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 town 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.
Whatever 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 required.”

TNR programs when properly implemented are effective at controlling feral cat
populations 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 fatalities.

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
Veterinary 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 somehow 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.

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
, 233(1):74-86.
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
Contact me to present on  
humane trap, neuter, monitor and
Frania Shelley-Grielen is
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

Entire website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen