A TNR Newbie’s Basic Toolkit

I am by no means an expert cat trapper, but I have learned a lot in the last 18 months or so that I have been trapping neighborhood cats in my yard. One important thing I have learned is the value of having all of your equipment and tools handy so you’re ready when a cat steps into the trap.

Here are the things I keep handy when I trap.


Trap: I love my “Fat Cat” Tru Catch trap. It’s bigger than a typical cat-size trap, so there’s a little extra space for kitty while he or she is recovering in the garage after surgery.


Fork: To go with the trap, I have a Tru Catch fork. I use the fork to keep kitty to one end of the trap while I clean or put in fresh water and food. It allows me to take better care of the cat while it’s in my trap, and it keeps us both safe (and kitty in the trap!).


Leather gloves: I’m vegan and have refused to buy leather gloves for myself for years. I don’t wear leather clothing or shoes. But, I get the safety reasons for leather gloves. Sharp teeth and claws can’t get through the leather and to my skin; other fabrics and materials just don’t provide that coverage. My husband gave me these gloves last Christmas with a pair of Kevlar knitted gloves that go most of the way up my arm. I’m not 100 percent comfortable with it, but I understand that I need to be safe. If I get sick or hurt, I may not be able to help as many cats (or worse). It’s a balancing act for me.


Carabiner: It’s a small thing, but this carabiner gives me a lot of peace of mind. It keeps the sliding door of my trap closed. I know it’s unlikely a cat will open it and escape, but I feel more comfortable with the door latched. Cats are smart!


Blankets, Sheets, and Towels: As soon as you get a cat in the trap, you should cover it. This relaxes the cat and stops it from thrashing around in the cage. I leave the trap covered with a blanket or sheet the entire time the cat is recovering in my garage. I use the towels under the trap in the garage so that the cat isn’t sitting directly on the cold floor. The towels are also helpful for catching urine and feces. It makes it easier to keep the trap clean.


Newspaper: Since it’s tricky to get a blanket or towel into the trap (and in my experience, the cats are going to spill water and food in the trap anyway), I use newspaper over the bottom of the trap. This catches waste and makes it a little more comfortable (hopefully) than sitting on the wire bottom of the trap. When the trap is set, the newspaper helps cover the trip plate.

Bowls and food: I have a separate set of bowls and food for outdoor cats. I feed my outdoor cats a middle-quality food; it’s better than cheap store brand food that is full of fillers, but it is not as expensive as the grain-free food we give Aine, Emmett, and Seamus. I try to strike a balance between quality food and my budget; I need to be able to afford to keep feeding the outdoor cats.

An expert on speed dial: Whether it’s a fellow trapper, rescue group or TNR-friendly vet or vet tech, have someone you can call when you have questions or run into difficulties. Most times, the process will go seamlessly, but every so often, you’ll hit a snag. I’ve been grateful for my friends at Rescue Angels of Southern Maryland who answer my calls and texts when I have TNR questions.

What else would you add to a beginner’s TNR kit?

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Why are community cats ear tipped?

How can you tell if a cat is stray, lost, or feral?

One way is to look at its ears.

If a cat is part of a managed feral cat colony, chances are good its left ear will be tipped. Look closely at the cat. Is its left ear missing the pointy end? That’s an ear tip.


If that seems extreme, consider the alternatives. Some caretakers have their cats tattooed, but in order to see whether the cat is tattooed, you need to catch it. Remember how many tries it took me to get Fireheart? (At least four!) It’s even harder to get a cat who has already been trapped.

The ear is tipped while the cat is under sedation for spay or neuter. The cut heals quickly and doesn’t cause the cat any pain. In fact, the ear tip can save the cats life!

When an ear-tipped cat is turned into a shelter, shelter employees can quickly see that the cat is part of a managed colony, and they can work to trace the cat’s home. Without an ear tip, a feral cat will be killed in the shelter, sometimes upon intake if the facility is full.


In our suburban neighborhood, we had our backyard cats ear tipped and microchipped. There are a lot of people around here, and I want to make sure these cats can continue living in peace. Even if these cats are turned into a kill shelter, their ear tip and chip will let the shelter know which rescue group manages these cats.

I used to dislike the look of the ear tip. I think cats are beautiful, and tipping their ear changed their appearance for me. But after we trapped Ghost and had him neutered, I changed my mind. Before, he was just a stray cat wandering the neighborhood. Now he’s the neighborhood cat, and his tipped ear shows that I care about him. (Not to mention he won’t be fathering any more kittens!)


And I think that ear tip is just gorgeous.

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Reflecting on a Busy Cat Week

If you were to ask me why I got back into rescue, I’d tell you about the past few days. It was the most eventful week since I got back into cat rescue a year ago.

We started fostering just before Christmas last December, first for Roo, who was adopted a couple of months later, and then for Judy, who only stayed with us a week before moving on to another foster home. Then, in March, we took in Dickens and Poe, the two skittish foster brothers who needed time and patience to learn to trust humans again. Last Saturday, Dec. 10, they finally went to their forever home together. Being able to help cats bridge the gap from shelter or outdoor life to a forever home is one of the reasons I got back into rescue. Last weekend was bittersweet because I loved those boys with all my heart, but I was so happy to see them go home with a true cat person.


Then, the next day, we set the trap for backyard cat Fireheart. Instead of catching him, we landed little tortie Spottedleaf. Caring for feral cats was the reason I got involved with Rescue Angels of Southern Maryland, the organization is foster and volunteer with. Rescue Angels has an active TNR program, and I had learned the hard way that feral cats stand no chance at our local shelters.


It was hard to let Spottedleaf go last Wednesday. I knew the weather was going to turn cold on Thursday, but she had let me know without a doubt that she was totally over being in a trap in my garage. My son and let set her free on the back deck where we’d trapped her.

Two days later, we finally caught Fireheart. We’ve been feeding Fireheart in the yard since July, and I got used to seeing him in the yard. He was a frequent visitor, often coming during the day. Fireheart was neutered and vaccinated, and on Thursday, I brought him to the same caretaker who has Bluestar, another of my backyard cats. I already miss seeing him in my yard, but I know he has a safe forever home and that he is reunited with his buddy Bluestar.


So, it’s kind of been an up-and-down week. Each transition has been a mixture of joy and sadness, which, I have learned, is sort of the essence of rescue work. You let these animals into your heart, and seeing them off to their forever homes – whether inside or outside – brings tears of joy and sadness.

It also brings a realization that the work is never done, that there are more animals that need someone to care for and love them.

This busy cat week has ended, but I’m fairly certain a new one will begin soon.

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Backyard Cat Update

If you follow Three Irish Cats on Instagram and Facebook, you know that we baited the trap for Fireheart on Tuesday night.

And before I went to bed Tuesday, I brought an empty trap inside. Once again, Fireheart has eluded us. The good news is, I see him regularly, so I know he’s still out and about. He’s got himself a reprieve for another 10 days or so, but never fear. When I get back from Thanksgiving, the trap goes out again for him.

Fireheart on the deck last summer.

We do have some news on the other backyard cats we’ve trapped this fall, Bluestar and Ghost!

Bluestar is safely acclimating to her new home with a caretaker who manages a feral colony. While she’s not rushing over for pets and affection, the caretaker tells me that Bluestar doesn’t run away when it’s time to feed and clean the cats’ area. Instead, she sits and stares. I know from experience that Bluestar is a watcher, and I’m happy to hear that she feels comfortable enough to be visible while a human is in her space.

Bluestar in my garage last month.

We have had a Ghost sighting in the neighborhood! I haven’t seen him on my deck lately, but he was never a cat I saw regularly. I think he came late at night or early in the morning when there were no humans around. But, as we were leaving the neighborhood one morning last weekend, my son saw Ghost walking across a neighbor’s yard. We know he is safe and back to prowling his turf.

Ghost last week following his neuter and ear tip.

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Ghost Goes Home

Last evening, it was time for the “return” part of TNR for Ghost.

Sunday night, we were surprised to find him in the trap. Monday, he was neutered, vaccinated, and ear tipped. After a night in the garage to make sure he was recovering well, it was time. After dark, we took Ghost outside and let him go on the deck where he was trapped.

I’m sure we’ll see him again. Be well, buddy.

Backyard Cat Ghost and the Vacuum Effect

I set the trap Sunday night for Fireheart. I was all set to get him, bring him to the clinic on Monday, and to his forever outdoor home on Tuesday.

So imagine my surprise when I checked the trap and saw this guy:

Well, hello there!

This is Ghost, so named because we first saw him as a white apparition on the deck a little more than a year ago. It was around Halloween, and he looked spooky in the moonlight. He’s been a less-visible regular at our feeding station for more than a year now, mostly coming to eat late at night or early in the mornings when the humans aren’t afoot.

I’ll admit it — I panicked. This was not the cat I wanted to trap. I didn’t have a plan for him!

Luckily, I have some smart friends in rescue. My experienced rescue friend Jenn told me that setting him free in hopes of catching Fireheart was not a good idea. Let this unneutered guy go, she said, and he would never set foot in my trap again. He’s a huge tomcat, likely the father of many of the kittens that had come through my yard over the last year. To quote my mom, neutering him would be “doing the community a great service.”

But then what? Well, Jenn and I talked some more, and she helped me to see that this neighborhood is Ghost’s home. He is a longtime resident here. Neighbors have told me they’ve seen him for a while, which means he has managed to survive a few years here. This is his home, and he deserves to go back to it.

Ghost after surgery.

But there’s another reason for keeping Ghost here. Ask anyone with some feral cat expertise to remove unwanted cats from their neighborhood, and they’ll tell you about the vacuum effect.

The gist is this: There are cats in your neighborhood for a reason. They’ve got food to eat – whether they’re being fed by humans or hunting – and they find adequate shelter from the elements. They feel safe. They were attracted to the neighborhood for a reason.

So when you remove all of the feral cats from an area – whether through relocation or worse, killing them – you leave a vacuum. You know the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum”? It’s true. In time, your cat-free area will be inhabited by cats again. Neighboring colonies will find the food, shelter, and safety that the previous group was attracted to.

It’s a vicious cycle, and that’s why most animal organizations advocate TNR, or trap-neuter-return. Keep the colony in place, but make sure they can’t produce any more kittens.

Being a large tomcat, Jenn said, means Ghost is probably the alpha male around here. Transferred somewhere else, he might cause problems in another colony. He’ll be much happier patrolling the neighborhood — and maybe helping to keep other cats out.

So, that’s what Ghost will do. On Monday, he was neutered, microchipped, and given a rabies shot. He also got his ear tipped so people know he’s being cared for. He spent the night in my garage to make sure he was recovering from surgery well and eating OK. Later today, I’ll set him free.

And then, I will keep feeding him in my yard until it’s time for us to sell our house in the spring. But before I move, you can be sure I will recruit someone else in the neighborhood to take care of Ghost. After all, he lives here, too.