Skip to content Skip to navigation

The road to happy returns

How to safely trap and transport feral and community cats

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2014

1. A community cat spots a humane box trap.2. Lured by food, the cat enters the trap.3. When the cat trips the trap’s trigger plate, the door closes.4. Jade Vazquez, communications director for Neighborhood Cats, covers the trap to keep the cat calm.5. Trapped and covered, the cat is ready to be transported.

When she heard that Animal Sheltering was planning a whole story on transporting feral cats, one expert (whose name we’ll withhold to avoid embarrassing her) was skeptical. Transport is pretty simple, she said. But she agreed to write up a few tips … and wound up submitting nearly three typed pages.She wasn’t alone: Other trap-neuter-return (TNR) veterans asserted that transport isn’t exactly rocket science, but as they detailed the steps involved, it became clear that the process is a little like one of those Russian nesting dolls: At first you might think you’ve got one, but as you start unpacking, it turns out you’ve got an interlocking bunch of them.

Just as the doll is actually many dolls, the seemingly simple task of transporting feral and community cats actually involves a multitude of tasks, from choosing a trap to covering it properly and outfitting your vehicle for the trip to the spay/neuter clinic. And long before you start trapping, you need to prepare for the many potential obstacles you might encounter during transport, from traps that won’t fit into your sedan to cats who pee on your backseat.

Some TNR veterans say they learned the hard way and initially made many mistakes because information on trapping and transport wasn’t readily available years ago. It was only after her car had already reached stinky status, for example, that The HSUS’s Julie Falconer (a volunteer for Voices for Animals in Virginia) started to put down plastic while transporting feral cats.

In the interest of making things a little easier for today’s novices, we’ve compiled some hard-earned advice on the safest and most humane ways to trap and transport feral cats.

Choosing a Trap

Traps for TNR can be purchased directly from manufacturers such as Tomahawk Live Trap, Tru Catch Traps and Safeguard. One commonly used model is the drop trap, which is essentially a floorless box propped up with a stick; when a cat moves under it, the trapper pulls a string to remove the stick and lower the trap. Another popular model is the humane box trap; when cats enter to get the food in the back of the trap, they trip a trigger plate that closes a door behind them.

Opinions vary on the best makes and models, but whatever trap you choose, familiarize yourself with how it works before you start trapping, so you can check that it’s properly closed and locked when transport time arrives, says Meredith Weiss, TNR director for New York City-based Neighborhood Cats.

Avoid box traps that close with a loud clang. “If you’re trying to catch 10 cats,” Falconer says, “that noise scares off all the others.” Ideally, the trap will close so quietly that the cat who has entered and begun eating won’t even realize he’s been trapped

And make sure your box trap is functioning correctly, adds The HSUS’s Krista Rakovan, a volunteer trapper and caretaker in Maryland. Set up the trap and press on the trip plate to ensure that the door closes quickly. If the door gets stuck and the cat escapes, she explains, you’ll have a much harder time catching him again.

Kim Deserio, a volunteer for Metro Ferals in Maryland, always uses two-door box traps, and prefers the 30-inch models where the rear door slides straight up and down, while the front door hinges out from the top. To feed a cat (when he’s not fasting prior to surgery), you can simply slide the back door up about an inch—enough space for a small paper plate or shallow french fry tray of food, but not enough for the cat to escape. (Never put a can of wet food directly in the trap; the can’s sharp edges could injure the cat.)

The two-door models also enable you to safely transfer a cat from a dirty trap to a clean one by aligning the trap openings. Cover the trap that you want the cat to move to; cats don’t like being exposed and will usually move to the covered trap.

Nancy Peterson, cat programs manager for The HSUS, recommends a drop trap designed specifically for cats rather than for raccoons or other wildlife. Because cats go under rather than into them, drop traps are less intimidating and ideal for capturing difficult-to-catch or trap-savvy felines. Drop traps are also ideal for targeting a particular cat; when you’re at the tail end of trapping a colony, you can catch just the last one or two cats in need of sterilization. You can sometimes use a drop trap to catch a mom and her litter of kittens at the same time. Once a cat is in a drop trap, transfer him to a humane box trap.

When dealing with cats it’s also helpful, Peterson adds, to have a trap divider or two on hand. The dividers (also called isolators) can be used once a cat is in a humane box trap. They resemble large forks or hair picks and can be inserted through the bars to section off the trap—a helpful tool if you’re trying to separate two cats who you’ve inadvertently caught in the same trap, or if you’re blocking a cat from escaping when you’re cleaning the trap or providing fresh food and water.

Box traps, not cat carriers, are the safest way to transport feral cats—a fact that novice trappers don’t always grasp, Deserio says—because you can’t open carriers for cleaning or feeding without running the risk that the cat will escape and possibly hurt you.

Cover Me

Once a cat is trapped, cover the trap with an opaque cloth immediately, and keep it covered throughout the holding and transport process. This is especially important for feral cats, who will panic and try to escape the trap at first, but calm down as soon as it’s covered, Rakovan says. Weiss explains that feral cats feel safer and less stressed in the dark, so traps should remain covered except when you’re feeding or cleaning. Even then, you should keep the end you’re not working on covered.

Though trappers often must make do with the best-available material, dark sheets cut to fit the trap are ideal, Weiss says, noting that a 3.5-by-5.5-foot sheet will completely cover a 36-inch trap. She finds that towels or smaller pieces of material typically don’t work as well, because cats find completely covered traps more calming.

Deserio does use towels (with a hole cut for the trap handle) in the winter, and donated sheets cut to fit in the summer. Hemming the edges helps the cover last longer. “Whatever you use, it needs to be large enough to cover the entire trap, because that really keeps these guys from freaking out,” she says.

All Aboard

Depending on the availability of spay/neuter services, trapped cats might go directly to the clinic or veterinarian’s office, or be held overnight in a holding space while they await surgery. Cats should be held in a secure, temperature-controlled space where only people involved with the project have access to them.

Trap bottoms should be lined with folded newspaper, which Deserio says is more comfortable for the cat and a safeguard against bladders that let loose on the way to the clinic. If you’re using folded newspaper during trapping, make sure to arrange the paper so it doesn’t fly up in the wind and scare the cats.

If you’re transporting cats in your car, try protecting the interior with a plastic or rubber liner covered by a blanket, drop cloth or puppy pad. If the seat is covered by only plastic, urine might run off and onto the floor, so it’s good to have something absorbent on top of the plastic.

“Let me just say that intact male urine is really, really strong. And if you get some of that in your car, it is really hard to get the smell out,” Deserio says. “So we want people to protect their vehicles, in the hopes that they might want to do this again.” (And if you’re coming to this article after the deed has been done, try an enzymatic odor remover that saturates the affected area. It might not cure the problem, but it will help.)

Rakovan says some of her colleagues’ cars have been destroyed by pee, so she tends to use her covered pickup truck, which can hold plenty of secured traps and be hosed out afterward.

Most four-door sedans can fit four traps in the back, Weiss says: one on the backseat, one in the space between the edge of the backseat and the back of the front seat, and the final two traps stacked on top of the first two. The resulting tight fit is a good thing because it reduces jostling. Deserio recommends placing puppy pads between the layers of stacked traps to protect those on the bottom from accidents on the top.

Putting trapped cats in a car trunk and closing the door is a definite no-no, even for short trips, Deserio says, but trunk space can be utilized if the back seats fold down and there’s adequate air flow.

SUVs or vans can typically fit eight to 14 traps, Weiss says. If you’ve got extra space, make sure the traps don’t tip over by rigging them with packing straps or bungee cords, or by filling the void with packing blankets or towels.

Deserio can fit four traps across the back of her Highlander. If she’s stacking another four on top, she might fan out the bottom row a bit to reduce the chance of the ones on top tipping over. If she’s carrying six traps (four on bottom and two on top), she’ll place the top two diagonally for increased safety.

“Depending on the kind of trap you’re using, if the trap tips over, it could actually open,” Deserio cautions. “And then you’ve got a feral cat loose in your car, which is not a good thing.” To avoid this, use carabiner snap clips, which ensure that the doors won’t open even if the trap rolls over.

Give some thought to the number of traps your vehicles can reasonably hold, Deserio says. When people first pick up their empty traps, they sometimes stuff them into their car at odd angles and mistakenly think they’ll be able to fit the same number when the traps are filled with feral cats—virtually impossible when you’re trying to make sure the animals stay covered and don’t get too stressed.

Final Steps

Cats in the holding space should have their traps cleaned and be fed twice a day, but food should be removed the night before surgery, and water removed on the morning of the operation.

When picking up at the clinic, make sure the cats you’re returning are the same ones you brought in, and that the traps are securely locked. (You can cautiously pull up on the rear door with your fingertips; if the door isn’t locked, it will be obvious. For extra security, you can use a carabiner clip.) Many people assume that the clinic staff will be familiar with all types of traps, which is not always the case, Weiss says.

You might face a wait of 20-30 minutes when you pick up your cats, so it’s important to make sure your vehicle doesn’t get too hot or cold. Anesthesia lowers the body temperature, so post-surgery cats need to enter a car that’s warm, but not stifling. If your car’s been sitting outside the clinic on a chilly winter day, start the engine and run the heater for a while before the cats are loaded.

Back at your holding space, kittens younger than 5 months should be fed right away, while older kittens and adult cats can wait a few hours, assuming they’re fully awake. The first meal should be smaller than normal, and regular portions can resume the next morning.

Organizations set their own protocols, but if there are no complications they typically hold male cats for 24 hours and female cats for 48 hours. Because the cats are more vulnerable after anesthesia, you have to keep a closer eye on them on their trip back to the colony.

Before returning a cat, check to make sure healing is happening on schedule. Neutering is a relatively minor surgery for male cats, but make sure there’s no bleeding or swelling of the scrotum. For female cats, have one person hold up the trap while another checks the incision and looks for problems such as oozing or broken sutures. (A veterinarian or other medical expert should provide the caretaker or trapper with written instructions for recognizing signs that a cat isn’t recovering well, as well as what to do if a cat escapes, Peterson says.)

All these little details add up to a more pleasant experience for both the people and the cats involved. Deserio says the work is ultimately rewarding, despite the potential bumps in the road. “Sometimes you think, ‘Wow, we’re not making much headway here,’ because there’ll be a hundred cats at every clinic,” she says. “… But when I think about the particular communities where we’ve done TNR, I know that we made a difference, because the caretakers will tell me, ‘We haven’t seen any kittens in the last three, four years.’”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.