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Caring for cats in traps

After a cat is caught, use the trap as a cage

From the time trapping begins to when the cats are released, the typical TNR project will last from four to seven days. This includes two to three days for trapping, a day for the spay/neuter surgeries, then 24 to 72 hours for recovery. During this time, the best place to confine a feral cat is in the same trap he was caught in. Twice daily the trap is cleaned and the cat is fed. This can be done safely for you and comfortably for the cat, using the techniques described below and demonstrated in our 3 minute video:

Sometimes when people first hear about keeping a cat in a trap for up to a week, they jump to the conclusion it's inhumane. This attitude reflects a lack of understanding of feral cats. When in captivity, a feral feels more secure in a tight, dark space rather than a large, open one. If a feral is placed in a cage instead of a trap and a carrier or cardboard box is placed in the cage, he will spend almost the entire time in the carrier or box. If no box or carrier is provided, the poor cat will be terrified and look for anything to hide under, like a sheet of newspaper. If a trap is of sufficient size, covered with a sheet and kept clean, the cat will soon relax and be just fine for the duration.

Using traps avoids the risk of escape or injury posed by trying to transfer a cat into a cage directly from a trap, then later trying to remove him. If a feral cat must be confined for longer than usual and housed in a cage, perhaps due to an illness or injury, the methods described in Fostering feral cats safely should be followed. Using traps for housing instead of cages also saves space and the expense of buying cages, both important considerations when a large number of cats are involved in a mass trapping.

Materials needed

  • Traps, 30 to 36 inches in length and at least 10 inches wide with removable rear doors; one per cat
  • Trap dividers, Tru-Catch or Tomahawk Live Trap models only, at least two
  • Newspaper
  • Water dishes, small with flat bottoms
  • Food dishes or plates, paper or plastic
  • Cotton sheets, one per cat
  • Plastic drop cloth or tarp, at least 3 millimeters thick
  • (Optional)  Craft tables, six feet in length
  • (Optional)  Shower curtains, thin and inexpensive

Preparing the Holding Space

A holding space is where trapped cats are held before and after spay/neuter surgery. It must be warm, dry and secure. To get the space ready, spread the plastic drop cloth or tarp on the floor. This will protect the floor from any waste that might escape the traps. If you have craft tables or the equivalent, set them up. It will be easier to feed and clean if the traps are resting on tables instead of on the ground, though they are not essential. If you use tables, cover them with plastic as well - cheap shower curtains will often work.

As cats are trapped and brought to the holding space, line them up in rows either on the floor or tables. Make sure the front doors are all facing the same direction and keep the traps covered with sheets at all times.

Feeding and Cleaning

  1. Start at the front door of the trap. Get the cat to move to the opposite rear end by uncovering the sheet from the front end (ferals tend to move from light to dark).
  2. Section the cat off at the rear end by inserting two dividers from above, back to back. Always use two to guarantee a cat cannot push through and escape.
  3. Open the front door and line the floor up to the dividers with thick newspaper. Remove any dirty paper first. At all times, keep an eye on the cat and keep your hands out of scratching range.
  4. Close the front door, check that it's locked, then remove the dividers and re-cover the front end of the trap with the sheet.
  5. Go to the rear door of the trap and shift the cat to the front by pulling the sheet back over the rear end.
  6. Section the cat off with two dividers inserted from above.
  7. Open the rear door and line the floor up to the dividers with thick newspaper, removing any dirty paper first and keeping your hands out of harm's way.
  8. Place food and water just inside the rear door opening.
  9. Close and lock the rear door, double-checking that it's secure, then remove the dividers and re-cover the rear end of the trap. 

The cat will use the newspaper as litter, often shredding it to cover his waste. As long as the trap is cleaned twice daily, the cat will remain clean and calm. Don't try to keep everything perfectly clean - undoubtedly the holding space will start to have an odor by the end of the project. But after the cats are released, you can roll up all the plastic, throw it away and get rid of the smell. One way to help keep the space fresh during the project is to replace the plastic, especially on the floor, while the cats are at the clinic for their surgeries.

Remember to remove all food from the traps the night before the spay/neuter. Kittens may need to eat until soon before their surgeries - consult your veterinarian in these cases for when to start withholding food. Before sending the cats off to the clinic, refresh the newspaper and remove the water.