The importance
of post surgery
recovery in TNR
Waiting to release -the importance of post surgery recovery
time in TNR programs
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved

In the three years I lived in a house in an urban New Jersey city right across the river from
Manhattan I was a feral cat colony care taker and operated a trap, neuter, monitor and
release program out of our home.  I never applied for the job, the cats found me.  It was
easy, we lived in an area well populated by all sorts of roaming cats from the street cats,
the outdoor cats and the ferals.  I am convinced they can all sniff out a handout and pass
the word around.  A random cat appears at the back door and stares in, you leave out some
food and the rest is history.   When I noticed how popular we were becoming (we had both
opossums and cats showing up for kibble) I mentioned it to my pet sitter, who being
committed to all things animal rescue, initiated me into the world of outdoor cat houses
(filled with straw to burrow in, not blankets which freeze please), have-a-heart traps
(please monitor and cover once successful), when to trap (after the winter and before the
fall), who not to trap (nursing mothers and young kittens), how long to allow for recovery
(two days for males at least a week for females) and how to set up a litter pan in a kennel
while kitty is recuperating (in the front so you can reach it without terrorizing the both of
you).  I was fortunate to have both a back yard for my cat houses and a separate basement

to set up my holding and recovery kennels.  As the years went on and where I lived
changed I never stopped seeing roaming cats and wondering about them but I no longer
had the physical set up to duplicate my efforts.

When I moved back to Manhattan for the Masters Program in Animal Behavior at Hunter
College, the rents in New York City were so high at the time, the only neighborhood we
could afford was East Harlem.  You don’t see roaming cats in most areas of New York City
but in the areas you do see them there are a lot.  East Harlem is one of the neighborhoods
where feral cats flourish. I was now faced with reconciling my experience in feral cat
population management, more formal knowledge of what was going with these cats and
the reality of how differently things were being done without basements and back yards.  
Lacking space to house recovery kennels or cages, cats were being routinely neutered with
disregard to time of year, age, sex or adequate time for recovery with awful impacts for
welfare.  Especially with the most vulnerable group of all; kittens.

Pediatric spay and neuter is now a well established practice in the shelter system. What-
ever the disadvantages of the practice for the animal’s welfare; the benefits in limiting
overpopulation, are believed to far outweigh them. The main reason the practice works as
well as it does is that kittens (and puppies) can be spayed and neutered as young as eight
weeks and cared for as they heal from these invasive and complicated surgical procedures
within shelters and homes.  The care in home and shelter environments allows the infants
to be monitored, sufficient time to recover in a supportive environment and if needed,
adequately address any post surgical complications as they arise.

All surgery carries risks in how well it is done and in the condition of the patient.  In the
world of neutering feral cats, more risks are put into play.  Because their environments
are less protective, feral cats may come into surgery with upper respiratory tract infections
and/or parasites increasing the risks of anesthetic complications.  Feral kittens, like all
kittens, have lower body fat, reduced ability to generate heat, and need less fasting prior to
surgery, more risk factors.  In spite of such serious risks, the prevailing wisdom concludes:
“the opportunity to neuter any individual animal may not present itself again in the future.
Thus, the benefits of neutering such animals when the opportunity arises generally
outweigh the risks posed by such medical conditions.”

Another added risk for TNR cats is a shortened period of both anesthesia, sedative and pain
medications.  As these cats are not allowed time to fully recover in place; once out of
surgery, these medications are chemically reversed depriving the cat of pain relief and
flooded with the body’s reaction adrenaline or “catecholamine” as the task force further
notes: “However, it must be remembered that reversal of analgesic and sedative agents
may cause pain and anxiety. In particular, IV administration of reversal agents is
commonly associated with sudden catecholamine release. Hence, rapid IV administration
should be avoided if at all possible, except in emergency situations when rapid reversal is

TNR programs when properly implemented are effective at controlling feral cat popul-
ations in a compassionate and humane way. Programs that administer pain medication
post surgery; allow males 2-3 days and females 7-10 days to convalesce under their direct
care before being released and avoid spaying lactating mothers after kittens are weaned
are both welfare focused and have better outcomes.  Programs that routinely release
neutered kittens and lactating mothers 24 hours of less after invasive surgeries back to
their natal environments are dangerous and responsible for more suffering and greater

Deprived of adequate recovery time, the necessary sufficient time to heal post surgery,
kittens are simply too young to survive the process. Lactating mothers are taken from
dependent kittens for the span of the TNR process and released back to their habitats fresh
from an invasive procedure with a fresh sutured incision at the site of the mammary
glands they need to nurse their young with.

I became aware of this problem after seeing the work of The New York City Feral Cat
Initiative (an umbrella agency working under the Mayor’s NYC Alliance for animals) in
action. While living in East Harlem; an area abundant with feral cat colonies, I came to
know very well each individual kittens living in the vacant lot next door to my building.
When I came home one evening to see the kittens being trapped I was worried.  I tried
conversation, reasoning and ended up cautioning the women doing the trapping about
how important age limits and recovery are to a kitten’s welfare.  However, they observed
the protocols and practices of the program. Once back in the vacant lot the kittens sickened
visibly every day.  Whether lack of recovery time or post surgical complications was to
blame is unknown.  These kittens died a  slow and painful death within a matter of weeks
after being released. My sister brought the last kitten we found in severe distress to be
euthanized. How much more humane it would have been to euthanize these animals
directly after trapping.

I have contacted the mayor’s office, been contacted and spoken at length with the Veter-
inary Services department of the NYC Department of Health and exchanged a string of
e-mails with Nancy Peterson, the feral cat program director for the Humane Society of the
United States. Ms. Peterson’s initial response to me was that kittens in TNR programs are
not released back to colonies but adopted out. In her last response to me she quotes a
veterinarian who states that “surely some kittens will die if returned to their colonies after
neutering” and who cites a Florida study on the survival rate of TNR cats (as if weather is
a not a significant variable in survival).

Some twenty-five years ago when the practices of pediatric spay and neuter was first

introduced into the shelter system there was much debate over the impacts (delayed
closure of long bone growth plates, immature secondary sex organs, incontinence in
females, behavior and development changes) on immature animals. At no point in the
debates, the studies and the conversations was a variable ever raised that it might some-
how be acceptable medical practice to surgically alter infants and leave them in vacant
lots without convalescent care.

Everyone here feels they are on the side of the angels. What is being left out of the equation
is that any humane conservation or management effort must by definition not allow

humans to be the agents of direct suffering and death. It is dangerous to accept any less
than this.

TNR programs run on the volunteer efforts. Most if not all volunteers believe in the good

of the work they are doing. Exposing the dangers in current practices can ensure that
good work is done.

In my graduate program we were taught of the virtues of “adaptive management” with

regard to management of wildlife programs. Adaptive management simply means we must
learn from our mistakes, we are warned against the dangers of being reluctant to admit
failures and not adapting our programs.

This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this
article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You may not copy this
article in whole or in part onto another web page or document without permission of the
author. Email inquiries to

Looney A.L., Bohling M.W., Bushby P.A., Howe L.M., Griffin B., Levy J.K., Eddlestone S.M., Weedon J.R.,
Appel L.D., Rigdon-Brestle Y.K., Ferguson N.J., Sweeney D.J., Tyson K.A., Voors A.H., White S.C., Wilford C.L.,
Farrell K.A., Jefferson E.P., Moyer M.R., Newbury S.P., Saxton M.A., Scarlett J.M.; Association of Shelter
Veterinarians' Spay and Neuter Task Force. (2008)
The Association of Shelter Veterinarians veterinary
medical care guidelines for spay-neuter programs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association,
Kittens this small are way too young to neuter
echoe 69
"Deprived of adequate recovery
time, the necessary sufficient
time to heal post surgery, kittens
are simply too young to survive
the process. Lactating mothers
are taken from dependent
kittens for the span of the TNR
process and released back to

their habitats fresh from an
invasive procedure with a fresh
sutured incision at the site of the
mammary glands they need to

nurse their young with".
Contact me to present on  
humane trap, neuter, monitor

and release.  
Frania Shelley-Grielen is
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

Entire website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen

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