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There his is…that cat that’s been bounding around your neighborhood in the warm summer heat. Poor guy, one of his ears looks like it’s been clipped somehow. Maybe a fight? Common sense would dictate that someone needs to catch him in an effort to give him a new home.

Pet homelessness is a major problem in the United States. There are currently over 70 million stray animals, with only seven to eight million of them ever making it to a shelter. Speaking specifically of cats, only two to five percent of those picked up annually are ever reunited with their families. There’s still hope that those who are deemed adoptable can find a new home, but rates for cat euthanasia are very high at around 71 percent. So naturally, seeing an untagged, unkempt kitty running around the streets would prompt you to search out a new home for this feline, right? 

As it Turns Out, not Necessarily.

How to Tell When A Cat is More Than a Stray 

Fluffy could be part of a TNR, or Trap, Neuter and Return program, intended to keep the free roaming cat population down. Cats like him are caught, taken to a participating veterinarian to be fixed and then their ears are either “tipped” or “notched” for identification before they’re returned to their familiar environment.

Why in the World Would We do This?

How to Tell When A Cat is More Than a Stray

Living as a stray can be downright dangerous. The risk of injury and disease is high, making the average life expectancy of an outdoor cat only 2 to 5 years, as opposed to the 17 years an indoor cat can typically enjoy. It’s also no picnic for humans who have a stray cat colony for a neighbor.

Homeowners become annoyed with the smell of spraying and the late night yowling that unfixed male cats do around mating time.

It’s the cat equivalent of John Cusack holding the boom box over his head in “Say Anything” except, instead of sounding like Peter Gabriel, it sounds like a child has crawled onto their roof to have a night terror.  So romantic!

How to Tell When A Cat is More Than a Stray

So, Why am I Leaving the Cat With the Tipped Ear Alone Again?

There’s a big difference between a homeless or outdoor cat and a feral cat. Truly feral cats are unable to become accustomed to humans and will be determined un-adoptable in a shelter, which would cause them to be euthanized. Colony animals by nature, cats surround themselves with a group and then close up ranks, leaving newbies out. They then mate within the colony, multiplying their numbers drastically. In seven years, one female cat and her offspring can produce 420,ooo kittens!

 How to Tell When A Cat is More Than a Stray


Once a feral cat is removed from the colony their spot will be filled, most likely by a new member who has not been spayed or neutered. The population of the colony will continue to grow and the problem will only continue to multiply. TNR programs stop the colony growth and allow healthy cats who cannot be domesticated to live out their natural lives instead of crowding the shelters and ultimately being euthanized.

Does This Really Work?

How to Tell When A Cat is More Than a Stray


TNR programs are popping up all over the country, from college campuses to more rural areas. One very famous place finding great success with the approach for years is Disneyland, who decided to implement a TNR program after finding itself with a feral cat (and subsequent flea) invasion along with a significant rodent issue. After the program was implemented, the cats were left to live in the park, hiding from the human interlopers during the day and then emerging at night to control the mouse problem (you’d better watch yourself Mickey). You could say that the “Disney Cats” are the ultimate annual pass holders!

What Can I Do?

How to Tell When A Cat is More Than a Stray


First and foremost, if you see a cat with “tipped” or “notched” ears, leave him or her be. They’re very likely part of a TNR program and have important cat business to attend to. If you suspect that a large colony of unfixed animals is taking up residence in your neighborhood, look at the resources your state has to offer in order to help. No TNR programs in place for your state? Look into starting your own. You could be the key to keeping stray populations and euthanasia rates for healthy, but unadoptable cats low in your neck of the woods.

Lead image source: tnrofwarren