Feral Kittens    Ear Tipped Cat    Lily

Free-roaming cats, both tame and feral, are largely responsible for the population of homeless cats in the United States. This is because only about 2% of free-roaming cats are spayed or neutered, compared to about 85% of pet cats. Population projections estimate 33 million kittens per year come from pet cats and 147 million come from free-roaming cats.[1] The kittens produced by free-roaming cats increase competition for animal shelter resources and for adoptive homes.  

Estimates suggest there are nearly 200,000 feral cats living in Fairfax County alone![2]  Given the large number of feral cats in the County, it would not be either practical or humane to attempt to eradicate them.[3] Instead, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter uses a proactive, community-based approach to controlling the population of feral cats in Fairfax County. Working with hundreds of feral cat colony caretakers, the Shelter provides free spay or neuter surgery and basic medical care to feral cats. Since 2008, over 3,000 feral cats have been spayed or neutered through the Shelter's Trap-Neuter-Return program.  

What is a feral cat?

Feral cats are members of the domestic cat species, but they are not socialized (friendly) to humans. A feral cat is a cat who has either never had contact with humans, or whose contact with humans has diminished over time. Feral cats survive on their own outdoors, often living in groups called colonies, wherever they can find food and shelter. Feral cats cannot be adopted from animal shelters because they are fearful of people.  

What is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?

Colony caretakers and volunteers humanely trap feral cats and bring them to a clinic where they are spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies and distemper, checked over and given an ‘ear tip.’ The cats are then returned to their colony where they can live out their lives without adding to the homeless cat population. Feral cats that go through this program live healthier lives and are less prone to fighting, spraying, and other nuisance behaviors which are associated with breeding.   

What is ear-tipping?

Ear-tipping is a widely accepted, practiced, and understood way of marking a feral cat that has been spayed or neutered. If you see a cat with the tip removed from one of its ears (usually the left ear), chances are it is part of a managed feral colony. 

How does Trap-Neuter-Return benefit the community?

[1] Source: the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project (

[2] Based on Fairfax County Economic and Demographic data ( and the feral cat population estimate formula (The Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project:

[3] Fairfax County Times, April 2010 ( 

Because feral cats are not adoptable, the most humane solution is to allow them to live out their lives outdoors without contributing further to the outdoorcat population. TNR stabilizes the feral cat population and over time, reduces it. It reduces or eliminates nuisance behaviors like spraying, noisemaking, and fighting.  TNR also saves taxpayer dollars by reducing the number of kittens that come to the Shelter in need of socialization, medical care and, eventually, adoptive homes. The Shelter has seen a significant reduction in the number of kittens entering our facility and Foster Program since our TNR program was established in 2008. 

What is a colony caretaker?

Colony caretakers (individuals or groups) manage the feral cat colony or colonies in a community. The caretaker provides food, water and shelter for the cats and humanely traps them so that they can be spayed or neutered and given medical care. The Fairfax County Animal Shelter gives donated food and supplies to caretakers who manage colonies. 

How can I learn more about caring for feral cats, and how to become a colony caretaker? 

  • Learn everything you need to know about what to do when you see cats outdoors and how to manage your own colony by signing up for our FREE Helping Community Cats workshop. These classes are held monthly in two locations in the County. Visit the Shelter Calendar.
  • Contact the Shelter to see if someone in your community is already trapping cats and can help you learn more about how you can help. 

I am interested in helping to care for feral cats in my neighborhood, but I am on a fixed income and can’t afford to spend much money.  Do you provide financial assistance? 

The Fairfax County Animal Shelter makes every effort to reduce the financial burden on colony caretakers and volunteers who help feral cats. Food assistance is available through the Shelter donation program. Traps are loaned for free, and spay and neuter and basic medical services are provided free of charge to program participants. This program, and all County Spay and Neuter services, are funded through the Animal Friendly license plate grant. Once the cats in your colony are spayed or neutered, it should be less expensive to feed them once the population stabilizes.  

What is the difference between a feral cat and a stray cat?

Stray cats are socialized to people and can be adopted into homes, but feral cats are not socialized to people and are happy living outdoors. While a stray cat might be seen during daylight hours and may approach people, a feral cat is more often nocturnal and will typically flee when strangers approach. Stray cats can sometimes be reintroduced to homes, although they may require time to re-adjust after living outdoors away from people. 

Can I bring feral cats to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter to be adopted?

Feral cats are not socialized to humans and cannot be adopted from the Shelter. An adult feral cat is fearful of people, usually cannot be touched even by a caretaker, and is not likely to become a lap cat or be happy living indoors. Humane euthanasia is the only option for feral cats in the Shelter. Because there are no licensing laws in Fairfax County and cats are legally allowed to be free-roaming, the Shelter will not accept feral cats for intake unless the cat is sick or injured. 

Feral kittens can often be socialized at a young age and placed in adoptive homes, but this is an intensive process which consumes a lot of the Shelter's foster care resources. If you notice kittens living outdoors in your community, we ask that you attend one of the Shelter's Helping Community Cats workshops before attempting to trap kittens and bring them to the Shelter. 

Can’t feral cats be removed or relocated?

Feral cat colonies live in certain areas because of the presence of resources such as a reliable food supply, access to water, and safe shelter, whether these resources are provided by a colony caretaker or whether they exist in the area naturally. Rounding up cats and relocating them or bringing them to shelters does not solve the problem. Instead, attempts at this type of eradication almost always leads to the ‘vacuum effect,’ whereby new cats come to the newly vacated area in search of the food or other resources that attracted the original cats. Relocating cats is time-consuming, there is no guarantee that the cats will remain in the new location, and new locations are very difficult to find. TNR prevents the vacuum effect by enabling an existing colony to continue living in its established territory - which the colony will defend from other cats - without reproducing. In this way, the feral cat population is gradually reduced over time.

How do I obtain traps?

If you are part of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter’s TNR program, you can borrow traps from the Shelter at no cost. To learn more about the Fairfax County TNR program or to become a colony caretaker, contact  

Where can I learn more about helping feral cats?

Most of the information on this page comes from Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats. Visit the Alley Cat Allies website to read more about TNR and caring for feral cats in your community: Alley Cat Allies. 

Links to Other Resources


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