Returning Cats

Stray cat who was trapped for TNR and is now being released

Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.


As with so many aspects of a community cat program (CCP), there is simply no one-size-fits-all policy for returning cats. Indeed, even within a single CCP, conditions change. For example, kitten season puts additional pressure on resources and the implementation of a “working cat” program (e.g., a barn cat program) allows for relocation in those cases that truly require it. While the decisions regarding returns are made on a case-by-case basis, having clear protocols in place allows such decisions to be made, more often than not, quickly and with confidence.

Although there will always be exceptions to the rule, the up-front investment in a carefully considered guiding principle eliminates much of the uncertainty that can impede a CCP’s progress. Doing so benefits not only the staff and volunteers, but also the cats entrusted to their care.

Guiding principle. To ensure the safety of every cat returned, a CCP should establish a clear guiding principle that will be used to shape policies and practices designed to maximize positive outcomes — including those related to returning cats to their outdoor homes. Doing so before implementing a program will help avoid misunderstandings and mistakes once the program begins. For example, Best Friends governs its CCPs using the following guiding principle:

The best option for an individual cat (given the information available at the time a decision must be made) should be determined by a range of factors, including (in no particular order):

  • Cat’s health
  • Cat’s temperament
  • Cat’s age
  • Location from which the cat was trapped
  • Time of year
  • Availability, capability and capacity of caregivers
  • Availability of a rescue organization to accept (and find a positive outcome for) the cat
  • Availability of various resources (space, funds, medical care, etc.)
  • Legal climate (e.g., laws governing holding times for strays)
  • Potential impact on other animals in the shelter’s care
  • Ways in which the option chosen supports the CCP’s overall goals

Program eligibility. Although some details — the age at which kittens can be vaccinated, for example — vary by CCP in part because of local and state laws and regulations, the basic assumption regarding a cat’s eligibility is the same across the board: If a cat is of healthy weight and body condition, then she probably has a reliable food and water source, and sufficient shelter provided by one or more caregivers. For this reason, many CCP staff, including those employed by Best Friends, consider it unnecessary to identify a caregiver before returning cats.

General guidelines

The following guidelines are considered best practices for returning cats. Situations in the field, however, don’t always allow for such guidelines to be followed precisely. CCP staff and volunteers must therefore exercise their best judgment, being mindful of the primary objective: to provide the best opportunity to thrive for the cat or kitten being returned. A flowchart illustrating the various factors to consider is provided in the appendix.

Preparation. Before transporting the cats to the site where they will be returned:

  • Check the weather. Although extreme temperatures can be dangerous for young kittens, adult cats have generally grown accustomed to such conditions. Many organizations will therefore return cats in all but the most extreme weather conditions as long as they can ensure that the cats have adequate shelter.
  • Make sure all paperwork (e.g., clinic notes) is in order.
  • If requested, call the caregiver, property owner or other contact person ahead of time to notify him or her that one or more cats are being returned. Of course, you can also try to make contact in person at the time the cat is returned.
  • Check that each trap has the correct trap tag, including detailed information about the cat and his return location.
  • Allow time for the transportation vehicle to reach a comfortable interior temperature before loading the cats.
  • Line the floor of the transportation vehicle with newspaper or blankets for easy clean-up later.
  • When possible, inform shelter staff and/or field services officers where and when you are returning cats — especially if doing so after dark. In some cases, CCP staff and volunteers may wish to be accompanied by an field services officer.

Transporting cats. It’s not uncommon for cats to urinate or defecate in their traps while being transported. Ideally, a CCP has dedicated vans that can be hosed out easily. Even so, volunteers will likely be doing trapping and/or providing transportation, so it’s important that they can protect the interior of their cars. Sheets of cardboard and/or plastic drop cloths work well, as do inexpensive shower curtain liners.

Some vehicles are large enough to stack traps, in which case it’s important that the traps be secured in place or arranged in such a way that they cannot shift or tip over during transport. Some two-door traps can fall open if tipped sideways or upside-down, allowing the cat to escape. It is best to use newspaper or light sheets of fabric between layers of traps to keep the cats clean. Never use plastic sheets or heavy fabric for this purpose, as the cats might overheat.

While driving, avoid sounds that are unfamiliar to the cats, such as a blaring radio, and use common sense to make the experience less traumatic. Cats should never be transported in a vehicle’s trunk or in the open bed of a truck.

Returning cats. It’s standard practice for Best Friends’ CCPs to return cats approximately 24 hours after surgery, assuming there is no reason to hold them longer, such as upper respiratory infections or additional surgery performed or required. Nevertheless, we recognize that some programs recommend, or even require, that cats be held in their traps for a longer period of time after surgery.

Please don’t ever return a cat who hasn’t fully recovered from anesthesia, the side effects of which can last up to 24 hours. Lactating mothers should be returned as soon as they have recovered.

Here are some more tips regarding return of cats:

  • Whenever possible, return the cat to the exact location where she was trapped. Adult cats should never be returned more than 300 feet (about the length of a football field) from the exact trapping location.[1]
  • Relocation should be avoided in all but the most extreme circumstances (see below).
  • Double-check that there are no visible signs of illness, injury, or residual effects from the surgery, like bleeding or grogginess, as this is the last chance to catch such issues prior to returning a cat.
  • Make sure the spot chosen to release the cat from the trap does not encourage her to run toward dangerous conditions, such as a busy street or dogs.
  • Keep the trap covered until you are almost ready to release the cat. Then, quietly uncover the trap, allowing the cat to take in her surroundings (i.e., recognize her home) for 15–30 seconds. When you are ready to release the cat, simply hold the trap with the rear door facing away from you and open the door.
  • If the cat doesn’t race out of the trap immediately, tilt the trap so that the end closest to you is raised slightly. You might also try tapping lightly on the trap to encourage the cat to leave. Never put your hand in the trap.
  • If you’re returning both a mother and one or more of her kittens, release the kittens first and then the mother. Doing so allows the kittens to follow the mother to safety.

Returning kittens. Kittens under eight weeks of age are not eligible for Best Friends’ CCPs; this is a common restriction for other programs as well. If trapped, these young kittens are either transferred to rescue groups and foster homes until they are old enough for adoption, or released and re-trapped when they are old enough for spay/neuter surgery. For returning older kittens, the following guidelines are recommended.

Kittens 8 to 12 weeks of age are returned only under the following conditions:

  • A caregiver who agrees to provide ongoing care — and monitor the kittens after they’re returned — must be identified prior to surgery.
  • The caregiver and CCP staff have coordinated the trapping effort and agreed upon a return time.

Kittens 12 to 16 weeks of age are returned only under the following conditions:

  • The kittens are known to be part of a managed colony in which food and water are provided regularly and shelter is available.
  • Efforts are made to locate a colony caregiver at the time the kittens are returned.
  • Kittens must be returned to the exact impound location or colony site.

Wrapping up. Before leaving the return location, canvas the neighborhood, searching for other cats and leaving door hangers with information about the CCP. (See the appendix for an example of a door hanger.) This can also be an excellent opportunity to locate residents who are feeding cats — and recruit volunteers. You’ll want to make notes regarding any need for additional trapping. Remember, to maximize the effectiveness of a TNR program, it’s very important that all cats in a colony be sterilized.

Finally, upon returning to the CCP facility, return the traps for cleaning and storage (see “Trapping Protocols” for details) and clean out the transport vehicles.


It is not unusual for cats to hide out for a couple days after being trapped, sterilized, vaccinated and returned. Don’t be alarmed if caregivers report that the cats are missing. Have them continue to provide food and water as usual (the cats are more likely to eat and drink when nobody is around) and monitor consumption levels. If a cat is not eating and drinking as usual, then the cat should be seen by a veterinarian, which will require re-trapping.

For any socialized cat, encourage caregivers to check the incision site every other day for excessive swelling, discharge or redness. Incisions rarely get infected or open up, but if this occurs, the cat should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Whenever possible, follow up with caregivers within a week after the cats are returned to their colonies. Following up not only ensures the safety of the cats but also strengthens the ongoing relationships between CCP staff and volunteers and residents — a critical component in the success of any CCP.

Finally, please note: Neutered male cats might still act as if they wish to breed; it can take up to 30 days for testosterone levels to drop following surgery.

Special cases

Medical considerations. In some instances, it might be best not to return cats — a declawed cat, for example, or a cat with a leg amputation. In such cases, an alternative positive outcome must be sought, such as adoption from a shelter, transfer to a rescue group or transfer to a foster home.

In some instances, however, a colony caregiver is willing and able to provide ongoing medical treatment (e.g., thyroid medication), in which case the cat can be returned to his colony. Relocation should be considered only if returning the cat will put him in immediate danger (see below), and euthanasia should be performed only in cases of irremediable suffering.

Microchipped cats. Occasionally, a microchipped cat will be returned where he was found, if attempts to contact his family are repeatedly unsuccessful. If this is the case, CCP staff will typically update the corresponding contact information, registering the cat to the CCP or the caregiver. This way, the cat is easily identified if he once again ends up in the shelter system.

Addressing complaints. In the event that you are returning cats and a resident approaches you with the intent of preventing you from doing so, be prepared to leave with the cats and return later, if possible with an field services officer. Also, be sure you have information on hand about humane deterrents. (See “How to Address Various Complaints” for more information on this topic.)

Relocation of cats

In the vast majority of cases, it’s best to return community cats to the location from which they were trapped. Relocating cats — especially as a colony — is an enormous undertaking that’s very stressful for the cats and the people who care for them. Therefore, it should be considered only as a last resort, if the cats are in immediate danger.

Many colonies exist, with their cats thriving, in locations that are less than ideal. Perhaps the location itself offers little in the way of shelter, leaving the cats more exposed than one might like. Or a neighbor doesn’t like the cats so close to his property. Generally speaking, there are ways to address such issues that require less effort and are less risky than relocation (see “How to Address Various Complaints”).

Keep this in mind, too: Moving an entire colony out of its territory might resolve the issues only temporarily, as other cats in the area will likely move in. And if the new cats aren’t sterilized, the number of cats could quickly surpass the number in the original colony. In the event that relocation is truly warranted, it’s important to take the following into account.

Colony makeup and dynamics. If the colony includes kittens under four months of age, consider pulling them so that they can be socialized for adoption. The younger the kittens, the better their chances for socialization, but even adolescents can sometimes become excellent adoption candidates. Often, local rescue groups can help find foster homes and adopters for young kittens.

You might also consider pulling friendly adults, but just because a colony cat is affectionate toward her caregiver doesn’t mean she’s going to respond well to living indoors with unfamiliar people. In addition, colony cats often have strong bonds with one another; separating them is stressful for the cats. Adoption of colony cats is not always the best option, and in some cases, it’s not a good option at all.

Safe relocation sites. Rural locations are perhaps the most popular option for relocation sites, as they typically offer a safer environment for the cats than urban settings. Living on private property, the cats are often provided with barns, stables, tack sheds, garages and unused chicken coops as shelter from the weather and other threats. Rural caregivers, in turn, receive a group of healthy, neutered and vaccinated cats who will provide low-cost rodent deterrents. Among the various options to consider are:

  • Farms (large and small)
  • Ranches
  • Riding stables or equestrian centers
  • Wineries

While urban and suburban sites might not offer the same degree of safety that often comes with wide-open spaces, they have advantages of their own. They have fewer potential predators, for example, and their closer proximity allows for easier screening and transport. In addition, many communities simply have few rural options nearby; expanding the options to include urban and suburban locations allows for many more potential relocation sites. Options include:

  • Fire stations
  • Police stations and sub-stations
  • Auto body shops and auto repair garages
  • Warehouses
  • Urban flower and produce distributors
  • Garden stores
  • Hardware and home improvement stores, especially those with garden centers
  • Feed stores
  • Carpet stores or warehouses, where rodent control is needed
  • Amusement parks
  • Sports stadiums
  • Ports

Recruiting and screening of caregivers. Placing the relocated cats with someone recommended by CCP staff, volunteers or a trusted caregiver provides greater assurance that the colony will be well-maintained. Encourage these people to reach out to their network of friends, family, co-workers, fellow caregivers and others. Also consider placing ads in newspapers and on websites, as well as posting flyers in area shops.

Screen respondents by asking if they will commit to providing daily food, water, shelter and medical care for the cats. People who agree to keep cats on their property must be willing to fulfill such basic needs to safeguard the cats’ health. Establish an agreement with potential caregivers regarding follow-up contact, letting them know you would like to call and/or visit to check on the cats’ progress for the first few months. Anyone unwilling to comply with this request should not be considered as a potential caregiver for your relocation project.

Because our CCPs work closely with municipal shelters, they have a vast network of potential relocation partners to tap into. In San Antonio, Texas, for example, Animal Care Services’ public information officer often reaches out to her counterpart in other government agencies (police, fire, airport, etc.) soliciting help with relocation efforts and offering TNR and vaccination services. These partnerships have proven to be enormously beneficial, both in expanding the range of positive outcomes available to Animal Care Services and in garnering public support for the CCP.

Transport to the relocation site. Just like pet cats, some colony cats adapt easily to traveling in a vehicle, while others may howl and cry. To lessen the cats’ stress during transport, cover the bottom of the traps with newspaper or cloth and keep the traps covered. Do not place more than one cat in a trap and make certain there is adequate ventilation. If the trip to the relocation site is lengthy, provide food and water, but make sure you properly secure the containers to avoid spilling. While driving, avoid sounds that are unfamiliar to the cats, such as a blaring radio, and use common sense to make the experience less traumatic. Cats should never be transported in a vehicle’s trunk or in the open bed of a truck.

Acclimation period. When the cats arrive at their new location, it might be necessary to keep some of them caged individually for several days if, for example, they’re still recovering from surgery or they need regular doses of medication. Most, however, can be housed together in a large enclosed or caged area for two to four weeks while they become familiar with their new environment. They can be released into a closed barn, shed, or other large shelter, such as an unused chicken coop, covered dog pen or an enclosure like those pictured here. The idea is to give them enough room to become familiar with their new home without permitting them free access to the outdoors.

Cats can be escape artists, especially when they are stressed. During their acclimation period, make absolutely sure that the cats cannot escape from their enclosures, or become injured while trying to. Some cats will even try to dig out of an enclosure, so be sure the bottom is secure.

Be sure to provide smaller shelters within the larger shelter or enclosure. These allow the cats a safe place to hide while caregivers are feeding and cleaning, and while other humans are in the area. It’s important that the cats come to regard this enclosure as their permanent feeding station before they are permitted to roam freely outside. Feed canned food at least once a day, and always at the same time; regular feedings will help them to realize they have a reliable food source. Always have dry food and water available for the cats.

During the cats’ confinement period, the new caregiver must regularly visit the cats to ensure the bonding that is essential for successful relocation. Speaking to the cats, even if they remain hidden, helps them to overcome their fear of humans. After their two-to-four-week confinement period, the cats can be given access to the outdoors. A small opening should be provided so they may come and go whenever they want. After the cats have acclimated to their new surroundings, the enclosure can be removed.

Various types of acclimation period shelters

To ease the cats’ transition to the new colony location, bring some materials, such as bedding, food dishes and leaves, from the original colony location. This will provide the cats with some familiar scents. And if possible, have the original caregiver alternate daily feeding duties with the new caregiver for a few weeks, so the cats have an additional sense of continuity.

Ongoing commitment. Your commitment to relocating community cats doesn’t end when they’re delivered to their new home. Build a friendly relationship with the new caregiver by making regular phone calls and visiting, if possible, for the first few months. It’s very important that you’re available to the caregiver, providing him or her with information that might aid the cats in adapting to their new environment. Since you discussed your desire to maintain contact with the caregiver when you found the new home, your actions will likely be seen as supportive rather than intrusive. And in some instances, the new caregiver will become part of your support network for future community cat relocation projects.

Additional resources

To RTF or Not to RTF Flowchart
Baltimore CCP door hanger

The 28 chapters that make up the CCP Handbook fall into three sections, as follows:




[1] It’s important that there’s no dangerous barrier between the return site and the trap site. Here’s a possible scenario: A cat was trapped at a specific house in a gated community. The person returning the cat needs to release the cat somewhere close by. Using Google Earth, she might locate a wrought-iron gate about a block from the trap site where she knows the cat can easily get back onto the property without encountering busy roads or other barriers such as fences. However, if her research reveals instead that the gated community is very large and the only gate where the cat could easily access the property is three blocks from the trap site, or a large stream runs between the gate and the trap site, it would become necessary to gain access to the gated area in order to safely return the cat.

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