Waiting to release -the importance of post surgery recovery time in TNR programs

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

During the three years I lived in a house in an urban New Jersey city right across the river from Manhattan, I was a feral cat colony care taker and operated a trap, neuter, monitor and release program out of our home. I never applied for the job, the cats found me. It was easy, we lived in an area well populated by all sorts of roaming cats from the street cats, the outdoor cats and the ferals. I am convinced they can all sniff out a handout and pass the word around. A random cat appears at the back door and stares in, you leave out some food and the rest is history. When I noticed how popular we were becoming (we had both opossums and cats showing up for kibble) I mentioned it to my pet sitter, who being committed to all things animal rescue, initiated me into the world of outdoor cat houses (filled with straw to burrow in, not blankets which freeze please), have-a-heart traps (please monitor and cover once successful), when to trap (after the winter and before the fall), who not to trap (nursing mothers and young kittens), how long to allow for recovery (two days for males at least a week for females) and how to set up a litter pan in a kennel while kitty is recuperating (in the front so you can reach it without terrorizing the both of you). I was fortunate to have both a back yard for my cat houses and a separate basement to set up my holding and recovery kennels. As the years went on and where I lived changed, I never stopped seeing roaming cats and wondering about them but I no longer had the physical set up to duplicate my efforts.

When I moved back to Manhattan for the Masters Program in Animal Behavior at Hunter College, the rents in New York City were so high at the time, the only neighborhood we could afford was East Harlem. You don’t see roaming cats in most areas of New York City but in the areas you do see them there are a lot. East Harlem is one of the neighborhoods where feral cats flourish. I was now faced with reconciling my experience in feral cat population management, more formal knowledge of what was going on with these cats and the reality of how differently things were being done without basements and back yards. Lacking space to house recovery kennels or cages, cats were being routinely neutered with disregard to time of year, age, sex or adequate time for recovery with awful impacts for welfare. Especially with the most vulnerable group of all kittens.

Pediatric spay and neuter is now a well established practice in the shelter system. Whatever the disadvantages of the practice for the animal’s welfare the benefits in limiting overpopulation, are believed to far outweigh them. The main reason the practice works as well as it does is that kittens (and puppies) can be spayed and neutered as young as eight weeks and cared for as they heal from these invasive and complicated surgical procedures within shelters and homes. The care in home and shelter environments allows the infants to be monitored, sufficient time to recover in a supportive environment and if needed, adequately address any post surgical complications as they arise.

All surgery carries risks in how well it is done and in the condition of the patient. In the world of neutering feral cats, more risks are put into play. Because their environments are less protective, feral cats may come into surgery with upper respiratory tract infections and/or parasites increasing the risks of anesthetic complications. Feral kittens, like all kittens, have lower body fat, reduced ability to generate heat, and need less fasting prior to surgery, more risk factors. In spite of such serious risks, the prevailing wisdom concludes: “the opportunity to neuter any individual animal may not present itself again in the future. Thus, the benefits of neutering such animals when the opportunity arises generally outweigh the risks posed by such medical conditions.”

Another added risk for TNR cats is a shortened period of both anesthesia, sedative and pain medications. As these cats are not allowed time to fully recover in place once out of surgery, these medications are chemically reversed depriving the cat of pain relief and flooded with the body’s reaction adrenaline or “catecholamine” as the task force further notes: “However, it must be remembered that reversal of analgesic and sedative agents may cause pain and anxiety. In particular, IV administration of reversal agents is commonly associated with sudden catecholamine release. Hence, rapid IV administration should be avoided if at all possible, except in emergency situations when rapid reversal is required.”

TNR programs when properly implemented are effective at controlling feral cat populations in a compassionate and humane way. Programs that administer pain medication post surgery allow males 2-3 days and females 7-10 days to convalesce under their direct care before being released and avoid spaying lactating mothers after kittens are weaned are both welfare focused and have better outcomes. Programs that routinely release neutered kittens and lactating mothers 24 hours of less after invasive surgeries back to their natal environments are dangerous and responsible for more suffering and greater fatalities.

Deprived of adequate recovery time, the necessary sufficient time to heal post surgery, many kittens are simply too young to survive the process. Lactating mothers are taken from dependent kittens for the span of the TNR process and released back to their habitats fresh from an invasive procedure with a fresh sutured incision at the site of the mammary glands they need to nurse their young with. Complications post surgery and release are mostly not monitored or attended to.

I became aware of this problem after seeing the work of The New York City Feral Cat Initiative (an umbrella agency working under the Mayor’s NYC Alliance for animals) in action. While living in East Harlem an area abundant with feral cat colonies, I came to know very well each individual kittens living in the vacant lot next door to my building. When I came home one evening to see the kittens being trapped I was worried. I tried conversation, reasoning and ended up cautioning the women doing the trapping about how important age limits and recovery are to a kitten’s welfare. However, they observed the protocols and practices of the program. Once back in the vacant lot the kittens sickened visibly every day. Whether lack of recovery time or post surgical complications was to blame is unknown. These kittens died a slow and painful death within a matter of weeks after being released. My sister brought the last kitten we found in severe distress to be euthanized. How much more humane it would have been to euthanize these animals directly after trapping.

I have contacted the mayor’s office, been contacted and spoken at length with the Veterinary Services department of the NYC Department of Health and exchanged a string of e-mails with Nancy Peterson, the feral cat program director for the Humane Society of the United States. Ms. Peterson’s initial response to me was that kittens in TNR programs are not released back to colonies but adopted out. In her last response to me she quotes a veterinarian who states that “surely some kittens will die if returned to their colonies after neutering” and who cites a Florida study on the survival rate of TNR cats (as if weather is a not a significant variable in survival).

Some thirty years ago when the practices of pediatric spay and neuter was first introduced into the shelter system there was much debate over the impacts (delayed closure of long bone growth plates, immature secondary sex organs, incontinence in females, behavior and development changes) on immature animals. At no point in the debates, the studies and the conversations was a variable ever raised that it might somehow be acceptable medical practice to surgically alter infants and leave them in vacant lots without convalescent care.

Everyone here feels they are on the side of the angels. What is being left out of the equation is that any humane conservation or management effort must by definition not allow humans to be the agents of direct suffering and death. It is dangerous to accept any less than this. TNR programs run on the volunteer efforts. Most if not all volunteers believe in the good of the work they are doing. Exposing the dangers in current practices can ensure that good work is done.

In my graduate program we were taught of the virtues of “adaptive management” with regard to management of wildlife programs. Adaptive management simply means we must learn from our mistakes, we are warned against the dangers of being reluctant to admit failures and not adapting our programs.


Looney A.L., Bohling M.W., Bushby P.A., Howe L.M., Griffin B., Levy J.K., Eddlestone S.M., Weedon J.R., Appel L.D., Rigdon-Brestle Y.K., Ferguson N.J., Sweeney D.J., Tyson K.A., Voors A.H., White S.C., Wilford C.L., Farrell K.A., Jefferson E.P., Moyer M.R., Newbury S.P., Saxton M.A., Scarlett J.M. Association of Shelter Veterinarians' Spay and Neuter Task Force. (2008) The Association of Shelter Veterinarians veterinary medical care guidelines for spay-neuter programs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 233(1):74-86.

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