Identifying sterilized feral cats
Eartipping is the universal sign of an altered feral cat. One centimeter (1 cm) is removed from the tip of the left ear in a straight line cut. Eartips are readily visible from a distance, making it easy for caretakers, trappers and animal control personnel to immediately identify a cat as spayed or neutered. The procedure is performed under sterile conditions while the cat is anesthetized, is relatively painless, involves little to no bleeding and does not significantly alter the cat's appearance. No other means of identification has proven as safe or effective.
On this page, you'll find a veterinarian-reviewed eartipping protocol, demonstration video, sample photo to show your veterinarian and a discussion of why eartipping is superior to other methods. (Note: in some parts of the United States, like the West Coast, the normal practice is to tip the right ear. Most communities tip the left. Follow local practice. Some programs also prefer to remove 1/4 inch (7mm) off the tip of the ear.)
Protocol for Eartipping
This protocol has been reviewed and edited by Dr. Lisa M. Labrecque, DVM, Director of Community Spay Neuter Programs for Maui Humane Society.
1. First, prepare a hemostatic paste by mixing Kwik Stop with just enough lidocaine to make a thin paste. Have the mixture ready to apply as soon as the cat's ear has been tipped.
2. Before tipping the cat's left ear, examine both ears for ear mites, infection or debris. Treat as necessary.
3. Apply a sterile scrub to the left ear. Tipping will require removal of the top one centimeter (1 cm) of the ear so only the top portion should be prepped; this will help ensure that none of the solution gets into the ear canal.
4. Position a straight hemostat across the top one centimeter (1 cm) of the left ear. Maintain gentle pressure by holding the hemostat in place or clamping it to the first notch. Excessive pressure may cause tissue damage so to minimize risk, never clamp the hemostat beyond the first notch. When eartipping kittens, adjust the positioning of the hemostat so that proportionately less than 1 cm is removed. For kittens three months old or younger (3 lbs. or less), one-quarter inch (1/4 inch; 6.35 millimeters) of the ear is removed.
Remember, for all eartips, the goal is a clean, straight line that will instantly identify a cat as having been fixed. That's why the shape of the tipped ear, not the amount removed, is important - and why eartips are better than ear notches, which can be mistaken for bite wounds or other traumas to the ear.
5. Using a sharp scissors or a scalpel blade (scissors will cause less bleeding), cut straight across the top of the ear, removing one centimeter (1 cm) from the tip for adults, proportionately less for kittens.
6. Immediately apply the prepared hemostatic paste with a cotton swab across the cut surface. The combination of Kwik Stop and lidocaine will stop any bleeding and lessen pain. The lidocaine will also help to keep the cat more comfortable once she's awake, reducing head shaking.
7. If bleeding is observed after the hemostat is removed, apply more Kwik Stop. 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 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.