Identifying sterilized feral cats
Eartipping is the universal sign of an altered feral cat. While the cat is sedated for the spay or neuter surgery, a quarter of an inch is removed from the tip of the left ear in a straight line cut. The procedure is swift and painless and healing is rapid. On this page you'll find a detailed protocol, demonstration video, sample photo for your veterinarian and a discussion of why eartipping is used instead of another method. (Note: in some parts of the United States, such as the West Coast, the normal practice is to tip the right ear. Most communities tip the left. Follow the local practice.)
Protocol for Eartipping
This protocol is courtesy of Dr. Laura Gay Senk, DVM, who has many years of experience working with feral cats and advocating for TNR:
1. The ears are examined for ear mites, cleaned and treated.
2. The tip of the left ear is given a sterile scrub being careful that no excess prep solution runs down into the ear canal.
3. A straight hemostat is held across the top 1/4 inch of the left ear, applying gentle pressure. DO NOT CLAMP THE HEMOSTAT CLOSED or crushing tissue damage may result beneath the ear tip.
4. The top 1/4 inch of the left ear is cut off straight across the top using a straight edge sharp scissors or scalpel blade (there is less bleeding when using a scissors). Proportionately less than 1/4 inch is removed for kittens. It is the straight edge on the top of the ear that is identifying, not the amount removed. Therefore, only 1/4 inch of ear tip need be removed.
5. A hemostatic paste is prepared ahead of time by mixing Kwik Stop with just enough lidocaine to make a thin paste. It's applied across the cut surface with a Q-tip. This will lessen the pain and resultant head shaking after recovery.
6. This paste will immediately stop the bleeding once the gentle pressure of the hemostat is removed. If bleeding does occur, apply more Kwik Stop and, if needed, reapply pressure for a short time.
Sample eartip photo
Unless you have a fair amount of experience working with a particular veterinarian or clinic, it's a good idea to provide them with a sample photo of an eartip that was done correctly. This can prevent too much or too little from being removed. Avoid any unpleasant surprises by printing out our sample eartip photo and bringing it along to your spay/neuter appointment.
In order to effectively manage a feral cat colony or TNR program, it's important to be able to quickly and easily identify cats who are already fixed. Clear identification avoids needless trapping and surgical procedures, and can alert shelter staff that they have a colony cat whose caretaker may be missing him. Eartipping has become standard practice to mark a neutered feral because it works much better than any other method currently known.
Other methods attempted include tattooing the inner ear, a metal clip on the side of the ear and keeping photo records of the cats. The problem with tattooing is the cat must first be captured and, if feral, sedated before the ear can be examined. In contrast, an eartip can be seen at a distance and no additional intervention is required. "Ear tags," as the metal clips are known, can get caught in twigs, branches or other objects, causing the ear to tear and sometimes the tag to fall off. Tags can also be difficult to see at a distance. Photos are useless if someone interested in whether the cats are fixed, like an animal control officer or another TNR trapper, doesn't have copies. Also, in many colonies, some cats look very similar and photos might be little help in identifying spay/neuter status.
At Neighborhood Cats, we were won over to eartipping when we trapped a cat who was not eartipped and brought her to our clinic for altering. It was only after she was sedated and her stomach shaved that the veterinarian fortunately observed a spay scar, sparing her a needless incision. All that would have been avoided if her left ear had been tipped.