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Newsletter: Spring 2003
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Notes for Veterinarians who Handle Ferals

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Notes for Veterinarians

This document is a Fact Sheet compiled and copyrighted by Alley Cat Allies. They are at P.O. Box 397, Mount Rainier, MD 20712. It is presented here by the Meower Power Feral Cat Coalition for informational purposes.

Feral cat colonies can be successfully controlled by trapping, sterilizing, and returning the cats to supervised sites. This results in healthy, stabilized colonies beneficial to the cats as well as feeders and local people who usually do not want the cats exterminated. Ovariohysterectomies and castration stop annoying behavior such as "yowling" females in estrus, and aggressive male behavior including frequent fights and territorial spraying of pungent urine. Mortality rates among feral kittens are extremely high, around 50 percent. This method eliminates the sight of sick and dying kittens so upsetting to neighborhood people.

Alley Cat Allies (ACA) offers fact sheets on different components of an overall plan for colonies under permanent care. Feral cats are usually difficult to handle, and the less handled the safer for veterinary staff and the cats. If certain guidelines are followed, ferals can be treated in clinics without mishaps. ACA has successfully trapped and sterilized hundreds of feral cats while forming alliances with feral cat advocates in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. This fact sheet is the result of shared experiences with national and international communities, and is meant as a guide for veterinarians who may not previously have worked with feral cats.

We want to share what we have learned to help humans and felines alike.

Preliminary Plans

When planning a control scheme, the client should seek veterinary advice before trapping. The size and general health of the colony should be assessed. Because it is difficult to guarantee cats are trapped on a predictable schedule, the veterinarian should be as flexible as possible when arranging to receive cats for sterilization. We recommend that veterinarians/clinics draft a specific list of what they require of clients bringing feral cats to their facility. This should include hours of operation, whether the cat should be in a trap, when the cat can be picked up, etc.

Fund Raising and Payment Plans

Payment plans should be worked out ahead of time. Both client and veterinarian must remember that while clinics cannot function without adequate remuneration, the client attempting to control a colony usually has limited resources, and is working to help resolve a severe social problem. With these understandings, a workable plan can usually be devised and implemented. ACA has information and ideas for raising money to help pay bills. National low-cost spay/neuter plans exist and veterinarians can participate in the Friends of Animals subsidized program, which reimburses vets for part of their surgical costs. Contact FOA at 800-321PETS to register. In addition, SPAY/USA (800-243-SPAY) is a national register for low-cost services.

Equipment and Handling

Proper equipment is vitally important when working with feral cats. Special traps, squeeze-side cages (restraint modules), and cages to house the cats after surgery are all necessary.

Very Important! All cages, traps, and other equipment containing feral cats must have large notices attached immediately upon entry into the clinic with the words: Warning! Be Careful...This Cat Will Bite...Do Not Touch!

Many devices have been developed by veterinarians for safe feral cat handling, including "graspers," nets, etc. The most important piece of equipment for veterinary procedures is a squeeze-side cage. In fact, this cage will ensure that veterinary staff never have to handle a cat which has not been sedated. A movable panel immobilizes the cat against a cage side, allowing the veterinarian to tranquilize the animal.

Animal Care Equipment and Services (ACES) offers different size restraint modules. Call Bill Brothers at 800-338-ACES for descriptions and a catalog, and be sure to mention Alley Cat Allies for a 5% discount on your purchase. If it is not possible to obtain the squeeze-side cage, it is easier to immobilize ferals while still in their traps. These cats should be handled only when they have been tranquilized.

Hazards to Humans

All staff and those dealing with feral cats absolutely must have a pre-exposure rabies vaccination. Any bites to humans should be treated immediately to prevent infection. It may be necessary to visit an emergency clinic for proper treatment. Other health hazards are covered in the ACA Fact Sheet: Health Care for Feral Cats, and Zoonotic Diseases: Potential Health Hazards to Humans.

The Centers for Disease Control reported, in 1991, 6,972 cases of rabies in non-human animals and 3, all fatal, in humans. Wild animals accounted for over 91 percent of these cases, with 155 reported in dogs and 189 in cats. Two of the three humans contracted rabies from bats, the other probably from a dog. None of these three humans were treated for rabies. In 1992, one California boy died, also untreated, of rabies contracted from a dog bite on a visit to India. This was the tenth case of rabies in humans acquired outside the U.S. since 1980.

An oral wildlife vaccine, placed in baits, has proven effective in controlling and eliminating rabies in parts of Europe, and in field trials in the U.S. Immunizing animals when ingested, the vaccine creates "immune barriers" among wildlife populations that slow or prevent the spread of the disease. ACA is working with other concerned individuals and scientists to urge the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior to rapidly license and distribute oral vaccines for humane and effective rabies control. Write ACA for further information.

Testing for Viral Diseases

If the cats appear healthy, it should only be necessary to test the first 4 or 5 cats in a colony of 20 to 25 for viral diseases such as feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV.) Unless clinical signs of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) are present, testing is not generally recommended.

When to Use Euthanasia

Criteria for euthanasia should be established before the plan's inception. We recommended that those who have fatal or contagious illnesses be euthanized, to avoid spreading diseases to other colony members or neighborhood cats. Only healthy cats should be released back to supervised sites.

What to Do if Cats Escape

If a feral cat escapes from the trap or cage while in the clinic, recapture using either a tranquillizer dart, or by placing a noose or grasper around the neck while the escapee is cornered. Although the cat will struggle violently, quick handling can ensure safe transfer back into a carrier. Under no circumstances should anyone try to catch the cat barehanded. Remember, these cats have reverted to their wild natures and should be treated with extreme caution. While trying to catch an escapee, wear thick gloves and long sleeves fully covering arms. If the cat hides in an inaccessible place, it is best to set a trap baited with strong smelling food, such as tuna fish.

Cats can be left for 4 to 5 days without food to make them hungry enough to enter the trap, but water should be left for them outside the trap.


Sometimes it is difficult to know whether cats have eaten before being trapped. Veterinarians should ensure to the best of their ability that no food is in the stomach prior to surgery. In the United Kingdom, where these programs have been implemented for two decades, flank incisions are recommended for females as this lessens the chance of infection (if any U.S. veterinarians are using flank incisions, rather than more common midline incisions, ACA would appreciate reports on this). Teeth should be examined and decayed teeth should be removed. A long-lasting antibiotic should be given to both male and female cats to take care of any subclinical infections that may be present. Wounds or eye infections should also be treated at this time. Continue with the medication as indicated until they are released. This reduces chances of infection from the operation. Crushed tablets or liquid medication can be mixed into moist food. If upper respiratory illnesses are present, they can be controlled with antibiotics, but the cat will have to remain in the hospital until well enough for surgery to be performed. Housing animals with contagious diseases presents considerable problems for many clinics, so provisions for keeping cats under these circumstances should definitely be arranged with the clinic prior to implementing the trap-sterilize-release plan.


Pre-surgery tranquilizers should be administered to allow a full examination. A number of good general anesthetics such as Ketaset, Acepromazine and Telazol are available for smooth surgical procedures with a minimum of post-surgical trauma.


Dissolvable sutures should be used to avoid the trauma of having to re-trap female cats for suture removal. Recommended: Coated Vicryl or Dexon "S" (internally); Nexaband S/C (externally).


In states where rabies is endemic, ACA strongly recommends vaccinations for all trapped cats. We advise trapping after 12 to 16 weeks so that a rabies vaccination can be administered. Where allowed by state law, a 3 year rabies vaccine is preferred, to minimize handling.


Early sterilization is possible for kittens as young as 8 weeks old. We advise trapping young ferals when they are 12 to 16 weeks old so that a rabies vaccination can be administered to them if they are to be released back into the colony. If no homes are available for kittens, it is recommended that they be released back into the colony after surgery. Taming kittens is time consuming and takes away homes from domestic kittens who face euthanasia in local shelters. If the client does want to tame and place kittens, ACA has a fact sheet to help with this process.

Pregnant and Lactating Females

If the females are lactating and the kittens are old enough to be on their own, the veterinarian must decide when the cat can be sterilized. It is better to keep the cat in the hospital or in a foster home until surgery can be performed, as recapture is difficult. Do not keep (or trap) a female if you think she is still feeding young kittens; the kittens will die from starvation and exposure. Because many cats need assistance, and there are limited funds and few homes for kittens, it is usually recommended that pregnant females be spayed. If the client insists on keeping the female until the kittens are born, ACA has information on how to deal with this situation. However, it must be pointed out to the client that wild feral females suffer from severe stress and do not give birth easily or successfully while in captivity. The process can be extremely stressful to both humans and felines, with high mortality rates among kittens.

Ear Tipping

We recommend that all feral cats, while still under general anesthetic for spaying or neutering, have the top quarter inch of their left ear removed. The shape of this ear is then unmistakable, even from a distance. It must be emphasized that if too much of the pinna is removed the ear looks "cropped" and is aesthetically unacceptable to the cat caretakers. If too little is removed, the cat will not be identifiable at a distance. Also, if the cut is not straight, the silhouette is not distinctive enough. Properly done, ear tipping allows the caretaker to easily spot any new cat entering the colony, and neutered cats will not have to be retrapped. Any ear-tipped cat trapped in error can be identified within the trap and released.

During surgery, the top 10 mm of the left ear should be removed by a straight cut.

1.First, draw a straight line on the inner aspect of the pinna with a pen.

2.Clean both ear canals to remove any source of irritation and prevent the cat from scratching its ears. Scrub the ear with Betadine solution.

3.Hemostasis may be achieved in several ways: by following the cut with digital pressure, electrocautery, or application of a styptic or drying antiseptic powder.

It is important that ear tipping becomes widespread. ACA, along with the international community, is promoting widespread publicity for ear tipping as the preferred universal method for identifying neutered feral cats belonging to controlled colonies.


Most feral cats have internal parasites such as roundworms, hookworms, coccidia, and/or tapeworms. These should be treated at the time of surgery. The cats can be dusted with powder or sprayed with a safe insecticide if they are infested with fleas.

Post Operative Care

No cats should leave the clinic until fully conscious. An overnight stay in the clinic is highly recommended. Females should be fostered (either in the clinic or in a home) for about four to five days, longer if possible. Males can be released after a night in the clinic. It is safer to keep the cats in a large transportable carrier. This can then be used for direct transportation to the site for release. This will lessen the danger to humans and trauma to the cat that transferring cats from cage to carrier usually causes.

If the cats have to stay in cages at the clinic, remember they are wild and probably very stressed. Hiding in a small container or box will make them feel more secure if they are housed in the clinic's cages, or having a cover pulled over the door of the cage will help lessen their fear. Try to avoid housing them in the same room with dogs. Barking dogs can terrify feral cats. Make sure the cage is securely locked or the cats will escape. Use extra clips or wire to secure the cage closed. Never underestimate the cats' ability or determination to escape.

Exercise great caution when changing cat litter or feeding. Their sometimes docile appearance can be very deceptive-they will suddenly lunge at the door to try to escape, or leap with claws out to scratch an unsuspecting technician. Technicians should wear thick padded gloves while cleaning cages or litter and when feeding.

Lessening the Stress

Remember the cats' well-being is very important, or the objective of trying to help may be entirely lost. No cat should be left in any danger or allowed to become too stressed. They should be left alone to recover, with little human contact. They are usually terrified of humans and it is advisable to keep human contact to a minimum to lessen their stress.

Releasing Sterilized Cats

Feral cats should be released at the location where they were trapped. Fresh food and water should be left for them, and a shelter should be in place for the cats to enter during inclement weather. See our fact sheet, Build An Inexpensive Feral Cat Shelter, for building details.

Frequent visits to the site should be made to ensure that the cats have fully recovered.

Final Long-Term Plan

Established, supervised colonies of sterilized cats are usually very healthy. If any new cats enter the colony they should be trapped, presented for surgery and all these should be tested for FeLV and FIV. If any of the sterilized cats are injured or in ill health, they should be retrapped and taken for veterinary care. Mild colds and sneezing can be controlled by administering antibiotics in moist food, mixing crushed tablets or liquid medication into the food. These medications will have to be prescribed by the veterinarian, with whom an arrangement should be made to allow dispensing medications according to state law. Clean food and fresh water must be provided on a daily basis, and shelters should be constructed.

This plan is more effective than repeated attempts to eradicate colonies of cats, which results in other strays moving into the vacated area to form new feral cat colonies.

Dr. Pervaiz Manzoor, Dr. Jenny Remfry, and the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare provided information and suggestions used in this fact sheet.




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