Trap-Neuter-Return: Approaching Arlington’s community cats

Trap-Neuter-Return: Approaching Arlington’s community cats

Many cats are cuddly companions that remain exclusively indoors. Then, there are their outdoor counterparts that experts call “community cats.” These cats primarily live outside and are ownerless (though, many are provided with food and water by Good Samaritans who know they are out there). According to the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS), “up to 164 million cats reside in the United States, of which an estimated 30 to 80 million are unowned.”

While a domesticated cat might almost never experience the outdoors – at least not in an unconfined space or without the direct human supervision – a community cat is content to live on its own, or among a clowder of other cats.

According to Alley Cat Allies, “community cats have a wide range of behaviors and degrees of socialization, but they generally do not want to live indoors and are unadoptable.”

Many experts will tell you not to be saddened by the idea of ownerless cats, though.

“A community cat is usually well groomed and in good condition due to the ability to hunt,” Jennifer Toussaint, Chief Animal Control Officer at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington (AWLA), said. “They likely belong to a colony of cats in the area. They will not approach people and will bolt or away when approached. They do not purr or meow. It is rare that adult community cats can be rehomed. Occasionally, we do take in cats that are very friendly and social with people but are living with a colony, but in those cases, it’s likely that that cat was lost from his home and joined the colony for food and safety.”

So, if you were to see an uncollared cat roaming around outdoors, do not bring the animal home and expect it to settle into a life of companionship.

“To put it simply, community cats don't want to live inside with people,” Toussaint said. “If a community cat was forced to live inside someone's home, it is likely they would hide most of the time, attempt to scratch or bite people – out of fear – and not know how to use a litterbox.”

Cats, cats, and more cats

Cats are not only survivalists – they also have an astounding tendency to reproduce, reproduce, and then reproduce some more. 

Intact female cats come into heat every two to three weeks during their breeding seasons. And since most outdoor cats are unsterilized, community cat colonies can experience exponential growth – and very quickly.

In a 2009 study for the American Veterinarian Association, Alley Cat Allies estimated that while about 80 percent of domesticated cats were spayed or neutered, only about three percent of community cats were. 

“The average mature cat can have three litters with a total of 12 kittens per year,” Touissant said. “Out of those litters of kittens, about 4.7 of them are females, which in turn means they will most likely have litters of their own. In just seven years, a single pair of cats and their offspring could produce a staggering total of 420,000 kittens.”

Touissant also said that it is currently “Kitten Season,” so many of us might be noticing more community cats in our neighborhoods.

“In this area, ‘Kitten Season’ runs from March through October and refers to the time of year when unspayed female cats are most likely to give birth,” Toussaint said. “Female cats tend to go into heat at the end of winter as temperatures start to rise.”

 And while the thought of this many innocent, adorable kittens may seem harmless, it’s actually an alarming phenomenon.

What’s to stop the forthcoming generations of female cats from reproducing themselves? Which begs the question, how do communities ensure the health and wellbeing of all these cats? 

As capable as cats are of fending for themselves, there are only so many available resources and means of protection in the great outdoors.

A growing approach: Trap-Neuter-Return

Stray cats became such a noticeable problem that in the 1990s, communities across the country – and even across the globe – began to launch Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs.

In the words of the Best Friends Animal Society, TNR is “a humane, nonlethal alternative to the old trap-and-kill method of controlling feral cat populations.” It is through these programs that “all community cats, whether they are considered stray, feral or just free-roaming, are caught in humane cat traps, medically evaluated, spayed or neutered by a licensed veterinarian, vaccinated against distemper and rabies, and then returned to their original outdoor homes.”

Molly Armus, Virginia State Director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), explained that animal rescue and other related organizations typically take full ownership of the TNR process.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington (AWLA) is one of these organizations.

“There are many, many TNR programs in place across the country at shelters, veterinary offices, and nonprofits, and we’ve had our TNR/Community Cat Program in place at AWLA since 2011,” Anna Barrett, the AWLA’s TNR program manager, said.

And, the AWLA has it down to a science.

“The basic process is that AWLA assists community cat caretakers (or members of the public who have community cats on their property) with trapping and surgery,” Barrett said. “AWLA provides traps to the members of the public and makes sure they know how to use the traps and the safety procedures that go along with it. We then work with the caretakers to bring the cats to a local veterinarian to have them spayed or neutered – all of which AWLA pays for.”

The way that AWLA does it is pretty standard across Virginia. According to Armus, community members will typically trap the cats, and then non-profit organizations will work with in-house veterinarians to perform the spay-neuter surgeries and vaccinations.

Following these medical procedures, it is standard for the veterinarian to tip the cat’s left ear as a signal to the community that the cat has been safely sterilized and vaccinated.

Then, once the cat is fully recovered, it is again typically community members who return the animal to its original location.

“A lot of these cats are unaccustomed to being handled by humans, so organizations will have outreach programs that teach community members how to properly trap cats when they see them,” Armus explained. “We at HSUS, for example, have guides and trapping best practices for the community. It’s really a collective, amazing effort with the programs in Virginia between the veterinarians doing the spaying and neutering and other community members doing the actual trapping and returning.”

Armus said that TNR programs have become increasingly common throughout the last decade.

“The practice may have started in the 1990s – a time when it really gained popularity in the United Kingdom in particular,” Armus said, “but it’s really been over about the last ten years that animal rescues and other organizations have been implementing these programs in the US.”

The case against TNR

Even though TNR programs have had positive impacts by limiting reproduction and disease among cat communities, not all animal experts are proponents of the practice. 


Simply put, it’s not enough; it will never completely solve the slew of problems brought on by outdoor cats.

First of all, even vaccinated cats can carry diseases that infect humans and other animals that they come into contact with. 

As quoted from the US Department of Agriculture’s APHIS October 2021 report on free-ranging and feral cats, “free-ranging cats are associated with a number of sociological and ecological conflicts. They impact people directly through the spread of parasites and diseases, damage to gardens and property, and noise nuisances.”

Also, cats in general are an invasive species, so when they are left outdoors and to their own devices, they will wreak havoc on wildlife. As natural predators, cats have contributed significantly to the reduction of multiple animal populations. They’ve killed off portions of these populations not only through predation, but also by posing as competition for resources and through the spread of disease.

“Proponents of free-ranging cats on the landscape argue that predation by such cats on wildlife is negligible when compared to other sources of mortality, however many studies have shown that cats are a major, if not the greatest, source of mortality to native birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians,” the aforementioned APHIS report goes on to state. “While loss of habitat is the primary cause of species extinctions, cats have contributed to the extinction of at least 63 species in the wild around the world.”

Finally, there is the argument that, as content as cats may seem outdoors, no way to really evaluate their quality of life.  In fact, some refer to TNR as ‘Trap-Neuter-Reabandon.’ Once back in their outdoor environments and without human oversight, cats can suffer from diseases and sustain injuries that translate to pain and suffering. Also, other outdoor predators pose threats to all community cats.

The alternative to TNR is something more aggressive: the pursuit of measures that will result in the full eradication of unsupervised outdoor cats. 

In other words, the ‘T’ and the ‘N’ are fantastic measures. But then, instead of releasing cats back to where they were originally trapped, community organizations should facilitate their adoption to owners who will keep them as indoor pets, or set them up in long-term holding facilities (cat sanctuaries, for example). If a cat is not fit for either of these scenarios, then the last resort is to euthanize.

 The results of TNR spreading wide and far

No matter how you look at it, community TNR programs have transformed the way rescue organizations embrace the community cat population. This is certainly the case in Arlington, where TNR has the county board’s official stamp of approval.

 “Before TNR, shelters didn’t know what to do with these community cats who were just not adoption candidates,” Armus said. “As a result, they were euthanized. TNR is great because it is a proactive answer to a crisis situation so that shelters don’t have to make reactive decisions in shelter situations. It helps manage the outdoor cat population and makes for a manageable number of cats that communities can adopt.”

Through their efforts, the AWLA’s community TNR program has prevented the euthanization of thousands upon thousands of stray cats.

“Entire neighborhoods have seen a shift in the number of outdoor cats visible on the streets and in their yards,” Toussaint said. “Since TNR’s inception in 2011, we noted a 70% decrease in feral colony size and a 82% decrease in cat euthanasia, as less strays mean fewer cats are brought to the shelter.  Our TNR efforts achieved what everyone ultimately wants to see – a humane solution to the issue of outdoor cats.”

The impact ripples through the community – extending even further past animal shelters and cat colonies.

“TNR halts the reproduction of cats through sterilization, which ultimately reduces public health and safety risks,” Armus added. “That’s why in general, an important goal of the Humane Society of the United States is to make sure these procedures are not prohibitively expensive – both for animals owned and unowned. TNR illustrates how important it is that people have access to spay/neuter, as well as animal wellness services.”

So, is TNR enough?

You decide. 

One thing is for sure: while there is no perfect way to protect outdoor cats while also protecting communities from cat related damage, TNR is an expanding, impactful practice.

To learn more about local programs that offer accessible spay/neuter and animal wellness services, visit or