Practitioners have long been aware of the importance of spay and neuter for client-owned animals. However, the vast number of unowned felines have been largely overlooked, thereby contributing to more shelter euthanasias and animal suffering. Many attempts have been made on a small scale to attack this problem. Initial efforts were made via trap and eradication programs, but were unsuccessful for multiple reasons. Removing cats from an established food source invites other cats to fill the "vacuum," and many are released from the traps by people who find the cats' demise inappropriate.(1, 2) Conversely, trap, neuter and release have since proven to control and reduce the numbers of cats in feral colonies as well as their contribution to shelter populations.(3)
The Feral Cat Coalition (FCC) in San Diego is a prime example of one of these types of programs. Founded in 1992 by Dr. Rochelle Brinton and feral cat caretakers, the FCC has since sterilized over 10,300 unowned cats. Euthanasia of cats at the county shelters was at an all time high at the inception of this program, with each feline internment costing an estimated $121. After just two short years, and with no other explanation, the total number of cats brought in dropped by over 35%, and euthanasias dropped 40%, instead of the usual 10% increase (Fig. 1). The estimated tax savings for fewer cats euthanized was calculated to $795,976. These numbers clearly indicate the positive impact a trap, alter and release program can have on feline euthanasias and tax dollars. It is the opinion of the author that similar programs are needed and would be successful in any community.
|*Other included: return to wild, transfer to correct jurisdiction, wildlife rehabilitation, stolen, escaped, DOA, died in kennel, died in truck, died at contract veterinarian, misc.|
Cats presented for altering at FCC clinics must be feral or unowned and have a caretaker (someone who will regularly feed the colony). It is important to note that a large number of "feral" cats are actually abandoned and may be quite tame, but must lack obvious signs of ownership (i.e. collars, tattoos, etc.). Caretakers book appointments through a screener who verifies that the cats are unowned and advises the caretaker of mandatory ear-tipping.
Feral cats can be anesthetized via intramuscular injections through the trap wire, transferred to an anesthetic box/chamber or even by delivering gas into a clear plastic bag enclosing the trap. The preferred method at FCC clinics is an intramuscular injection of a telazol cocktail.(4) This cocktail was chosen largely because of its relative low cost, and small volume to be administered. The cocktail is mixed as follows:1 vial telazol powder
Of this mixture, approximately .1cc/10# is administered IM through the cage wire. Cats may occasionally need additional doses (.02cc/cat) if not maintained on gas. Although actual handling of awake cats is minimized with this method, rabies prophylaxis is recommended for the personnel who help with anesthesia. Yohimbine is kept on hand in a crash kit and administered as directed for cats that are shocky or slow to recover.
Female cats are clipped and prepped using standard aseptic technique on "spay boards" which are simple acrylic boards with notches cut for leg ties. Spay boards allow multiple surgeons to operate in one space during large volume clinics and provide for ease of transport from one station to the next. All ovariohysterectomies are performed using sterile gloves and packs for each cat and should be done through the smallest incision possible. It has been found over the years that cats were less likely to disrupt incisions when the linea and skin were closed with 5-0 stainless steel wire. This small gauge wire lends itself to easy handling, will not untie and causes virtually no tissue reaction. Use of gut sutures in the subcutaneous layer is discouraged as it tends to cause inflammation leading to chewing and dehiscence. Two throws per knot are sufficient for closure. Suture ends are cut close to the knot to allow little material for cats to pull on should they try to remove the wires.
Male cats are routinely neutered at FCC clinics although vasectomy could be an option especially if dominant males could be identified. Potential drawbacks to vasectomizing males would include continued fighting with possible transference of viral diseases among the colony, spraying and eventual introduction of an intact male to a susceptible female population. Abscess surgeries, enucleations, tail and toe amputations are often performed at FCC clinics as deemed necessary. Drains are not placed due to inability for removal, but dissolvable sutures may be used for these procedures as dehiscence here would not be life-threatening.
Ear-tipping, or removal of the top ¼ inch of the right ear, is required so if the cat is trapped again, it is identified as an altered cat and won't have to undergo anesthesia and surgery again. This is also a deterrent to people bringing pets into the feral clinics.
A straight line is used, as opposed to a notch, to ensure that fight injuries will not be mistaken for ear-tipping. Just prior to surgery, hold measured tip of ear between thumb and forefinger in as straight a line as possible. Using sharp scissors (not a scalpel), cut ¼ inch for most cats with normal sized ears—1/6 inch for kittens or very small-eared cats. Perform one clean, straight cut, to minimize bleeding. Moisten some styptic powder with a little water to make paste. Apply the paste to the ear to prevent bleeding. Watch cat for bleeding. If bleeding does occur, apply a hemostat for a short while; in most cases, this will not be necessary.
Cats are trapped the night before surgery in humane traps (Tomahawk or Hav-a-heart) using a small amount of mackerel on a paper plate placed under the wire bottom of the trap. Cats are brought to the FCC clinics in their traps or plastic airline crates covered with a towel to help minimize stress. Cardboard carriers are refused as cats can easily escape and are not suited for recovery.
Cats are transported to recovery for ear tipping, antibiotic injection and rabies vaccination. FCC has included rabies inoculation as a routine procedure for public health reasons, other vaccines are optional but would be paid for by the caretaker. Small kittens are kept warm and administered Karo syrup gingivally to speed recovery. Late term pregnancies over five weeks are automatically given subcutaneous fluids. Advantage is applied to cats suffering extreme flea allergy dermatitis.
All surgeries are discharged the same day to their prospective caretakers. Males are released as soon as fully ambulatory; females are kept in traps at least 24 hours. Lactating females should be released early to reduce risk to nursing kittens. All cats should be released at their point of capture allowing return to their colonies. Discharge instructions are handed out to caretakers upon pickup.
No fetuses are resuscitated at FCC clinics due to the large number of domesticated kittens already needing homes. Severely debilitated cats are euthanized at the discretion of the attending veterinarian. FCC ferals are managed with "herd health" in mind. Due to the nonprofit nature of the group and the large number of cats altered at each clinic (avg 120/clinic). Routine FeLV/FIV testing has not been done, but is certainly recommended when feasible.
Humane reduction of feral populations benefits the cats as well as the public welfare. Trap, neuter and release programs have proven themselves in San Diego and many other communities across the nation. Thanks to an infusion of funds from the Duffield Trust (Maddie's Fund), vouchers may be used in the future to attend to these feral felines. By adapting FCC protocols to fit individual communities, any veterinarian can contribute to alleviating this overpopulation problem.
More detailed information regarding FCC protocols can be found at www.feralcat.com.
Michelle S. Chappell DVM
El Cajon Valley Veterinary Hospital, 560 North Johnson Avenue, El Cajon, CA 92020
[Page updated November 2009]