Trap a Feral Cat

Feral cats can live in harmony with humans through Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) initiatives. In a Trap-Neuter-Return program, a community cat is humanely trapped (with box traps), brought to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, eartipped (the universal sign that a cat has been neutered and vaccinated) and then returned to his/her outdoor home.

More about TNR

Read more about the benefits of TNR, as well as helpful tips, at Alley Cat Allies. Alley Cat Allies is the leading national organization championing TNR iniatives around the globe.

Why TNR rather than call animal control or my local shelter?

Although trapping a cat, having him/her neutered or spayed and then releasing him/her may seem like a daunting task for the first timer, it is a skill that is quickly learned and gives one much satisfaction. You will prevent new generations of unwanted kitties being born and, at the same time, provide a place for that specific cat to go and live out his/her life.

Sadly, the "solution" for feral cats used by county shelters is to destroy them. Shelters do not have the resources or finances to house feral cats. Feral cats are euthanized.

Supplies Needed

You will need:

  • A humane trap (see next section)
  • A kennel or cage (for holding cat prior to transport and/or for recovery after operation)
  • A carrier
  • A litter box and cat litter
  • Plastic lids to hold smelly bait food such as tuna or sardines or mackerel in oil
  • Cat food
  • Paper plates for placing the bait in the traps
  • Bowls for food and water, if holding cat for any length of time
  • A large towel, blanket or cloth to cover trap
  • A stick for opening trap or carrier doors from a distance
  • A flashlight with fresh batteries
  • Hand sanitizer and moist towelettes
  • Water jug with water
  • Heavy leather gloves (welder's gloves will protect you against anything!)
  • A first aid kit
  • Large plastic garbage bags or tarps (old shower curtains work well, too)
  • Newspapers (newsprint, not "glossies")
  • Plastic bags for cleanup
  • Food and water for yourself, if you plan to be outside for an extended period
  • Safety goggles
  • Insect repellent (if trapping in the summer)
  • Sunscreen (if spending extended periods in the sun)
  • Disposable poncho or rain suit (very helpful if you need to release a skunk from a trap - see below)
  • De-skunking solution (again, see below)
  • Bleach, spray bottle, latex gloves and antibacterial dish detergent for cleanup (see below)

When trapping on private property, obtain permission from the property owner. Laws regarding animal trapping, feral cat care and TNR vary by municipality, so familiarize yourself with local laws and ordinances before trapping.

What to Wear?

Any time you are working outdoors, you need to dress appropriately. Wear rugged clothes and closed-toe shoes or boots that you don't mind getting dirty. In the winter, dress warmly and in layers if you will be outside for any length of time. In the summer, keep your arms and legs covered to guard against ticks and plants like poison ivy. Don't forget sunscreen and insect repellent!

When to Trap?

Your trapping schedule should depend on the behavior of the cats or colony that you are planning to trap. Many cats, particularly ferals, are most active late at night or in the early hours of the morning. Others that are less fearful of humans may be active during the day. Observe the cats that you are planning to trap and schedule your trapping accordingly.

Like humans, feral cats don't like to go out in bad weather. They don't usually mind extreme temperatures, but they will avoid precipitation and high winds. Watch your local weather forecast before going out to trap.

Unlike many mammals that hibernate, feral cats are active throughout the year. However, they are especially active in the spring, which is their favored time to mate (though they can mate any time during the year). Experienced TNR trappers are alert to "kitten season" in their regions and try to trap before un-fixed ferals have a chance to mate.

Assembling Your Trapping Team

NEVER TRAP ALONE if at all possible! At minimum, trap with a partner who can help you, especially if something goes wrong.

For a large trapping project, you should arrange for several trappers, at least one person dedicated to driving the trapped cats to a recovery location or a veterinarian and someone to manage the recovered cats. Everyone involved in the project should carry a fully-charged cell phone with the numbers of all the project participants.

If trapping in an unfamiliar or remote area, tell a friend or family member where you are going and how long you expect to be there.

Withholding Food

If you are trapping cats that are regularly being fed, do not feed for 24 hours prior to trapping to ensure that the cats are hungry and will readily take the bait in the traps. Some feel that this is cruel, but, if the cats have full stomachs, they will not be attracted to the bait and you will have wasted your time. If you are trapping in a colony that is being fed by volunteers, coordinate your efforts so that no feeding takes place the day before you trap.

Preparing the Trap

The following videos show how to use two common humane trap designs, including the Havahart type:

Prepare the trap away from the site where you'll place it. You can hold trap door open with twisters. Line the trap with newspaper or cardboard (however, don't do this in a strong breeze, as the rustling of the paper will scare the cats away).

On plastic lids (or small paper plates) place 1 tsp of bait at back of trap, 1/4 tsp on trap plate, 1/4 tsp 6 inches from inside of trap, and also dribble juice along inside of trap. You might even want to dribble some food 6-12 inches leading up to trap's opening. Remember: in setting the trap, the front of the trap is left opened and the back of trap is closed (make sure the back is closed properly or cat can escape). If you used twisters to hold the trap open while placing the food in trap, don't forget to remove them.

When you are ready to trap the cat, place the trap on a level surface. If you are setting multiple traps, place them in a zigzag fashion, facing in different directions. Cover as much of the trap as you can with a cloth/towel, but be careful to leave trigger part of trap uncovered. Then leave the immediate area. The trap should NEVER be left unattended, especially overnight.

This video, from a Michigan-based rescue organization called Carol's Ferals, illustrates a number of techniques for setting traps, transferring cats from traps to other cages, transporting trapped cats and re-homing cats:

What Kind of Bait Works Best?

Finding a bait that will attract a cat can be a trial-and-error process. Often, something with a strong odor, such as tuna, mackerel or fried chicken, is irresistible to cats (if using fried chicken, buy it fresh just prior to trapping). At other times, cats will prefer ordinary moist cat food. If possible, warm the bait before placing it in the trap; this will help its smell carry farther.

Using a Drop Trap

Some cats are too timid or too wary to go into a conventional humane trap. Or, some visually impaired cats cannot see their way into one. In these cases, an alternative tool is a drop trap. If you recall the old cartoons where Elmer Fudd is trying to trap Bugs Bunny, drop traps are essentially like those - essentially a box that drops on top of a cat when a prop stick is pulled out from under one end. The trapper stands off at a distance and observes the trap...then pulls the prop away when the cat is underneath. Pawzenclawz is one firm that makes collapsible wooden traps especially for cat rescuers; its traps can be ordered online.

The following video illustrates how to use a drop trap:

Using drop traps can be difficult - the trapper has to be constantly vigilant, the trapped cat has to be transferred to a carrier and (most importantly) the trapper must take care not to accidentally hurt the cat when dropping the trap. For this reason, use of drop traps takes practice and is usually best left to experienced trappers.

Once a Cat is Trapped

Once the cat is immediately trapped, it is normal for him/her to thrash inside the trap; the cover will help to calm him/her. Even the most tame and mellow cats will thrash wildly inside the trap. You may want to also secure the front AND back of the trap with twist ties or clips, just to make sure the doors are tightly closed. The trap should NEVER be left outdoors with a cat inside it.

If you are planning to take the cat on the following morning to be spay/neutered, you can leave it in trap overnight, but make sure it is in a safe environment like your basement or garage or closed porch, a place that is reasonably warm (not hot) and dry. When the cat is "stored" indoors in the trap, put multiple towels under the trap to protect floor and to absorb any urine. If possible, put the trap on top of several bricks to raise it from the floor, keeping towels or plastic underneath. Keep the trap covered so cat doesn't feel so vulnerable.

If you are not ready to transport the cat for surgery on the next morning or if you prefer not to leave it in the trap, you can transfer it to a kennel/cage or until you are ready. Before transferring it to kennel, place a carrier and litter box in kennel. It may be tricky transferring it to a kennel/cage so be careful or cat may escape. Do not give food and water after 8:00pm on the night before surgery.

When you are ready to remove the cat from the kennel/cage, you will need to make sure he/she is in the carrier and it is locked before taking him out of the kennel. You can use a broom handle to gently prod him into the carrier, use the handle to close the carrier door, and you can even place the handle through the openings of the kennel and parallel to the floor and across the carrier door as you shut the carrier securely.

Transporting the Cat

Before transporting the cat, protect your vehicle by covering the holding area with plastic and newspapers in case the cat urinates or defecates (with newspapers, use newsprint instead of the "glossies," which won't absorb urine). Heavy-duty lawn/leaf bags or contractor cleanup bags are ideal for this purpose, as are plastic shower curtains or tarps that are available in most hardware and home center stores. Traps/carriers should NEVER be placed in a vehicle's trunk or the open bed of a truck!

At the Vet

The cat should receive the following services:

  • Spay or Neuter
  • Distemper and Rabies vaccinations
  • Ear "tip" (the universal sign that a cat has been TNRed)
  • Optional: Advantage Flea Treatment (a good idea if the cat will be recovering in your house!)
  • Optional: FIV/FelV testing (not recommended unless cat appears sickly)
  • Optional: Microchip

TIP: Ask your vet/clinic if the cat can be returned to you in a carrier, rather than in a trap.

Low-Cost Spay/Neuter Clinics

Visit our low-cost spay-neuter clinics page for a list of resources in the New Jersey and Philadelphia area.

Recovery After Surgery

Take the cat home in your carrier and place the entire carrier in a cage/kennel with a litter box, food and water. When you place the carrier in the cage, unlatch the carrier, but do not open the door. Quickly CLOSE the door to the cage. Use a stick to open the carrier door and tie it open to the side of the cage. Reverse the process when you need to clean the cage (untie carrier door, use stick to close carrier door, quickly open cage door, latch carrier door). Yes, this is tricky and much easier with two people. Males need about 2 days and females need 5 to 7 days to recover.

Releasing to the Original Location

Release cats in good weather only (not raining, storming, snowing). Simply go back to the same place that you trapped the cat with the carrier, put it on the ground, open the door, and walk away. The cat may take a minute to leave the trap, but when it does, it will bolt! Once released to its familiar surroundings, the cat must be given food and fresh water on a regular basis.

Provide a shelter for the cat as well and fill it with straw (much warmer than blankets!). You can purchase a dog house, of course, but you can make a shelter too!

Release Elsewhere (such as a barn?)

Never release a cat to a new area unless you have confined it in a cage in a safe INDOOR and UNDER COVER environment for about 3 weeks so that it gets used to being fed in that new location. If there are other cats already released in the area, they will be able to sniff at and get used to the new kitty and vice versa. In this way, the new cat, hopefully, will have adapted to its new home and will not run off. NEVER RELEASE A CAT TO A TOTALLY DIFFERENT LOCATION without following the above instructions.

Trapping Mother Cats and Kittens

Don't trap a mother who is nursing her kittens unless you catch the kittens, too. Tiny kittens cannot survive away from their mothers for long. The BEST option is to trap the mother and trap/bring the kittens inside and place in a crate as soon as possible because kittens are very vulnerable to prey while outside unprotected (for example, when the mother is out looking for food). Also the mother can decide to move her young at any time and you may never be able to find them.

When trapping a mother cat and kittens, some trappers will try to trap the mother first, then place the trapped mother near other traps - the idea being that the kittens will seek out their mother, and will go into the traps trying to get to her.

Once the kittens are about 5 to 6 weeks old and eating cat food, you can separate the mother from the kittens. The mother can be spayed and then returned to her original location. Kittens can be socialized and homes can be found for them.

Trapping a Skunk

Accidentally catching wildlife is one of the hazards of trapping. In most cases, releasing a possum or a raccoon is simply a matter of opening the humane trap and letting it go. Skunks, however, are another matter.

Releasing a skunk from a trap must be done very carefully, for obvious reasons. The goal is to open the trap while protecting yourself from spraying and not unduly panicking the skunk.

Preferably, you can prevent skunks and other wildlife from entering your traps in the first place by watching the traps and shooing away any wild animals. In most cases a skunk will simply walk away from you when you approach. Its spray is a defense of last resort.

Before releasing the skunk, put on a plastic poncho or rain suit if possible; these can be purchased inexpensively at a discount or dollar store. Also put on heavy leather gloves (which you should wear when working with any animal), and old shoes that you don't care about. Safety goggles are also advisable. While holding a sheet or tarp in front of you, approach the trap c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y and quietly from behind. Place the sheet over the trap. This will have the dual benefit of calming the skunk and containing any spray within the trap.

From behind the trap, open the trap door so that the skunk will run away from you when it exits. If possible, prop the door open, then back away from the trap, in the opposite direction from the open door. The skunk may need a minute or two to realize that the door is open, but once it does, it will run out.

The following video illustrates the technique for covering, moving (if needed) and releasing a skunk in a trap:

Skunks are most active during the early spring, which is their mating season. They are least active in the winter, when they hibernate. Skunks are nocturnal; if you catch a skunk during the daytime, it might have an illness such as distemper or even rabies.

Bottom line: If you accidentally trap a skunk, don't panic! Also remember that the skunk wants to get out of the trap more than it wants to spray you, so if you take care in releasing the skunk, chances are it will simply leave the area without spraying.

If you do get sprayed, you can wash yourself and your clothing with de-skunking solution that is available at most pet stores. Tomato juice, tomato sauce and vinegar have all been used to remove skunk odor with varying success... and beer does not work at all (though you might need a drink by the time you're through!!) The most effective remedy is a mixture of one quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda, and 1-2 teaspoons of liquid hand soap (not dish detergent). This solution works on pets as well as on human skin and clothing, and has even been tested and validated by the vaunted MythBusters.

If a wild animal is exhibiting symptoms of rabies, call your local animal control or police for assistance. Do not approach the animal!

Cleanup

When you are all done your trapping, you will need to clean your equipment to remove food, urine and feces, and to prevent any diseases from trapped cats from being passed on to future cats that you trap. You will also need to wash your clothes and hands as soon as possible, especially if you have cats of your own.

Wash your traps thoroughly, using an antibacterial dish detergent and a garden hose with the nozzle on the "jet" setting (if you dontt have access to a hose, you can use the high-pressure hoses at self-service car washes). Spray traps (as well as any other gear that may have come in direct contact with feral cats) with a dilute bleach solution of one part bleach to three parts water. Let stand 10-15 minutes, then rinse thoroughly (for some reason, cats hate the scent of bleach). Wear safety goggles when spraying bleach solution, and spray away from plants and items you do not want to stain. Also wear latex gloves. Because bleach degrades when exposed to light, do not mix up your solution too far in advance; store in a dark place, and keep it out of reach of children and pets.

If you have cats in your home and have had contact with ferals, leave your shoes outside, and spray the soles with a mild disinfectant such as Clorox Anywhere spray (a mild solution that disinfects after 10 minutes without the need to rinse). Wash your hands thoroughly using antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer. Change out of your dirty clothes as soon as possible, and place them either in a plastic bag or directly in your washing machine. Wash clothes on hot water, preferably using bleach. Avoid interacting with your cat(s) until you have had a chance to change and wash up.