Trap, Neuter, Return

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What is a community cat?

Community cats are cats who live outdoors with no one specific owner. These cats can be friendly towards humans, or they can be feral (unsocialized and avoidant of humans), or they may fall somewhere on the spectrum between friendly and feral. Some community cats have a caregiver who watches out for them, but others may survive and thrive without direct human intervention. For all free-roaming community cats, their home is the outdoors, within the community.


Can I bring community cats to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter?

No, the shelter does not accept healthy free-roaming community (aka feral or stray) cats. There are no laws against free-roaming cats in Fairfax County. The rate of return-to-owner for stray cats is only around 20%, and owned pet cats are 13 times more likely to find their way home on their own versus being brought to a shelter. Additionally, some free-roaming community cats don't have one specific home they return to, but are rather cared for and part of a colony. If the shelter took in healthy free-roaming community cats, many cats would be at risk of euthanasia for lack of space or because they are not suited to life as an indoor pet cat. If a cat is sick or injured, or declawed or microchipped, the shelter will accept him/her. If you see a sick or injured cat outdoors, contact the animal protection police at 703-691-2131.

Community cats are often feral (not socialized to humans) and are not suited to life around humans as an indoor pet cat. Community cats are often fearful and avoidant of humans, and are not likely to ever be socialized enough to become a lap cat or to even be happy living indoors. For truly feral cats who are brought to shelters, the only outcome is euthanasia, which is why we do not accept community cats to our shelter. We instead offer resources to help community members participate in our Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) program, which is the most humane and effective approach to managing community cat populations. 


What is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?

Colony caregivers and volunteers humanely trap community cats after making an appointment at a clinic, where they are spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies and distemper, eartipped, and given a basic checkup. After a 24-hour recovery period, the cats are returned to the exact location where they were initially trapped, and released there. The cats can live out their lives in their outdoor home, but won't be adding to the community cat population. Sterilized community cats will no longer display those often-annoying behaviors associated with mating, such as: yowling, fighting, spraying, and of course, producing kittens. Cats who go through a TNR program live healthier individual lives, and the community receives the added benefits of having these community cats vaccinated against rabies.


Can’t community cats just be removed or relocated?

Community cats live in an area because the resources - food, water, shelter - are there to support them. These resources may be provided by humans, or not. Rounding up the cats and bringing them to shelters does not solve the problem, plus the community cats will likely just be euthanized if they enter a shelter, because they are not suited for life as an indoor pet cat. Relocation is also not a viable option. It is time-consuming and difficult, there is no guarantee that the cats will remain in the new location, and new locations for cats are very difficult to find. Occassionally the Shelter does get in cats who are suited to a barn home, and we make every effort to find a suitable barn home for the cats to go to. But overall, removal or relocation efforts for community cats are not feasible. Attempts at these types 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. TNR prevents the vacuum effect by enabling the existing community cats to continue living in their established territory - which the colony will defend from other cats - without reproducing.


How can I tell if a cat has been through a TNR program, and what is an eartip?

An eartip is the universal signal that a cat has been spayed or neutered, and vaccinated against rabies and distemper. Community cats who have been through a TNR program are eartipped while they are under anesthesia for surgery, so if you see a free-roaming community cat with 3/8" of their left (or sometimes their right) ear tip removed, they are spayed/neutered and vaccinated. You may read more about eartipping here.


How does Trap, Neuter, Return benefit the community and the shelter?

Because community cats are not suited to life as an indoor pet cat, the only outcome for these cats who are brought to the shelter is euthanasia. Euthanizing an otherwise healthy cat for simply living outdoors is not the compassionate thing to do, nor is it effective in the long run. The most humane and effective approach for community cats is TNR. TNR stabilizes community cat populations, which over time decline naturally. Sterilizing community cats reduces the nuisance behaviors (spraying, yowling, fighting) associated with mating, which makes cats better neighbors. TNR also saves taxpayer dollars by reducing the number of kittens who are brought to the Shelter in need of socialization, basic supplies and care, medical care, and adoptive homes. The Shelter has seen a significant reduction in the number of kittens entering our facility since the TNR program was established in 2008. Having fewer kittens, and not accepting community cats overall into the Shelter, allows the Shelter more time and resources to focus on the indoor pet cats who need our help and care to find them a new home.


How can I participate in Fairfax County's TNR program?

Any resident of Fairfax County may participate in our TNR program to assist cats who reside within Fairfax County. The first step is to attend one of our FREE Helping Community Cats workshops, dates listed below. You can also visit the Shelter calendar for more dates, which are added as we are able. Here's the list of upcoming workshops, and please remember to RSVP online at: You can also email us with any questions at

  • Saturday, April 8, 9-10:30am, at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter

Attendance at a workshop (or, prior experience in conducting TNR yourself) grants access to our FREE trap loan program, and our FREE weekly TNR clinics. Reservations for the clinics are REQUIRED IN ADVANCE. Please DO NOT trap cats without a clinic appointment. For trap loan and clinic reservations, please email us

The Fairfax County Animal Shelter makes every effort to reduce the financial burden on community cat caregivers, and volunteers who help with the TNR program. We often have cat food available for community cat caregivers, which can be picked up during the Monday TNR clinics. Traps are loaned for free, and the TNR clinics are provided free-of-charge to program participants. This program is funded through the gracious and generous support of the Friends of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, and through donations made directly to the Shelter's Trust Fund.


Where can I learn more information about community cats and caring for them?

Our free Helping Community Cats workshop is a great place to start, but there are also many resources online. Here are a few:


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