Although it has long been assumed that community cats are likely to suffer poor welfare if not admitted to a shelter, there is a growing body of evidence that this is not the case.
Community Cats Are Generally in Good Health
Cats presented to community cat Trap-Neuter-Return clinics are generally fit and healthy (Scott 2002) with less than 1% requiring euthanasia for debilitating conditions, trauma, or infectious diseases in one study of more than 100,000 cats in 6 states (Wallace 2007). While the risks of some infections (such as parasites) are higher in community cats than in pet cats, the risk of others is equal (FeLV, FIV) or lower (FIP) (Green 2011, Lee 2002, Luria 2004, Levy 2006).
The general good health of community cats is reflected in the health status of cats entering shelters – even though cats brought to shelters are the most likely to be sick or injured (and thus brought to the shelter for care) many shelters report less than 10% of cats entering the shelter are unhealthy.
In the most complete long-term study of a community cat Trap-Neuter-Return program ever reported, death or euthanasia occurred after an average of 3-5 years of observation (Levy 2003). The cats still remaining on the property at the end of the 11-year follow-up period had been present for an average of 7 years.
Kittens Are Less Likely to Survive
While adult cats thrive in the community, kittens are less likely to survive. In one study, 75% of rural kittens died or disappeared before 6 months of age, a survival rate similar to other small carnivores (Nutter 2004). Since the suffering of kittens represents the single greatest threat to community cat welfare, the highest priority must be placed on interrupting the cycle of reproduction.
Although populations of community cats have survived without medical intervention for thousands of years, Trap-Neuter-Return programs provide an opportunity for enhancing their welfare and managing their populations. Like their pet counterparts, community cats gain weight following neutering (Scott 2002). Vaccination provides long-term protection against infectious diseases (Fisher 2007).
Neutering reduces the main risk factors for the spread of FeLV and FIV, namely the production of susceptible kittens and fighting among tom cats. Minor injuries can be treated at the time of neutering, and cats with debilitating conditions can be humanely euthanized. Many Trap-Neuter-Return programs also divert kittens and friendly adults into adoption programs, resulting in a rapid reduction of colony size (Levy 2003).