What is an outdoor cat?

The term can be confusing, but they’re all the same domestic cat species, felis catus. Some terms such as “feral” and “tame” describe a cat’s behavior around humans. Other terms, including “community cat,” “stray cat” and “alley cat,” describe a cat’s lifestyle or ownership status. Learn more about these and other terms we use for cats.

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What is TNR?

TNR, which stands for trap-neuter-return, is a nonlethal strategy for reducing the number of community cats and improving the quality of life for cats, wildlife and people. (It’s sometimes referred to as trap-neuter-release, but trap-neuter-return is more accurate, since the cats are returned to the place where they were captured, their “home territory.”)

TNR is the fundamental component of community cat programs, which are essential to effectively combating cat overpopulation and reducing the flow of cats and kittens into shelters.

Learn More About TNR

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Where can I get help sterilizing the cats I feed?

A growing number of animal welfare organizations and municipal governments have TNR programs. Many will loan you traps and connect with you with free or low-cost spay/neuter providers in or near your community. Depending on available resources, some programs may also have pet food assistance programs and volunteers who can help you trap the cats or transport them to and from the spay/neuter clinic.

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How can I tell if a cat I see outside is lost or needs my help?

If you’re outside and spot a cat lounging in the grass or by the side of the road, follow these steps to determine if the cat needs your help.

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I’ve found a litter of kittens: Should I rescue them?

Before you scoop up a litter of newborn kittens, keep in mind that, depending on their age, the kittens may be better off with their mom (for a while, at least). Check out these guidelines for whether and when you should rescue kittens.

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Why do some people consider outdoor cats a nuisance?

Problems can arise when outdoor cats venture into a yard where they aren’t welcome. People can be upset when cats dig, urinate or defecate in their yard or garden, jump on their car, sleep (and shed their fur) on porch furniture, or agitate their pets. Others are concerned about wildlife the cats may prey on or about the health and welfare of cats they see outdoors. These concerns often lead to calls to animal control agencies and other officials whose job it is to serve the public, making outdoor cats a problem for them as well. Robust TNR programs, the use of cat deterrents and other strategies, and some neighborhood diplomacy can establish peaceful relations among community cats and their human neighbors.

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How can I keep cats out of my yard or garden?

Just as there are nonlethal ways to resolve problems with raccoons, opossums or other wild animals, there are humane solutions for keeping cats away from areas where they’re not welcome. Whether your goal is to prevent neighborhood cats from digging in your garden, upsetting your indoor pets or leaving pawprints on your car, a little ingenuity and some high- and low-tech strategies will teach outdoors cats to avoid off-limits areas.

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How can I protect birds or other wildlife from cats?

Cat-wildlife conflicts can be humanely resolved by implementing and sustaining effective TNR programs. The ultimate goal of TNR programs is to dramatically and humanely reduce the number of cats outdoors, which is better for the cats, wildlife and the public. To prevent outdoor cats from stalking your bird feeder, check out these tips.

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How can I keep cats safe from coyotes and other predators?

While any cat outside faces some risks, smart caretaking practices and other strategies can decrease the chances of coyotes preying on the cats you feed.

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How can I protect outdoor cats in the event of a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster?

Although community cats are resourceful and instinctively seek out safe places in times of danger, extreme weather may pose a threat to them. If you take care of a colony of cats, follow these tips to increase their chances of coming through the storm safe and sound.

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Should I adopt a community cat?

Many people don’t go looking for a cat to adopt—the cat finds them. Before you adopt a seemingly homeless cat, think about what you’d want someone to do if they happened to find your pet cat or a community cat you’ve been feeding. First, you’d want them to notify you. So follow the steps outlined here before you take in a cat and call them yours.

If you gone through all the steps and still can’t identify an owner or feeder (or the people who have been caring for the cat agree that your home is the right place for the animal), take the cat to the vet, follow these guidelines for transitioning an outdoor cat into an indoor home, and check out these tips for introducing a new cat to your resident pets. Congratulations on your new best friend!

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I’m already feeding outdoor cats; what can I do to improve their health and safety?

The most important thing you can do to protect the health and safety of the cats you feed is to ensure they’re sterilized and vaccinated. In addition, you can be a stellar caretaker by following smart feeding practices, providing winter shelter, monitoring cats for health issues, and keeping the peace between cats and their human neighbors.

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My neighbors’ cats keep having kittens: What can I do?

You’ve done your part to combat cat overpopulation and protect the health of your cats by having them sterilized, but meanwhile your neighbors’ outdoor cats keep producing litter after litter. Instead of feeling frustrated and helpless, you can turn a problem situation into a success story, benefiting the cats and your neighborhood in the process.

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Where do community cats live?

Population estimates vary widely, but most experts agree that tens of millions of community cats live in the U.S. They’re predominantly found near where people live or work. They can thrive in densely populated areas, where there is easy access to food and shelter, as well as rural settings, where they’re often called barn cats. Community cats may live alone or in pairs or congregate in groups. Rarely do you find cats living in remote areas in the U.S., surviving without the help of humans.

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Who takes care of the cats?

An estimated 10-12% of the American public feed community cats. In addition to providing daily meals and fresh water, these cat caregivers may provide dedicated shelter to protect the cats in inclement weather and provide medical care if the cats become sick or are injured. They look out for the cats and often participate in TNR efforts to get the cats fixed and vaccinated and work with other residents to mitigate any complaints that arise due to the presence of the outdoor cats.

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Why are there so many cats outdoors?

Overpopulation is a serious concern with an estimated 30 to 40 million community cats in the United States. Some cats have lived outside for generations, while others adapted to living outdoors after being lost or abandoned. Since a female cat can become pregnant as early as 5 months of age and have multiple litters each year, the number of cats in a neighborhood can rapidly increase if cats aren’t spayed or neutered.

Community cats produce around 80% of the kittens born in the U.S. each year. Without adequate spay/neuter programs (including TNR) more cats will enter animal shelters, feline euthanasia rates will increase (including for adoptable cats when cage space runs out or because the cats get sick due to overcrowding) and donor and taxpayer dollars will be squandered on ineffective solutions.

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How do we solve cat overpopulation?

Solving cat overpopulation is a complex undertaking that involves both humanely reducing the population of community cats and preventing the addition of more cats. There’s no quick fix and no one solution—a combination of tools is needed:

  • Spaying and neutering of community cats through strategic, high-intensity TNR and related programs. To effectively reduce the population, approximately 80% of the cats in the focus area (or community) need to be sterilized.
  • Spaying and neutering of owned cats and cats adopted from shelters and rescues before they are 5 months old (because cats can have kittens while they are still kittens).
  • Helping people keep their own cats when faced with cat behavior challenges as well as their own financial struggles and housing issues.
  • Providing people with options and assistance for rehoming cats they can no longer keep so that those cats aren’t abandoned outdoors.
  • Encouraging people to keep their owned cats indoors and promoting strategies to keep cats happy and active with an indoors lifestyle.

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Why shouldn’t I let my cats roam outdoors?

Allowing your cat to roam freely outdoors comes with risks. When outside, cats face dangers such as being hit by a car, being harmed by another animal or person, contracting certain diseases and being infected with parasites. Additionally, your cat may cause conflicts with your neighbors and injure or kill wildlife. Why take the risk?

Approximately 71% of the estimated 80 million pet cats in the U.S. are kept indoors, and more owners are realizing that their cats are safer and can lead happy lives indoors. You can transition your cat indoors and provide safe outdoor time with a catio (an enclosed cat patio) or by taking your cat for a walk on a harness and leash. It’s always a good idea for your cat to wear a collar with identification (and be microchipped) to help reunite you should they become lost or be picked up by a neighbor or animal control.

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Trap-neuter-return (TNR) FAQ

How TNR reduces cat overpopulation and improves the lives of community cats

Cities and towns around the country are increasingly using trap-neuter-return as the preferred method of managing the numbers of community cats (cats who live outdoors with no clear owner). 


How does TNR work?

Trap-neuter-return is a nonlethal strategy for managing community cat populations while improving the lives of outdoor cats. TNR involves:

  • Humanely trapping community cats
  • Spaying or neutering them
  • Vaccinating them against rabies and other diseases
  • Surgically removing the tip of one ear (a “tipped” ear is the sign of a cat who has been spayed or neutered)
  • Returning the cats to their home (the location where they were trapped)

TNR is the fundamental component of community cat programs, which are essential to effectively combating cat overpopulation, preventing the deaths of kittens born outside, and providing healthier, safer lives for the cats.

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How does TNR solve common complaints about outdoor cats?

Spaying and neutering not only improves the welfare of individual cats, it can also solve many common complaints:

  • The cats no longer reproduce. That means no more kittens to worry about and the family of outdoor cats won’t continue to grow.
  • Behaviors associated with mating, such as yowling and fighting, are dramatically reduced.
  • Neutered cats also roam less; they will stay closer to home and are less likely to be hit by cars.
  • Foul odors are greatly reduced as well because neutered male cats, no longer producing testosterone, won’t have that distinctive tomcat smell to their urine.

If enough cats in a community are TNR’d, the population will stabilize and over time, will decline and eventually die out. Fewer cats means fewer complaints. (Learn strategies for deterring cats from areas where they’re not welcome.)

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Isn’t living outside dangerous for cats?

The idea that community cats are at great risk for suffering and untimely death if not admitted to a shelter is a long-standing one. Free-roaming cats do risk higher exposure to dangers such as coyotes and other predators, poisons, infectious and parasitic agents, weather extremes and cruel human acts. While the physical dangers to free-roaming cats are not to be ignored, a growing body of evidence suggests that community cats are generally fit and healthy.

The overall health of community cats improves after being sterilized, vaccinated and returned: they have greater immunity against a host of other diseases and parasites, they fight less and stay closer to home, decreasing risk of injury or of being hit by a car. Sterilized cats are also less likely to transmit feline diseases that are largely spread through mating behavior and mating-related fighting. While some believe cats living outdoors are more susceptible to common feline diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV), these viruses occur at the same rate as in the pet cat population.

The most vulnerable population is kittens, as only 25% of cats born outdoors survive past 6 months of age. Recent population modeling work shows that high-intensity TNR not only reduces overall populations of free-roaming cats more effectively than other management tactics, but also results in significantly fewer kittens dying. In fact, researchers found that high-intensity TNR results in 31 times fewer preventable cat deaths compared to no intervention. This is one reason why TNR should be implemented more broadly across the country.

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Why can’t animal shelters rescue all the community cats?

Most community cats don’t need rescuing; they have an outdoor home and people who care for them. Bringing these healthy community cats into shelters leads to overcrowding, cats getting sick, higher euthanasia rates and an ongoing drain on resources that could be more effectively spent on proactive spay/neuter efforts. Shelters and rescue groups help by participating in programs to get these cats spayed or neutered and vaccinated and to help support the people in the community who care for them.

Ideally, kittens, once weaned, can be placed in adoption programs. Kittens need to be exposed to humans by about 9 weeks of age in order to not harbor a fear of humans. Many community cat programs include foster homes to socialize kittens born outdoors so that they can be adopted into homes. Volunteering to be a foster home is one way you can be part of the solution.

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Would it be better to just humanely euthanize the cats who can’t be adopted?

While some people feel sorry for outdoor cats because they view the cats as fending for themselves or feel they will suffer a fate worse than euthanasia, adult community cats are generally healthy and thriving outdoors. Others are annoyed by the cats’ behaviors and want them removed without much thought to what happens to the cats. But the majority of people don’t feel that community cats should be euthanized.

It’s not a solution to overpopulation either. Community cats live at a certain location because it offers food and shelter. When cats are removed, unmanaged cats from surrounding areas may move in to take advantage of the newly available resources. The cycle of reproduction and nuisance behavior begins all over again. Rarely does an animal control agency have the capacity to remove enough cats to impact the population. They don’t have the resources nor, increasingly, the desire to remove cats who have little to no chance of being adopted. They also don’t have the support of the community members who feed the cats, making it very difficult to trap a significant number of the cats.

A better approach includes TNR and the involvement of one or more caregivers. Spayed or neutered cats are healthier because they no longer fight over mates or expend resources on making and caring for kittens, and their nuisance behaviors are greatly reduced or eliminated. Caregivers provide food, water, and shelter and watch over the cats’ health and well-being.

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Shouldn’t we remove cats in order to protect wildlife?

There are no easy answers to the issue of cat predation on wildlife. However, removing cats only results in a temporary reduction in the cats’ numbers, essentially putting a bandage on the problem and further distance from real solutions.

Trap and remove may at first glance seem to be a logical approach to solving cat-wildlife conflict. You might be able to eliminate the population if your target is just a few cats, but trap and remove does not effectively scale up to an entire community—the level you’d need to have any impact on threats to wildlife. In order to reduce the population, at least 50% of the cats will need to be removed annually. The cats left behind will tend to have larger litters of kittens, and more of those kittens will survive. The population will quickly return to where it was before cats were removed—and in some cases has been documented to double!

Wildlife and cat advocates can help protect wildlife by collaborating on projects that encourage cat owners to keep owned cats indoors, seek support and funds for installing cat-proof fences around sensitive natural areas, humanely relocate cat colonies that pose unacceptable risks to wildlife, and improve the efficiency and economy of TNR programs. In recent years, animal welfare advocates and wildlife experts have joined forces to develop science-based methods for measuring the number of cats in a community, paving the way to more effective programs for humanely managing and reducing the number of outdoor cats.

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