The importance
of post surgery
recovery in TNR
Waiting to release -the importance of post surgery recovery
time in TNR programs
copyright (c) 2021 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

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 neigh-
borhood 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 on 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;

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

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.

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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