Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.
Trapping can be the single greatest challenge for some community cat programs (CCPs). And trapping effectiveness can be greatly affected by a number of factors outside the control of CCP staff and volunteers (e.g., weather, site access, trap-savvy cats). Adopting robust trapping protocols is therefore a top priority for a CCP. After all, if you can’t trap the cats, you can’t sterilize and vaccinate them.
This guide is intended to help CCP staff and volunteers plan and conduct successful trapping projects, whether for a single cat or a large colony. Obviously, some details will vary from program to program, but the general principles apply across the board.
Note: This chapter of the Community Cat Programs Handbook combines the first-hand experience of many Best Friends staff and volunteers, as well as that of other organizations. We are especially grateful for the information published in “Trapping: The Basics” and “The Neighborhood Cats Drop Trap” (Neighborhood Cats), Guide to Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) and Colony Care (Alley Cat Allies, the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals and the ASPCA), and the many trapping tips provided by the Animal Defense League of Arizona.
Equipment and supplies
Here are some details on the many items you’ll generally want on hand for a successful trapping project.
Humane box (or cage) traps. As with other tools, quality traps are important. High-quality traps will not only last much longer than their less expensive counterparts, they are likely to perform better in the field. The design of the trap is important as well; most CCPs prefer the style with both front (hinged) and rear (sliding) doors. These are easier and safer for veterinary staff to use, and are also more difficult for a cat to escape from while veterinary staff, trappers and caregivers are providing in-trap care or cleaning traps (assuming a trap divider is used).
Be sure all traps are numbered (to track inventory) and labeled with information about the organization, including a phone number. You might also consider including a note about TNR, informing any curious residents that the traps are being used for humane purposes and should not be tampered with. For trapping jobs involving multiple locations, label each trap in such a way that you’re sure to return cats to their correct location. (See appendix for a trap label example.)
Drop traps. This type of trap is basically a large bottomless mesh box that is propped up to allow cats to enter. The trap is then dropped over the cat(s) when the trapper pulls a string attached to the object being used to prop up the trap (e.g., a wooden dowel, length of PVC pipe, plastic bottle).
Although drop traps can be relatively costly to buy and (other than the collapsible versions) are rather cumbersome to handle and transport, they are invaluable tools for any CCP. Various plans for do-it-yourself versions, along with videos demonstrating their use, can be found at the Drop Trap Design Bank website.
Historically, drop traps have been used to catch trap-savvy cats (often the last one or two in a colony) or a litter of kittens (perhaps with their mother). More recently, though, some people have begun using drop traps when first trapping large colonies. In addition to the obvious advantage of catching multiple cats at once, their use might also minimize the skittishness that can result from multiple box traps being used in close proximity to colony cats (i.e., cats become increasingly wary after seeing fellow colony cats trapped).
Transfer cages. Especially useful when trapping large colonies, transfer cages (sometimes called transport kennels) take up less space in a vehicle and allow traps to be reused. Cats are transferred into the transfer cages on-site, and traps are then re-baited to catch more cats. (See “Beyond the Basics” below for additional information about safely transferring cats.)
Trap covers. These are generally cut or sewn from old bed linens, but in colder climates, some trappers prefer heavier fabric, such as old towels or blankets. (See the appendix for an example of a trap cover sewing pattern.)
Checklist. By their very nature, CCP operations can be somewhat chaotic, and the accompanying stress can create an environment in which it’s easy to leave necessary equipment or supplies behind as you head out to trap. So, it helps to make a checklist of everything (including the traps) that you need to bring. It’s also a good idea to have the key steps involved written down for easy review.
Colony tracking system, clipboard and pen or pencil. Keeping track of which colony cats are sterilized and their vaccination dates can be a challenge, especially for large colonies. The use of a tracking system helps caregivers and trappers address this problem. (See the appendix for an example.)
Newspaper. Newspaper is used to line the traps, increasing the likelihood that the cats (some of whom might be put off by the feel of wire on their feet) will enter the traps. Fold the newspaper, two or three sheets together, so that it can be slid easily into the trap lengthwise with approximately half an inch to spare on both sides of the trap. (On windy days, you may want to use something heavier, such as a hand towel or other fabric that will stay flat.)
Painter’s tape or masking tape. A little bit of tape on each corner of the newspaper will prevent it from blowing around in the trap and scaring the cats. Another piece stuck underneath the bait tray will help prevent clever cats from reaching into the trap and moving the tray closer to the corner, where they can steal the bait. Trappers often use tape to label traps in the field as well, especially for large trapping jobs. Knowing exactly where a cat was trapped helps ensure that she will be returned to the correct location.
Magic markers. These are important to have on hand for labeling traps in the field, and can come in handy for other uses as well.
Bait. Among the baits typically used by trappers are canned cat food, tuna (in oil), canned salmon or mackerel, sardines, and roasted or fried chicken. However, some people find that the cats prefer the food they’re usually given, and have better luck using that. There is no right answer here; the best bait is whatever gets the cats into the traps. So it’s a good idea to bring a variety, and re-bait the traps as necessary (e.g., after a cat has stolen the bait, once the strong odor has dissipated). In very cold weather, it might be necessary to use dry cat food, as other options can sometimes freeze.
Bait trays. Most trappers prefer disposable materials for bait trays, such as paper plates or lids from plastic food containers or soda cups. Some prefer tortillas or bologna, since these will likely get eaten (therefore generating no trash). Whatever you use, be sure that it’s unbreakable, there are no sharp edges and any trash is easily collected.
Cat food and water. Once the trapping job is completed, be sure to leave food and water for the cats who weren’t trapped.
Utensils. You’ll need to bring utensils (e.g., knife, fork, spoon) to dish out the right amount of bait into the bait trays.
Resealable container. This is useful for storing unused bait while driving to and from the trapping job, and from site to site.
Can opener. If you’re using bait that comes in cans without easy-open lids, be sure to have a can opener on hand.
Stick-and-string (or bottle-and-string) assembly. When trying to trap a particular cat or cats (e.g., unsterilized, sick or injured cats), but not others (e.g., healthy sterilized cats), the ability to trigger a trap manually rather than rely on the trip-plate to close the door automatically can be very useful. A length of cord is attached to a wooden dowel, length of PVC pipe, plastic soda or water bottle or even a half-roll of paper towels, which is wedged under the front door, holding it open. The door is closed when the trapper pulls on the cord. (Whatever you choose to prop the door open with, be sure the cord is attached securely.) Note: Tomahawk recently released a remote control trap trigger that can be used from up to 200 feet away.
Paper towels. Trapping can be messy — from handling bait or cleaning up after a cat has urinated in a trap. So, having plenty of paper towels on hand is never a bad idea.
Sanitizing hand wipes. Sanitizing hand wipes make for easy cleanup after trapping.
Trash bags. You’ll want to collect and, if possible, recycle cat food cans, used plastic utensils, and other items. Whatever can’t be recycled should be disposed of. Trash bags can also come in handy if you happen to trap a skunk. (See “Accidental Trapping of Wildlife” below.)
First aid kit. It’s always advisable to have a first aid kit on hand. Trapping injuries are rare, but not unheard of. The injuries are almost never caused by the cats, but by handling equipment, unloading or loading traps, and so forth.
Ant repellant. Ants are a concern mostly in the summer and in warmer climates, because they can be attracted to the bait used when trapping. Although the risk to the cats (i.e., being bitten by ants while trapped) might be relatively small, once the bait is covered with ants, it’s unlikely to be appealing to cats. Be sure that any repellant you use is non-toxic (e.g., peppermint-based sprays, diatomaceous earth). As an alternative, you can build a small “moat” around the bait by placing a small dish of food in a larger one containing water.
Vehicle protection. It’s not uncommon for cats to urinate or defecate in their traps while being transported. Ideally, a CCP has dedicated vans that can easily be hosed out. Since volunteers will likely be doing trapping and/or providing transportation, it’s important that they can protect the interior of their cars. Sheets of cardboard, plastic drop cloths or inexpensive shower curtain liners placed under a layer of absorbent material (e.g., old bed linens or blankets) work well. Lining the van’s floor with blankets or a heavy comforter will reduce rattling from traps and transfer cages, thereby reducing stress levels for cats and driver alike. Cats should never be transported in a vehicle’s trunk or in the open bed of a truck.
Blanket or large towel. If you accidentally trap a skunk, soaking a blanket or towel with water will provide some measure of protection against being sprayed as you release the skunk. (See “Accidental Trapping of Wildlife” below.)
Bungee cords, tie-down straps and/or rope. It’s important to secure the traps in your vehicle, especially when stacking them, as some traps can easily fall open if tipped sideways or upside-down, allowing the cat to escape. (Tie-down straps or rope can also come in handy if you accidentally trap wildlife — see below.)
Work gloves. These can be useful for handling traps. Be sure to have one pair per trapper.
Pliers and spray lubricant. Be prepared to make adjustments to traps that aren’t working properly.
Broom handle, long wooden dowel or PVC pipe. In the event that you accidentally trap a skunk, raccoon or some other wildlife, traps with front and rear doors can be gently overturned using a broom handle or long wooden dowel, thereby allowing the animal to walk right out. (See “Accidental Trapping of Wildlife” below.)
Powerful flashlight. It’s essential to have a high-powered flashlight when trapping after dark. Be sure to have extra batteries on hand.
Camera. It’s a good idea to take photos of the cats you trap, since this will make it easier to track progress for a particular colony. These days, of course, many people have a camera built into their mobile phone — and the phone is good to have in case of emergencies.
Informational brochures and/or door hangers. Trapping jobs can be an excellent opportunity for community outreach, so be sure to have educational materials on hand.
Appropriate clothing and shoes. It’s important to be dressed appropriately for trapping. Dress for the weather — and for some manual labor. Wear comfortable closed-toe shoes and long pants. If possible, wear a shirt or jacket with your organization’s logo, to help convey a professional image to anybody curious (or concerned) about people trapping cats in their neighborhood. If you’re trapping at night, wear a brightly colored shirt or jacket for increased visibility. (Reflective clothing or vests work even better.)
Water and snacks. Trapping jobs — especially large ones — can take several hours. Be sure to have drinking water and some convenient snacks on hand (another reason to carry sanitizing hand wipes).
Binoculars. Although a little costly, binoculars can be very useful when you need to check for ear tips at a distance.
For a trapping project (even a small one, conducted by experienced trappers) to go well, careful planning is essential. As mentioned above, a comprehensive checklist will help avoid mistakes.
It’s recommended that you have help trapping, even for small jobs. Coordinate with a colleague, volunteer or friend. Trapping can be very stressful and tiring, especially for beginners, so having others (even the inexperienced) along to help can make all the difference. And even for the most experienced trappers, having company provides an additional measure of safety. (See “Staff and Volunteer Safety Protocols” for additional information on this topic.)
If possible, plan for two consecutive days of trapping (making surgery appointments for both days). This will likely increase the project’s overall effectiveness, since it is generally easier to trap the remaining colony cats while the first group is recovering overnight. Such a plan also creates a built-in “rain day” in the event that the first day of trapping goes poorly or needs to be canceled.
Coordination with clinics. Generally speaking, CCPs either contract with local veterinary clinics that are able to provide the necessary number of surgeries at a price agreeable to all parties, or coordinate veterinary services with their municipal shelter partner (or some combination of the two). For the purposes of the following sections, it’s assumed that surgery appointments are coordinated prior to trapping, and that standard processes and protocols (e.g., standard medical services provided, costs, invoicing) are in place. (See “Working with Veterinarians and Veterinary Clinics” for additional information on this topic.) It’s also assumed that transportation has been arranged (including a backup plan in case a vehicle breaks down).
Pre-surgery holding areas. Some veterinary service providers will allocate space for cats to recover post-surgery (with the obvious benefit of easy follow-up in the event of medical complications), but holding the cats before surgery is typically the responsibility of the CCP. Some Best Friends CCPs allocate office trailers for this purpose, but also rely on a network of volunteer trappers who provide holding areas (and transportation) for cats.
Regardless of where the cats will be held, the space must be dry and temperature-controlled (approximately 70°F). Most clinic and shelter environments meet this requirement, as do most homes. Garages and basements can be used, assuming the correct temperature can be maintained (which can be a challenge in hot or cold weather). Ensure that the space is quiet and free of fumes, that there are no open windows or doors (in the event that a cat escapes from a trap) and that no other animals have access to trapped cats.
On-the-ground intelligence. Before finalizing plans for a trapping job, gather relevant information from people “on the ground.” Often, these are residents who called the CCP looking for help, or are known to field services officers. They can also be located by knocking on doors and distributing door hangers in neighborhoods identified as having community cats.
Call each trapping-site contact person and update any information (e.g., number of cats, presence of kittens, best time to trap) that may have changed since the appointment was first made. It’s best if caregivers have an accurate count of the cats in their colonies and are keeping a log of some kind (preferably with photos). This will help not only with the immediate trapping job, but also with tracking progress going forward. (See “Colony Management and Caregiver Resources” for more information on this topic.)
While assessing each colony, keep in mind the various scenarios for which you must be prepared, including relocation — which is recommended only when the cats are in immediate danger (see below).
Let your contacts know when you will be trapping in their area, and ask them to withhold food (but not water) 24 hours before trapping, and to spread the word to any other feeders. If the clinic appointments are scheduled for Sunday morning, trapping will typically be done Saturday (probably in the evening), which means food should be withheld Friday evening. Be sure to remind feeders the day before trapping will take place. It’s also a good idea to have your contacts feed the cats on a schedule for at least two weeks prior to trapping, as this routine will increase the chances of cats being in the area when trapping is underway.
Among the key questions to ask your contacts:
- How many cats are in this colony? How many are already sterilized?
- Are there any kittens? If so, how old are they?
- Are there nursing mothers?
- Do the cats and kittens appear healthy?
- Do you know of anybody else feeding these cats and kittens?
- What time of day do you typically feed, and do you feed dry or canned food? (This information will help to determine the best bait to use as well as when to set the traps.)
- Would you be interested in borrowing traps and trapping the cats yourself? (Ask this question only if a trap loan program is available, and CCP staff can teach residents how to trap.)
- Would you be willing to monitor traps for a few hours for us if we set them up on the property? (Note: Never leave traps unattended in a location where they might be tampered with or stolen, or the cats might be harmed.)
Be sure to make notations of any sick or injured cats, as well as any residents who are opposed to TNR and are causing tension among neighbors or threatening to harm the cats. Trapping jobs — especially large ones — can be an excellent opportunity for education and community outreach, explaining the benefits of TNR both to the residents feeding the cats and those who would prefer that the cats be removed. Flyers and door hangers can be very effective tools for this purpose, and can also be useful for locating other feeders (as well as future volunteers and donors). Consider bringing humane deterrents with you, especially if you know of complainants in the area and have time to either loan them the deterrent or set one up on their property. (See “Community Outreach and Engagement” and “How to Address Various Complaints” for additional information on these topics.)
Coordination with shelter and field services staff. It’s easy for a CCP to be overwhelmed with requests for trapping, so it’s important to prioritize. In general, CCPs should focus on targeted or mass trapping efforts, trapping entire colonies (or as much of each colony as possible) or neighborhoods, rather than scattering scarce resources over an entire ZIP code or city. (Over time, of course, these larger areas will reap the benefits as colonies and neighborhoods are addressed in a systematic fashion.) Targeted trapping is a more efficient use of resources, results in short-term measurable impacts and lends credibility to TNR (especially when careful records of colony numbers are kept), thereby providing support for other programs.
When prioritizing trapping jobs, it’s important to check with shelter staff and/or field services officers (also known as animal control officers or ACOs) to determine if a particular trapping site is a “hotspot” for shelter intake or ACO service calls. If not, perhaps there are other sites that are higher priority. (Note: Establishing priorities is not always a straightforward endeavor. A small colony in a low-intake ZIP code, for example, might be a top priority if the cats are in imminent danger.)
Last-minute preparations. Be sure to check the weather before heading out for a trapping job. Although extreme temperatures can be dangerous for young kittens, adult cats have generally grown accustomed to such conditions. Many organizations will therefore trap in all but the most extreme weather conditions as long as they can ensure that the traps will be monitored continuously during trapping and the cats will have adequate shelter when they are returned.
Use trap covers appropriate for the weather (e.g., lighter in warmer weather and heavier in cooler weather). Keep in mind, too, that cats often stay hidden if it’s raining or snowing heavily, or very windy.
If you’ve never set a trap before, or are unfamiliar with a particular type of trap, practice setting it before leaving for the trap site. Only after becoming familiar with all trapping equipment (including the various items described below in “Selective Trapping and Hard-to-Trap Cats”) should you begin trapping. Even those with a great deal of trapping experience should test the traps before arriving at the trapping site, making sure, for example, that the front door and the mechanism connecting it to the trip plate operate smoothly. Also, check that the rear door-locking mechanism is working properly.
As you head out, check in with your contacts to ensure that food was withheld for 24 hours. It’s not unusual to learn that, in fact, the cats were fed (perhaps by a feeder unknown to the caregiver), in which case it’s important that the bait being used is more tempting than their usual fare.
If the cats have eaten within eight hours of surgery, be sure to notify the clinic staff when the cats are dropped off. (Note: Kittens under four months of age should not fast for eight hours, as they may become hypoglycemic as a result. Instead, make sure these kittens eat at least a small amount of food until about four hours prior to surgery. See “Feeding Inside Traps” below.)
If necessary, contact the property manager or other gatekeeper to ensure access to the trapping site, and bring 10–20 percent more traps than you think you’ll need. It’s always better to have extra traps on hand rather than too few.
Once you’re at the trapping site, scout out the area to determine if it’s safe to leave traps unattended for a reasonable period of time. If there are people around, introduce yourself and explain what you’re doing. This not only helps protect you, other trappers and the cats, it’s an opportunity to spread the word. Many people are unaware of TNR, its benefits and its broad public support. Communicating your objective can also prevent tensions among neighbors from escalating. (See “Community Outreach and Engagement” and “How to Address Various Complaints” for additional information on these topics.)
Large trapping jobs often involve multiple trapping locations. Never set out more traps than you can reasonably monitor. Consider bringing help if the job will require multiple trapping locations.
Trapping cats with box traps. Note: The following guidelines are for use with traps that have both front and rear doors. The guidelines will have to be adapted slightly for use with other styles of traps.
To begin, prepare the traps near your vehicle and/or away from the trapping site to minimize the likelihood of frightening the cats. Place each trap on a flat surface as you bait and set it. Open the rear door and line the trap with two or three sheets of newspaper (folded ahead of time to the correct size) at each end. It’s best to line the entire length of the trap with newspaper (or other material), including the trip plate. If you do this, be sure the newspaper doesn’t interfere with the operation of the trip plate and front door. Use a small piece of painter’s tape or masking tape to secure each corner of the newspaper, preventing it from blowing around and frightening the cats. If it’s very windy, however, it might be best not to use newspaper or use another type of trap liner.
For trapping jobs involving multiple locations, label each trap (e.g., with masking tape and magic marker) in such a way that you’re sure to return cats to their correct location.
For each trap, place approximately one tablespoon of bait in the bait tray, and create a trail of bait and juice from the bait tray back to the entrance. Don’t use too much bait here (no more than a half-tablespoon), just enough to lure the cat into the trap.
If ants are a concern, use a non-toxic (e.g., peppermint-based spray, diatomaceous earth) ant repellant beneath the bait tray or around the perimeter of the trap, or create a “moat” of water around the bait.
Place the bait tray at the rear of the trap, between the trip plate and the rear door, using a piece of tape to secure it to the newspaper. If the trap is placed lengthwise against a wall, fence or some other structure, you can provide an added measure of protection against having a clever cat steal the bait by putting the bait tray against the protected side of the trap.
“I like to smash my bait — as opposed to placing it on a tray. I put the bait directly on the ground and then smash my trap on top of it. This helps with some clever cats who can reach the bait without triggering the trip plate, as it forces them to work harder. And I always tuck my trap covers under all sides of the trap except the entry door. This prevents cats from stealing my smashed bait from outside the trap.”
- Bethany Heins, senior manager regional programs, Best Friends Animal Society
Once the traps are properly baited, take them to the trapping site — most likely the cats’ regular feeding area. (If the regular feeding area is noisy or unusually busy, you may need to place the traps in a more discreet location nearby.) Place the traps on the ground, making certain they are stable and will not rock or tip. Avoid placing traps out in the open, where cats would likely feel vulnerable and nervous. Instead, place the traps lengthwise against a wall, fence or other barrier or under a bush.
Ensure that each trap’s front door will snap shut without becoming snagged on a branch, fence or anything else nearby, and check that the rear door is closed securely. Cover each trap with a trap cover. If it’s windy, consider securing the corners of the cover with tape, folding the cover under the trap or doing without the trap cover. Some cats will prefer a “tunnel” (i.e., the trap cover over the top and two long sides of the trap, with the ends folded back to leave the two doors uncovered) while others will prefer more of a “den” (only the front door uncovered). You might experiment with a variety of techniques, to see which ones work best.
Leave the immediate area quietly, as the cats are unlikely to enter the traps if you’re standing nearby. (If a colony’s caregiver is involved in the trapping, the cats will likely be more comfortable and might even enter the traps without much hesitation.) If you’re trapping on your own property, you can go inside. Only rarely should traps be left unattended for more than two hours (e.g., when trapping in the backyard of a private residence) and when you’re trapping alone, set only as many traps as you can keep an eye on.
If you are using multiple traps, you might try placing them side-by-side but facing in opposite directions (perhaps with one trap set lengthwise against a wall, fence or similar barrier). Try to think like a cat and place the traps where they will be most tempting. Having a colony’s caregivers involved can be a great benefit, since they will know the cats’ habits and routines. Also, look for paths obviously traveled by the cats. Move quietly and slowly, and try to remain relaxed so your movements won’t frighten cats away. (See “Trapping Tips” below for additional information.)
Because trapping involves a great deal of waiting, it requires much patience. It will sometimes take several minutes for a cat to go far enough into a trap to trip the door, so be sure the trap is sprung before approaching.
Often, there are certain spots at a trapping site where you’re far more successful at trapping cats than you are with other spots at the same site. Once a cat is trapped in such a location, set the trapped cat aside (with the trap covered) and replace the trap with another one.
To the extent that it’s possible, you want to prevent cats from seeing and hearing other cats being trapped, since it can make them trap-shy. As cats are trapped, it’s therefore generally best to cover the traps quickly (calming the trapped cats) and move them to an area away from the other traps and/or cats (reducing the likelihood that untrapped cats will become too nervous to be trapped). Be careful when moving the trapped cats, as the cats can move back and forth quickly, making the trap difficult to handle. In some instances, moving the cats will be more disruptive than leaving them where they are (which is one reason some people prefer to trap with trap covers already in place). Use your best judgment.
You want the cats’ only food source to be inside the traps, so when you move the trapped cats, be sure to clean up any food that was spilled. Be aware that you will probably need to re-bait occasionally, either because a cat has stolen the bait or because the bait’s strong odor has dissipated. This is a good time to double-check the operation of the trap as well, ensuring that the trip-plate and front door are working properly.
As you’re trapping, be sure to check trapped cats for ear-tips. If you trap an ear-tipped cat, consider leaving him in the trap (covered and kept in a quiet place away from the trapping area) until all trapping is completed. Although it’s a little stressful for the cat, doing so is sometimes the best way to minimize disruptions to a trapping job. If you trap a cat with a collar, check with neighbors to see if the owner can be found. If you’re unsuccessful, be sure the clinic scans for a microchip.
It’s not unusual for cats to thrash around inside the trap. Fortunately, the injuries associated with this behavior (e.g., bloody nose, torn nails) tend to be minor. Resist the temptation to release a cat who’s thrashing around in a trap; doing so will only make it that much more difficult to trap him next time. Covering the trap completely and moving it to a quiet area is typically all that’s needed to calm the cat. There are also several calming sprays available that might prove helpful. Never reach into a trap in an attempt to calm a cat.
Wrapping up. Once the trapping job is completed, carefully load the cats into your vehicles, making sure that traps are secured in place or arranged in such a way that they cannot shift or tip over during transport. Some two-door traps can easily fall open if tipped sideways or upside-down, allowing the cat to escape. If you use cable ties or other devices to lock the rear doors shut, be sure to remove them once you arrive at the clinic.
Some trappers like to use newspaper or light sheets of fabric between layers of traps to keep their vehicle(s) (and the cats) clean. Never use plastic sheets or heavy fabric for this purpose, as the cats might overheat.
Before leaving the trapping site, make sure you’ve accounted for all traps. Trapped cats can die quickly if left out in hot or cold weather.
Checking in with caregivers prior to trapping helps avoid many surprises. Nevertheless, it’s always best to be prepared for the unexpected, even when the task at hand appears to be a routine trapping job. The following are among the various scenarios for which trappers must be prepared.
Kittens and/or nursing mothers. Before trapping kittens, know your options. If no options exist for fostering or adoption of the kittens, then it’s best to wait until the kittens are about 10 weeks old (but less than 16 weeks, when they can begin breeding) and then trap them and their mother. If you do have foster and/or adoption options available for the kittens, it’s generally best to trap a mother and her kittens together, after the kittens are weaned — generally five to six weeks of age. (See “Selective Trapping and Hard-to-Trap Cats” below.) Removing weaned kittens can be an effective way to demonstrate immediate impact, especially in neighborhoods where the number of cats has become a source of tension among residents. Fewer colony cats also means less food will be required for ongoing maintenance.
Note: Although young kittens (under eight weeks of age) can often be socialized and become excellent adoption candidates for a local rescue group, it’s important to be mindful of which kittens are truly at greatest risk. Ideally, kittens pulled from colonies are not displacing kittens a rescue group would have pulled from shelters; rather, they are in addition to those pulled from shelters. In other words, as long as kittens are dying in shelters, a CCP should be pulling kittens from colonies only in very special circumstances (e.g., the mother is known to have died).
Finally, be alert to the possibility of accidentally trapping a nursing mother. Just because you aren’t aware of any kittens in a particular colony doesn’t mean they’re not around. Nursing mothers can be spayed and continue to nurse, but need to be reunited with their kittens as soon as they have recovered from anesthesia (typically eight hours after surgery). If you trap a nursing mother, be sure to return to the trapping site to search for her kittens, as they are especially vulnerable in her absence. (You will also want to keep tabs on them until they are old enough to be sterilized and vaccinated.)
Multiple cats in one trap. It’s not unusual to trap two or even three cats in a single trap, especially if they are siblings or mothers and kittens. Although they will need to be separated before being dropped off at the clinic, there’s no need to do this at the trapping site, where the risk of escape or injury is higher. Instead, wait until the cats are in the secure holding area.
To transfer one of the cats to a second trap, begin by separating the two cats with a trap divider (threaded horizontally through the trap) and cover the trap. Place the traps back-to-back, with their rear (sliding) doors touching, and cover the empty trap. It’s very important that both traps are held securely in place while transferring a cat. Brace one trap against a wall, use bungee cords or have another person help. Slowly lift the cover off the trap containing the cats, prompting the “transfer cat” (now exposed) to move into the empty (covered) trap. After checking to ensure that the cats are not near either rear door, close and secure both doors. Replace the cover and remove the divider from the first trap.
Ill or injured cats. While it’s impossible to be prepared for every situation, it’s relatively easy to ensure ahead of time that you can respond appropriately if you trap an ill or injured cat. In most cases, this means having the contact information for, and access to, a veterinary clinic (which might be the shelter’s clinic) that’s open at the time you’re trapping. It’s important to understand, to the extent that it’s possible, the expenses that will be incurred by treating such cats as well as the resources necessary for any after-care. Keeping and caring for an unsocialized cat during her recovery requires a serious commitment, and it is stressful for caregiver and cat alike. (See “Housing Cats and Kittens” for additional information.)
Friendly cats. It’s important to know ahead of time whether socialized (also known as friendly or tame) cats will be pulled for adoption, or included in the TNR program and returned to the trapping location. If they will be pulled for adoption, you’ll want to coordinate with the appropriate stakeholders, if possible. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question; instead, such decisions are often handled on a case-by-case basis. What’s important is that there are guidelines in place (see “Returning Cats”) and that CCP staff are aware of and abide by these guidelines. As with young kittens, friendly adult cats should be pulled only when healthy adult cats are no longer dying in the shelter. (Note: Ear-tipping rarely affects a cat’s future adoptability.)
Accidental trapping of wildlife. It’s not unheard of to accidentally trap wildlife while trapping cats. You should release any wildlife exactly where the animal was trapped, as soon as possible, according to the following guidelines. Like all animals, wildlife can carry zoonotic diseases. And because most of us are unfamiliar with releasing wildlife, additional care should be exercised when releasing raccoons, skunks or opossums from traps. Traps with front and rear doors can be gently overturned using a long stick, thereby allowing an animal to walk right out. This is generally the preferred method for releasing any wildlife accidentally caught while trapping cats. If this is not an option, try the alternative methods described below.
If you are bitten, do not release the animal. Contact your local rabies control authority (typically the same agency as your local animal care and control) for direction as to what to do next. It may include impounding the animal for rabies observation.
Raccoons: For traps with both front and rear doors, stand behind the trap as you would to release a cat, and have the trap pointed toward bushes or some other cover that will allow the raccoon to hide. When you lift the rear door, the raccoon will probably run straight out of the trap. For traps with only a front door, thread a length of rope or something similar (e.g., rolled-up trap cover) through the handle at the bottom of the trap door, holding both ends in one hand. Using the other hand, push the top of the trap door in while pulling on the rope and stepping slowly backward (behind the trap). Never use your hands to lift the door.
Skunks: Always talk softly to a trapped skunk as you approach. Skunks have poor eyesight and need to hear you approaching in order not to be startled. Stop every few steps to give the skunk a chance to grow accustomed to your presence. If the skunk is nervous, she will warn you by stomping her front feet, so pay attention! If this happens, remain very still, giving the skunk 15 seconds or so to calm down. Again, proceed slowly and talk softly. The skunk can then be released using one of the methods described above.
Alternatively, you might try a method to make you feel more protected (though the chances of getting sprayed are actually greater). Cut holes in a trash bag for your arms and head and pull the bag over your clothes. Saturate a blanket or towel with water (to better absorb the skunk spray, if necessary), and hold it in front of you while you slowly approach the trapped skunk. Again, be sure to speak softly while approaching. Gently drape the blanket or towel over the trap, and release the skunk as described above.
Opossums: Like cats, opossums can be intimidating to people unfamiliar with them, hissing and showing their teeth when nervous. Generally speaking, though, this behavior is more show than anything else. Release an opossum just as you would a raccoon, though it’s best to wait until after dark, as an opossum’s vision is better in low-light conditions. Occasionally an opossum will get stuck in the trap by biting at the wire mesh. If this happens, call animal control or your local wildlife center for assistance. Cover the trap while waiting for help to arrive.
Sometimes it seems as if you’re able to trap every cat except the one you need to trap. Perhaps the cat is injured, or she’s the one remaining cat in the colony who has not been sterilized. In other situations, the challenge is not trapping a particular cat — a lactating mother, for instance, who you intend to trap (along with the kittens) only after her kittens are weaned. Thankfully, there are special tools and techniques to address such challenges.
Note: Kittens should be trapped individually, but they will sometimes follow one another (or their mother) into a trap. When trapping kittens, it’s best to use either a drop trap (and transfer each kitten into a box trap) or use the stick-and-string method described below.
Because drop traps are not intended for holding or transporting cats, you must be prepared to immediately transfer cats caught in a drop trap into a box trap. Although the process is straightforward, it’s recommended that you have a helper.
Placement of the drop trap. Although using a drop trap is pretty simple, proper setup — even for experienced trappers — requires some careful planning. As with trapping in general, such planning is an important investment for the success of a trapping job.
A drop trap must be set on flat ground (as gaps might allow a determined cat to escape by lifting the trap), within clear sight of the trapper and with enough space to successfully transfer cats into a box trap. (These constraints obviously limit the drop trap’s versatility; however, the benefits are worthwhile.) Place the box trap nearby, along with covers for both traps and a trap divider. Set up the drop trap as close to the cats’ regular feeding site as conditions allow, propping it up on a wooden dowel, plastic bottle or something similar, to which 50 feet of cord has been attached.
Note: Because the design of drop traps varies, there are some important differences in how the trap itself is set. For the purposes of the next section, it’s assumed that the trappers are familiar with, and are able to properly set, the type of drop trap being used.
Baiting the drop trap. Unlike trapping with box traps, you want to be generous with the food in case the target cat doesn’t arrive until after other cats have eaten. Again, there’s no right answer when it comes to the question of the best bait to use. Among those preferred by experienced trappers are tuna (in oil), sardines, and roasted or fried chicken, although some find that the cats prefer the food they’re usually provided, and have better luck using that.
You want the target cat to walk into the drop trap as far as possible, so place the bowl of food under the trap midway along its “rear” side (the side farthest from you). It’s sometimes helpful to create a trail of food into the trap as well. If ants are a concern, use a non-toxic (e.g., peppermint-based spray, diatomaceous earth) ant repellant around the bowl of food.
Once the drop trap is baited, unwind the cord and move far enough away that the cats feel comfortable eating inside the trap. Be sure to face the drop trap head-on, as you want to be able to pull the “prop” out as quickly and cleanly as possible to avoid any jamming. It’s then time to wait.
Trapping and transfer. Don’t pull the cord until the target cat has settled into eating, with her back to you. If you pull the cord too soon — and she darts out before the trap hits the ground — she might be too frightened to return for several hours. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, but be patient. Often, cats will walk in and out of the trap, sniff around the perimeter of the trap or pace nervously, watching the trappers.
Once the target cat is fully beneath the trap and settled comfortably into eating, quickly pull the cord, dropping the trap over the cat (as well as any other cats eating at the time). Never drop the trap if cats are too close to the perimeter of the trap, as this can result in injury. Immediately cover the drop trap with a large sheet. Some trappers also place one or two box traps on top of the drop trap to weigh it down, preventing cats from lifting the trap. This can be especially important for home-built traps made of PVC tubing. Once the drop trap is covered, the cats are transferred, one by one, into box traps until the target cat is safely contained in a box trap.
When you drop the trap, any cats who aren’t caught will very likely scatter — and it may be some time before they return. It’s important, therefore, to make your first “drop” count, waiting until the target cat (or, in some cases, litter of kittens) is eating. If she sees other cats being trapped, she’ll only be that much more difficult to trap in the future! Once you’ve caught the target cat, you can reset the trap and try for others.
To transfer the cats into box traps, begin by placing the box trap so that its rear door is aligned with the door on the drop trap. With both traps held securely in place with bungee cords or, better yet, the help of an assistant, slowly lift both doors, allowing the cats — one at a time, if possible — to enter the box trap. After checking to ensure that there are no cats near either door, close and secure both doors. Repeat until the target cat is safely contained in a box trap of her own, after which non-target cats can be released. Be sure to have a trap divider on hand in the event that two cats enter the box trap together. (See “Multiple Cats in One Trap” above.)
When transferring cats from a drop trap, the goal is to trick them into thinking the box trap is their escape route. There are a couple ways to accomplish this:
- Cover the box trap and then uncover the drop trap (making the box trap look like a hiding spot) or, alternatively, leave the box trap uncovered (making it appear to the cat as if it’s an escape route).
- If trapping after dark, follow the steps described in (1) and then have a helper shine a flashlight into the box trap from the end farthest from the drop trap. The cats will often move in the direction of the light.
Stick-and-string (or bottle-and-string) technique. Like the drop trap, the stick-and-string technique can be very effective for singling out particular cats (e.g., an injured or ill cat, litter mates) or excluding others (e.g., a lactating mother who will be trapped after the kittens are weaned). Indeed, the basic principle involved is the same: The trapper manually triggers the trap only when a particular cat (or litter of kittens) is in the trap, excluding non-target cats.
The box trap is baited normally (as described above), but the front door is propped up using a wooden dowel, plastic bottle, roll of paper towels, or something similar, to which 50 feet of string or cord (e.g., clothesline) is attached. The trap should be positioned so that the trapper can clearly see when the target cat is at the back of the trap, and then pull the string. Never pull the string if you’re not sure the cat (tail included) is fully inside the trap.
Note: You might have to re-bait the trap frequently, as you wait for the target cat (and non-target cats take advantage of a free meal).
Once the target cat (or litter of kittens) is trapped, cover the trap quickly (if it wasn’t already covered), and move it to a quiet area away from the other traps. If you’ve trapped more than one cat or kitten, you can separate them later using the method described above. (See “Multiple Cats in One Trap.”)
Experienced trappers have numerous tricks they use to improve their trapping success, lessons learned either through firsthand experience or from other trappers. Of course, there’s no magic involved, and these techniques can be used quite effectively even by trappers with little or no experience.
Feeding inside traps. Cats can sometimes be too nervous to enter a box trap (with or without a cover), even when food has been withheld for 24 hours. If the trapping site is a location where traps can safely be left in place for a few days (e.g., a caregiver’s backyard), try feeding the cats inside the traps — with both doors open — for a few days prior to the trapping job. Use bungee cords, tie wraps or something similar to securely hold each door open. The traps will essentially become temporary feeding stations. (When using this method, there’s no need to withhold food prior to trapping, since the cats will have little fear of entering the traps.)
Once they’re accustomed to eating inside the traps, the cats will be more likely to enter the traps when the doors are no longer tied open. Set the traps as you normally would, but don’t make any other changes (e.g., placement, bait, cover or not) to their setup.
Note: If the traps cannot be left out continuously, you can use them for daily feeding and remove them afterward.
Side-by-side traps. You’ll notice that some cats will circle the traps, interested in the food but still reluctant to walk into the trap. Placing two traps side-by-side but facing in opposite directions can be an effective way to lure such cats into a trap. As the cat circles around the back of the first trap he approaches, he walks into the entry of the trap placed beside it. Once you find this method to be successful in a particular location, remove trapped cats as you catch them and replace the trap with an empty one.
Trapping kittens. Both drop traps and the stick-and-string technique can be very effective for trapping kittens, since the trapper can wait until all siblings — perhaps with the mother, too — are safely inside before trapping them. However, if you’ve already trapped the mother, she can be used to lure the kittens. Cover her trap and then place an empty trap (also covered) up against it so that the two traps are lined up end-to-end and the front door of the empty trap is open. The idea is to create a “tunnel” with the open door on one end and the mother cat on the other end; the only way the kittens can see the mother is through the second trap.
Note: The same technique can be used if the reverse situation occurs: You’ve trapped one or more of the kittens, and want to lure the siblings and/or mother cat.
When trapping lactating mothers and/or kittens, it’s important to remember that nursing kittens less than about four weeks old shouldn’t be away from their mother for more than four hours. For this reason, many trappers prefer to either trap young kittens along with their lactating mother, or wait until the kittens are weaned to trap them and — if not immediately, then soon thereafter — their mother.
It’s standard practice for Best Friends’ CCPs to drop off cats for surgery within 12–24 hours of trapping. Nevertheless, we recognize that some programs recommend, or even require, that cats be held in their traps for up to three days before and after surgery. (Additional time in the trap increases a cat’s stress level, however, sometimes with serious health consequences. It’s therefore generally best to return cats as soon as they’ve recovered from anesthesia.) Proper care is very important in such circumstances, to minimize stress on the cats and the likelihood that they will become ill.
Always use at least one trap divider when feeding and cleaning. This will prevent the cat from escaping and also ensure your safety. For an added measure of safety, use two dividers, each one threaded horizontally through the trap. (Dropping the dividers in through the top of the trap, as shown in the photo, might not prevent the cats from pushing past.)
Cats should be fed wet food twice daily, up until eight hours prior to surgery. Kittens under four months of age are at risk of developing hypoglycemia if they aren’t fed for eight hours, and should therefore be fed one to two ounces of canned food the morning of surgery. If the traps weren’t already lined with newspaper during the trapping, this should be done when the cats are brought to the pre-surgery holding area. Replace soiled or shredded newspapers as necessary.
To encourage a cat to move to one end of the trap for feeding or cleaning, lift the trap cover from the end of the trap you’re cleaning or using for feeding. (The rear door generally provides easier access, but there will likely be times when you need to access the trap through the front door.) Most unsocialized cats will prefer the covered end, allowing you to work in the uncovered end once the trap dividers are securely in place. However, some cats will see the uncovered end of the trap as an escape route and move to that end. Either way, you’ll know which end of the trap the cat prefers, and can lift the appropriate end of the trap cover to give yourself the necessary workspace. (You might have to use one of the dividers to gently nudge the cat. Never use your hands to poke or push the cat.)
If multiple caregivers will be providing in-trap care, it’s a good idea to create a log for each cat. The log will help caregivers to coordinate efforts and monitor any health concerns, both before and after surgery. (An example of an in-trap care log is included in the appendix.)
Caution: Cats can die of hypothermia or heat stroke during pre-surgery holding and post-surgery recovery. Remember this simple rule-of-thumb: If it’s too hot or cold for you, then it’s too hot or cold for the cats. Be careful about leaving cats in traps on the ground or the floor, as these surfaces can be much hotter or colder than the air temperature. If possible, keep the cats raised above the ground or floor, even if it’s only on long pieces of lumber.
Cleaning and disinfecting the traps. Once the cats have been returned (see “Post-surgery Recovery” and “Returning Cats”) to the location from which they were trapped, the traps and trap dividers must be cleaned and disinfected. Start by using a scrub brush (and, if necessary, hot water) to remove all food, paper and feces. To disinfect the equipment, many trappers use a solution of diluted chlorine bleach (10 parts water and one part bleach), as this is effective, inexpensive and readily available. Using a sponge, rag or sprayer, apply the bleach solution and allow it to sit for 10 minutes before rinsing it off. (Never leave the solution on the traps, as it will corrode any exposed metal.)
Alternatives for disinfecting equipment include Clorox Germicidal Bleach, a commercial cleaner available online, and various accelerated hydrogen peroxide–based disinfectants (e.g., Accel), which require just five minutes to be effective.
Disinfectants work best when applied to freshly contaminated surfaces, so disinfectant your equipment as soon as you’re done using it. Never store traps in the “set” (front door open) position, and keep them out of rain and snow. Some trappers put the traps out in the sun, as ultraviolet light can render some pathogens inactive. However, this practice should not be used in place of disinfectants, only as an additional step.
Using bleach, wash the trap covers, as well as any other sheets, blankets and towels that were used for trapping. Do not use fabric softener.
Ongoing trapping and colony maintenance. It’s critical to sterilize all cats in a colony — and this goal is rarely achieved after just one trapping job. Trapping as many cats as possible the first time out is preferable to doing two or three at a time, though, as small, frequent trapping attempts can lead to a colony of trap-shy cats. Do any necessary “cleanup” trapping as soon as possible following your initial effort. (See “Selective Trapping and Hard-to-Trap Cats” above for additional information on this topic.)
Finally, contact the caregivers 24–48 hours after the cats are returned to ensure that the cats are doing well (e.g., no post-surgery complications, eating as usual). (See “Colony Management and Caregiver Resources” for more information on this topic.)
- “Solutions to Cat-Related Issues”
- Conflict Resolution for the Animal Welfare Field
- Best Friends’ humane deterrents video: bestfriends.org/deter
- Drop Trap Design Bank
- Alley Cat Allies' Community Cat Colony Tracking System
- Example of colony tracking system
- Trap cover sewing pattern and instructions (for use with Tomahawk Live Trap models 608FN and 608NC)
- Example of trap loan agreement
- Example of in-trap care log
 Be prepared to explain the options available for kittens (e.g., foster, adoption, return to the trapping site if the caregiver is identified and informed).
 Best Friends requires that kittens be at least two months of age and two pounds in weight to be eligible for surgery. These kittens are too young to be vaccinated against rabies, so we offer to vaccinate them once they have reached the age threshold prescribed by state law.
 Be sure to notify the clinic if you expect to be trapping any sick or injured cats. These cats might have to be held longer pre- or post-surgery, so plan ahead.
 For more information about the rationale for, and benefits of, targeted trapping, see Community TNR: Tactics & Tools by Bryan Kortis.
 When trapping in the backyard of a residence, some trappers will leave traps out overnight and use more bait than usual. When leaving traps overnight, be sure they’re covered so that any trapped cats remain calm.
 Some trappers prefer to use materials other than newspaper (e.g., fabric cut and sewn to size, cardboard sheets) regardless of weather conditions.
 Remember, cats shouldn’t eat for at least eight hours prior to surgery. If a cat does eat within this eight-hour window, be sure to notify the clinic staff when the cat is dropped off. See “Last-Minute Preparations” above.
 Note: Some trappers prefer to trap without trap covers in place, covering the traps only as cats are trapped.
 Some heavier traps are designed with gaps to minimize the risk of injuring tails caught under the trap’s frame.
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