from anesthesia they are unable to regulate their body temperature, which is why it is so important for the recovery area to be warm but not hot.
- While the cats are recovering, keep them in their covered traps; this reduces the stress on the cats and ensures the safety of both you and the cats.
- Monitor the cats. Keep an eye out for bleeding, infection, illness or lack of appetite. If a cat is bleeding, vomiting, breathing irregularly or not waking up, contact your veterinarian immediately!
- Feed kittens who are under six months old shortly after they wake from anesthesia. Adult cats can be fed a few hours after they have woken from anesthesia, but you may also want to wait to feed them after you return them to their colony site.
- Return the cats to the same location where you trapped them. Early morning is a good time. Point the trap away from roads or high-traffic areas. Open the front door of the trap and completely remove the cover, or if the trap has a rear door, pull the cover away from the back door, pull that door up and off (if possible with your trap), then walk away. Keep your distance and keep your fingers and hands as far from the cat as possible when opening the trap. Sometimes it takes the cats a moment to realize where they are, but they will run off once they get their bearings.
- Once you have returned the cats, provide food and water. If you are continuing to care for them, you can then resume the cats’ regular feeding schedule.
- The cats may stay away from the area for a few days after being returned, but they will come back eventually.
- Clean traps with non-toxic disinfectant; throw out all newspaper, and wash trap covers.