Community Cat Program

ear tipped community catIn July 2016, Pet Community Center and Metro Animal Care and Control launched the Community Cat Program, a collaborative effort modeled after successful programs in other cities which have reduced shelter euthanasia and humanely reduced the population of cats living outdoors.

The Community Cat Program uses a process called return-to-field (RTF).  The page is specifically about return-to-field procedures.  Below is a description of the process of return-to-field, as described by The Million Cat Challenge – a joint project of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and the University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, two of the most widely-recognized shelter medicine programs in the world.

“In traditional trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, community cats are trapped and transported directly to a spay/neuter clinic, where they are sterilized, vaccinated, and ear-tipped for identification. Following recovery, the cats are returned to the location where they were trapped to live out their lives without producing any more kittens.

TNR programs have been shown to decrease colony size through attrition, and even to eliminate colonies entirely in some cases (Levy 2003). TNR can also decrease shelter intake in areas of high cat density when performed on a large enough scale and targeted in a specific population. (Levy 2003)

…Return-to-field (RTF) programs operate similarly to traditional TNR programs, with the exception that the cats have been admitted to a shelter at some point in the process.

In some cases, the shelter performs the neutering and in others, the cats are transferred from the shelter to an offsite clinic. In either case, the cats are returned to their trapping locations by shelter staff, volunteers, or partner organizations.

The growing popularity of RTF programs stems from the recognition that neuter-return is appropriate for most healthy unowned cats that are thriving in the community, regardless of whether they have entered a shelter. A combination of both community-based traditional TNR and shelter-based RTF creates the greatest opportunity to maximize cat welfare, reduce nuisance concerns, and minimize reproduction.

Community-based programs bypass the shelter entirely, reducing the cost and complexity of the process, whereas shelter-based programs provide an immediate alternative to euthanasia and potentially extend a greater reach, recruiting the participation of individuals both concerned and annoyed by cats.

It’s important to keep in mind that no one can control whether there are un-owned outdoor cats. There are an estimated 30 million owned pet cats in the US that roam outdoors and another 30-90 million unowned community cats roaming with them.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHowever, we can control whether the cats in a given area are sterilized or not, and control and reduce the population humanely.  Sterilized cats are healthier, do not reproduce, exhibit fewer “nuisance” behaviors, and protect their territory, preventing new cats from moving in.


Here’s how the Nashville return-to-field program works:

  1. If a cat that was found or trapped outdoors is brought to Metro Animal Care and Control (MACC), the finder/caretaker is asked to fill out a questionnaire about the cat at intake. The questionnaire includes information about where the cat was trapped or found, how long that person has seen the cat in the area, and other questions.  If there are any red flags presented on the questionnaire, such as the possibility of the cat being a lost pet, it is investigated by the Community Cat Program staff.  In order to qualify for return to field, outdoor cats must be:
    • Free roaming and lacking identification
    • Of a healthy weight (a good indicator that they have someone in their neighborhood feeding and caring for them) and injury-free (as determined by MACC and PCC veterinary staff)
    • Kittens under 8 weeks old do not qualify for the program. Kittens 8-12 weeks old may qualify only if a caregiver is identified. Kittens 12-16 weeks old may qualify only if there is an identified food/shelter source.
    • Efforts are made to locate a colony caregiver at the time the kittens are returned. Kittens must be returned to the exact impound location or colony site.
    • All cats that do not qualify for the Community Cat Program remain in the care of MACC and do not participate in the community cat program
  2. The finder/caretaker is given printed information about the Community Cat Program and notified that qualifying cats will be returned to the cat’s original territory after recovery from spay or neuter surgery.  The cat will also receive a rabies vaccination, FVRCP vaccination, and a left ear tip, the universal symbol of a sterilized and vaccinated outdoor cat.
  3. The MACC veterinarian determines if cats are too ill to participate in the program or if the cat needs treatment before entering the program.  Treatment options are available for many cats that present with minor and treatable wounds and illnesses.  Cats that are deemed too ill to participate are held for the mandated stray hold and then euthanized.
  4. After intake, the cat stays at MACC overnight until the the next PCC business day (surgery is performed Monday through Thursday).
  5. Pet Community Center staff pick up the cat from MACC and transfer the cat to the spay/neuter clinic for surgery.
  6. The cat recovers from spay/neuter at Pet Community Center overnight or longer if deemed necessary by the veterinarian or staff.
  7. Pet Community Center staff or trained volunteers return the cat to its original territory and leave door hangers on the homes in the area, offering free trap-neuter-return services for any other cats in the area.

Kits & Mom ellen 3 weeksThe Community Cat Program was first piloted in Nashville in 2014 in two Davidson County zip codes, 37138 (Old Hickory) and 37216 (Inglewood).  The pilot program commenced in the summer of 2014.  Approximately 550 free spay/neuter surgeries were provided for outdoor cats living in the two target zip codes and any community cat that entered the shelter from those two zip codes also participated in the program.  The year before the program was started, annual stray cat intake (which includes lost/found/stray) in 2013 Old Hickory was 124 cats and in Inglewood was 87 cats.  Two years later intake in those neighborhoods was 23 (Old Hickory) and 15 (Inglewood).  A reduction of 81% and 82% respectively.
The Community Cat Program is now being expanded to provide the same life-saving services to all community cats who enter the MACC shelter.  The program provides an effective, humane solution to the overpopulation of outdoor-living cats, improving the health of outdoor cats, and reducing the number of cats who must be euthanized in shelters (see here and here) and reducing unwanted behaviors and nuisance complaints about outdoor cats.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What about friendly cats? If a friendly, unowned or stray cat enters the shelter, what happens to them?

The term community cat encompasses all outdoor cats, anywhere on the spectrum from friendly to feral.  Whether a cat is socialized to people doesn’t determine its eligibility for the program. Eligibility is determined by the health and wellbeing of the cat, as demonstrated by their body condition upon entry at MACC.  If the cat’s body condition indicates it is thriving in its environment, it will become a participant in the Community Cat Program.  If a cat happens to be an outdoor pet, they are 17 times more likely to find their way home on their own, rather than being reclaimed by their owner at the shelter.  Returning cats to their original environment gives them much better odds of being reunited with their family.  The cat reclaim rate (also known as return-to-owner (RTO) rate) for cats at MACC in 2015 was 1.4%; this RTO rate is similar to what is seen at shelters throughout the country, reflecting the difficulty in returning cats to their homes from shelters.  Additionally, cats that go through the Community Cat Program are scanned for a microchip at MACC (if the staff is able to handle the cat) and at PCC (every cat is scanned while under anesthesia).  PCC has very powerful scanners and staff are trained to scan the entire body.  If a microchipped pet is identified, either MACC or PCC will immediately contact the registered owner of the the cat.  Cats that have identification or any other indications that they may be a pet will be held for the mandated day stray hold before going through the community cat program.

What about the spread of disease among outdoor cats? What does the science say? (answer courtesy of Humane Society of the United States):

Including vaccinations in TNR programs can protect feral cats for many years

A TNR program for feral cats in Florida included vaccinations at the time of sterilization. Researchers were able to compare a cat’s antibody titers (a measurement that indicates the strength of the body’s immune response to a given disease) before the vaccinations and then 10 weeks post-vaccination. Many cats had an excellent immune response, indicated by the increase in protective antibody titers post-vaccination: panleukopenia (90%), herpes (56%), calicivirus (93%) and rabies (98%). Other studies have shown that postvaccination immunity persists for a minimum of three to seven years in most cats, which means that many feral cats are protected for much of their remaining lifespan. The authors conclude that TNR programs that include vaccinations are likely to protect individual cats and possibly reduce diseases in feral cats in general (Fischer et al., 2007).

Unowned free-roaming cats don’t have higher FeLV or FIV infection rates than owned cats

In this study, 1,876 unowned free-roaming cats who were treated in TNR programs in North Carolina and Florida were tested for FeLV infection and FIV antibodies. The results indicate that the prevalence of FeLV infection and FIV antibodies in unowned free-roaming cats are similar to infection rates reported for owned cats (Lee et al., 2002).

The secondary effects of neutering can improve community cat welfare

Body condition scores can help evaluate a cat’s overall health and welfare. This study analyzed the body condition of 105 adult feral cats at the time of neutering and found that they were lean (but not emaciated). Fourteen of the original cats were trapped one year later and showed significant increases in weight and improvements in body condition similar to those of confined pet cats. Caretakers also noted that neutered cats roamed less. The researchers conclude that in addition to halting reproduction, neutering may have other effects that improve the welfare of community cats (Scott et al., 2002).

Despite popular belief, toxoplasmosis is not definitively associated with exposure to cats

According to the authors, the transmission of toxoplasmosis from cats to people rarely occurs from direct contact. They state that people most commonly acquire toxoplasmosis by eating the cyst form of toxoplasmosis in undercooked meat. A case study of toxoplasmosis in pregnant women did not show a significant association with having an adult cat or kitten at home, cleaning the litter box or having a cat who actively hunts. The authors also cite a study of HIV-infected adults that did not show any association of toxoplasmosis with cat ownership or exposure (Kravetz and Federman, 2002).


More about the health of community cats:

The vast majority of community cats that enter the shelter are in good general health (as evidenced by statistics collected by MACC and by scientific studies referenced here and here).  Cats are more likely to become ill due to stress while being held in the shelter than from contracting an illness in their outdoor home.  Moving cats through the program quickly reduces stress on the cat and reduces the chances of them coming into contact with a contagious disease or become sick due to stress.  

Furthermore, the prevalence of diseases like FIV and FeLV are actually much lower than most people imagine.  According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine:

FIV infection rate is 1.3 – 3%

FeLV infection rate is 2 – 3%

FeLV/FIV status among free-roaming cats is no different from owned cats.

This means that cats living outdoors are not at a higher risk of contracting a disease.  In fact, their neutered status means they are even less likely to be exposed to FIV or FeLV.  

What if I don’t want the cats to return to this area?

Unfortunately, there are no other places for the cats to go and the safest option for a cat is to return it to the area in which it is familiar and knows where to find food and safety.  The truth is, no one can control whether there are outdoor cats. The only thing we can control is whether the area will have sterilized cats or unsterilized cats.  Removing and euthanizing cats has not worked to control the outdoor cat population.  A wildlife phenomenon, called the vacuum effect, causes cats from other areas to move into an area where cats have been removed (the vacuum).  We have seen this phenomenon happen time and again in many areas in Nashville, for example, at apartment communities.  Cats are trapped and removed one year, and within a year the same area has been re-populated with cats who migrated into the area and reproduced. By allowing sterilized cats to remain in their territory, new cats are prevented from moving into that area and the sterilized cats who live in that area will not reproduce.  Additionally, neutering can reduce unwanted behaviors. In our two pilot program neighborhoods, we have anecdotally heard that complaints about nuisance cats nuisance have decreased significantly.  Scientific studies back up these anecdotal reports as well.  

It’s also important to note that only about 1% of the estimated outdoor cat population enters the shelter each year in Davidson County.  Even if all of the community cats that entered the shelter were euthanized, it would not make any meaningful impact on the outdoor cat population, even for a brief period of time.