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).

Once we fully implemented our return-to-field program, the only real regret we had was that we didn’t start it sooner. It has opened new horizons for us, and helped us see that more is possible. We no longer justify taking a healthy cat’s life, we defend saving it.

- Jon Cicirelli, Director, San Jose Animal Care and Services

While acceptance has been growing for community-based TNR programs for decades, it is only in recent years that neuter-return programs have been implemented for cats already in shelters. These 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.

In an example of the synergistic effect of combining tradition TNR with RTF, Operation Catnip in Gainesville, Florida, performed about 3,000 TNR surgeries each year for community cats using monthly high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter clinics capable of sterilizing more than 200 cats in a single day. This program was instrumental in reducing cat intake at the municipal shelter over time, resulting in a reduction of euthanasia at the local shelter from 81 percent to 42 percent over 13 years.

In 2012, the program was expanded to include a shelter-based RTF program targeting the cats most at risk of immediate euthanasia in the shelter: adult impounded strays. By neutering and returning these shelter cats to their neighborhoods, cat euthanasia plummeted to 13 percent in 2012, making Alachua County one of the safest places to be a cat in Florida.

Return-to-field has revolutionized animal control and it’s finally a cost-effective way to deal with a decades old problem by engaging the community. The long-term savings easily will be a hundred times the up-front costs of the program. But it’s critical that you go big and commit to an expansive program – the results will amaze everyone.

- Scott Trebatoski, Chief, Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services

RTF programs often begin as a method to avoid euthanasia of unadoptable feral cats. There is perhaps no greater tool for reducing euthanasia of cats virtually overnight than RTF, because it focuses on the cats most at risk for shelter euthanasia.

Research and experience have revealed that expanding RTF to include unidentified, healthy stray cats in good body condition and old enough to fend for themselves is better for cats, communities, and the shelter. The health status of the cats is taken as direct evidence they have access to sufficient food and shelter to maintain their condition, provided they are returned promptly to the same location where they were found.

In a study of more than 100,000 stray and feral cats examined in spay/neuter clinics in six states, less than 1 percent of cats were euthanized due to debilitating conditions, trauma, or infectious diseases. (Wallace 2006)

The Feral Freedom Guide describes a large municipal animal shelter’s journey from euthanizing most of the cats that entered its doors to saving most of them.

The single biggest contribution to life-saving in that shelter was a program to neuter feral shelter cats and return them to their original sites. Embraced by the shelter staff, the program quickly expanded to include any healthy outdoor cats whose condition demonstrated they were thriving in their neighborhoods.

Later dubbed the Feral Freedom program, RTF was a major driver for reducing cat euthanasia from greater than 90 percent to less than 10 percent in just a few years. It has since been copied by many other shelters seeking positive outcomes for cats whenever possible. The guide provides complete step-by-step instructions regarding the planning and execution of an RTF program, including building productive collaborations, creating cat protocols, projecting budgets, and a collection of sample forms, ordinances, and educational materials.

Not only does RTF save the cats that are returned to their neighborhoods, but it also reduces shelter crowding, shelter-acquired disease, and the stress of overworked staff caring for cats likely to be euthanized. RTF frees up space that can be used to showcase adoptable cats, make room for improved cat housing, and diverts resources previously spent on holding and euthanizing community cats to supporting the care of cats remaining in the shelter. It is not unusual for shelters to see their live outcome rate for cats increase by 50 percent or more in a single season after implementing RTF.

Despite the tangible benefits of RTF and TNR programs for managing community cats, they are sometimes challenged by officials and opponents who claim that the programs are prohibited under local, state, or federal laws. Another objection comes with the claim that any type of RTF program constitutes “abandonment” that falls under anti-cruelty statutes.

In truth, there are no state or federal laws that address community cat management. However, laws pertaining to cats are commonly found at the local level. A review of legal precedent and common municipal ordinances found that concepts of “ownership” and “abandonment” clearly do not apply to community cat caregivers and should not be raised as a barrier to implementing RTF programs.

The process of collecting an unowned cat from the neighborhood, having it neutered, and returning it to the original location does not create an ownership relationship. Municipal leaders navigating change in cat management policies can find support in Community Cat Management: a Guide for Municipal Leaders, produced with the support of the International City/County Management Association.

When cat populations are present, the choice is not between having cats or not having cats. The choice is between having a managed community cat population, or an unmanaged one.

- Bryan Kortis, Program Manager, PetSmart Charities, Phoenix, AZ

It’s important to keep in mind that no one can control whether there are unowned 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.


No greater harm to communities is caused by returning shelter cats to their neighborhoods with the benefit of birth control and vaccines, and much is gained by engaging the community in a positive response.