Materials: Trap, cat food, blanket

Trapping Prep Time: 2 hours

Trapping Duration: 3 days

Appointment Notice: 2-3 weeks

1 - Make a Spay/Neuter Appointment

There are many veterinarians and clinics in Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities that perform spay and neuter surgeries for trapped community cats. Typically, these clinics schedule surgeries between 2 and 4 weeks out. (The Pittsburgh Spay Neuter Clinic does not require appointments for cats in a trap, but it is recommended to call ahead and confirm that they are open.)

Please Note: These organizations and veterinarians are listed for public convenience in the hopes of connecting folks with low-cost and free TNR options. Project NALA is an affiliate of the Animal Rescue League Shelter & Wildlife Center and does not necessarily endorse the policies and practices of other agencies.

Shelters and volunteer-based organizations can offer low or at-cost TNR starting at $30/cat, including a rabies shot and a mandatory ear tip. Some organizations also offer free TNR clinics. Private practices usually have a different cost structure.

The City of Pittsburgh offers city residents up to 5 free spay/neuter surgeries in collaboration with local shelters. Applications can be downloaded from the City's Animal Care & Control department website. Plan well in advance. It can take several weeks to get the application processed, but there is no expiration once it is approved.

2 - Obtain a Trap

While finding a trap may appear to be prohibitively difficult at first, there are actually many sources for traps - ranging from free hand-me-downs to top-of-the-line traps through mail order. Use the same size humane box trap for feral cats as is commonly used for raccoons and groundhogs (30"-36" long, 9"-12" wide, 11"-14" high). While larger models are somewhat more expensive and more unwieldy to handle, they tend to be more versatile, especially with larger cats. They are also better suited for recovery.

a. Ask friends and neighbors who may have a leftover trap in their garage from a previous issue and they may happily lend or donate it.

b. Trap Rental

  • Some local shelters rent traps to caretakers, especially those using their clinics. Ask while making the surgery appointment.
  • City of Pittsburgh Animal Care & Control lends traps to city residents. Keep in mind that there can be a long waiting list.
  • The rental fees charged for traps on Craigslist are not always reasonable given the quality of the traps advertised.

c. Local Sources for Purchasing Traps

  • Lowes, Home Depot (both with numerous convenient locations all over the Greater Pittsburgh area) and Rollier's Hardware (in Mount Lebanon) usually have at least one model of the Havaheart brand in stock, starting at around $50.
  • Agway and Tractor Supply (multiple locations in Allegheny and surrounding counties) stock a variety of traps, see here for an example. The door mechanism of some bargain traps has been reported to fail, causing cats to escape. Extra care is recommended.
  • Harbor Freight Tools (multiple locations around Pittsburgh) stocks very inexpensive traps, with occasional sales. The door mechanism of these traps has been reported to fail, causing cats to escape. Extra care is recommended.
  • Sellers on Craigslist often offer used traps for more than their original price.

d. Mail Order
There is an overwhelming number of mail order options. Traps that have a rear release door are worth the extra expense and are recommended. To get the best deal on professional quality traps, order directly from Tomahawk and TruCatch to avoid a retail mark-up. Both companies have an excellent reputation for product quality and customer service. Safeguard brand traps are also used by many trappers in Pittsburgh and are available from a variety of retail websites.

  • Tomahawk - model numbers 606NC, 608NC and 606FN
  • TruCatch - model numbers 30LTD and 30FC
  • Safeguard - model numbers 52830 and 52836

3 - Allow the Cat to Become Familiar with the Trap

To improve the chances of success, a technique called pre-baiting is often recommended if time allows. Approximately 10 days before the surgery date, tie open the trap door with a zip tie and start feeding the cats inside of the trap. Move the food dish a little farther toward the back of the trap every day until the cats get used to eating behind the trip plate. On trapping day, cut the tie and set the trap.

4 - Trap the Cat

It is recommended to withhold food for 24-48 hours, but continue to offer water. This will not drive away the cats and it is not inhumane. A hungry cat is more likely to go into the trap. Depending on the weather forecast, prior experience at the location, and the ability to hold cats, start trapping 24-48 hours before the surgery appointment.

Where and When to Trap
It is important to be familiar with the habits of the targeted cats (when they come to eat and where they are usually seen). Plan to set traps at least half an hour before the cats come for their meal. With cats that are not on an established feeding schedule, trapping may require getting up early or staying up late to properly monitor the trap. Usually the best times are early in the morning and in the evening around sunset. If there are some particularly shy cats, one may have to stay up to monitor traps during the night.

Place the traps where the cats are usually found, especially close to their feeding station. It is also useful to be aware of where they travel and place traps in their path. Another good placement choice is in the area where cats are observed to sit or sleep.

Here is a video by Best Friends Animal Society on how to set a trap: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSnWZ4ex0N8

Immediately after a cat is caught, make sure the trap is completely covered with a sheet or blanket to calm down the cat. It is an important measure to keep the animal safe and calm. Do not try to comfort the cat by trying to touch it and NEVER stick your fingers in the trap. Move the trap to a safe holding space. If you are trying to trap multiple cats, it is beneficial to replace the used trap with a trap from another spot because cats tend to prefer specific locations.

5 - Hold the Cat Until the Appointment

TNR projects involve holding a trapped cat before and after surgery. There are a few simple measures to make this easier for the trapper and much more humane for the cat. Resist the urge to give the cat a cage break, and NEVER try to touch a trapped cat.

The holding space should be quiet, safe (from humans and from wildlife) and have a moderate temperature. A basement, a garage, or a spare room are good choices. During the summer months, a shady and quiet porch can be used.

Most cats eliminate while they are in a trap, and some males spray in response to the stress of confinement. Since cat urine is a very pungent and hard to clean substance, it is best to be proactive and immediately use the proper cleaners. Covering the floor with a plastic bag or a tarp also makes clean-up a lot easier and prevents unpleasant smells setting. Specialized products like Fizzion and Nature's Miracle that are sold at pet stores are highly effective at breaking down urine quickly. It is recommended to keep these products on hand. Natural orange-oil-based room fresheners work very well to remove any air-borne smell. Vinegar and vinegar-based home remedies are also effective, whereas most regular household products will only temporarily mask scents and can even set stains and smells.

Experienced trappers use a divider, a large metal comb, to safely care for trapped cats. The divider is inserted sideways through the trap without leaving a gap at the bottom to confine that cat to one side of the trap. That way, the trap doors can be opened without any risk of escape or injury to clean the trap and place food inside. Dividers can be mail-ordered from Tomahawk or Tru-Catch for around $20, a limited number are always for sale at the ARL's monthly Community Cat Chat events.

If one does not have a divider at hand, placing the trap on frequently changed pee pads, sheets/towels or clean newspaper is more humane than placing the trap on the bare floor and makes for easy clean-up. To feed a trapped cat, one can simply drop some wet food down into the trap. If the trap is in an enclosed room, one may also carefully open the door by an inch and push a small plate of wet food inside as long as the cat is calmly huddled up at the opposite end of the trap.

A small number of cats are escape artists; a malfunctioning door or a brief moment of opportunity during feeding may be all they need to get out. If a cat escapes in a basement or a garage, put out water as well as a litter box and then set the trap again. It can take a couple of days, but eventually, the cat will be hungry enough to go back in the trap.

6 - Have the Cat Spayed/Neutered

On surgery day, make sure to arrive at the designated time. You may get turned away if you are late.

To keep your vehicle clean and from taking on any odors, it is recommended to place plastic bags, a tarp, or some other large waterproof cover under the traps. In case of accidents, the same products used to treat the holding space will eliminate odors and clean up spills. Some trappers who frequently transport cats even keep a bottle of Fizzion and orange spray in their cars at all times. Traps can be safely stacked to increase capacity (e.g. a Subaru Imprezza hatchback can fit 9 traps when loaded carefully). Make sure to put a tarp or other waterproof barrier between stacked traps.

Depending on the number of surgeries scheduled on a given day, clinic check-in may require a wait even when staff or volunteers work as quickly as possible. Before arriving at the clinic, it is useful to be prepared with a list of all relevant information about the cat or cats (color, coat length, age range). You should also have a list of requested treatments (like extra shots, parasite treatment, or special medical requests like checking for suspected injuries). If the request is more complicated, it is recommended to call the surgery coordinator in advance to find out what options are available. You should also check what forms of payment are accepted in advance.

When you pick up the cat after surgery, you will receive a spay certificate and a rabies certificate, as well as discharge instructions. Keep those in a safe place to have documentation of the colony's status. Carefully read the instructions and note any special comments. While clinic staff is often very busy during discharge times, they will happily answer questions.

7 - Allow the Cat to Recover

The recommended standard recovery time is between 24 and up to 72 hours depending on gender (less for males, more for females), the cat's condition and recovery speed, weather conditions, and the caretaker's ability to provide a comfortable environment. Since a post-op cat's ability to regulate their body temperature is limited, it is crucial to provide a temperature-controlled recovery space. Make sure to use newspapers or towels to insulate the trap from a cold floor. If cats are slow waking up, that is particularly important. Check your discharge instructions. They are tailored for the clinic's specific drug protocol. It is typically recommended that fully awake and alert cats receive a small amount of wet food mixed with water in the evening and a full meal the next morning. Kittens under 4 months should receive wet food in the evening. Female cats that have recently given birth and are lactating should be returned as soon as they are fully awake, usually the evening after surgery. If this is the case, there will be a note in the discharge instructions. If there were any complications, extra recovery time may be indicated. Check with clinic staff at the time of discharge to understand what they recommend based on the specific circumstances.

8 - Return the Cat to Its Outdoor Home

Return the cat during a quiet time of day to the location where it was trapped and immediately provide food and water at the normal location. Seeing a fully recovered cat shoot out of the trap is one of the most rewarding moments of the project. Congratulations!

9 - Clean and Return the Trap

To prevent the spread of disease, it is mandatory to clean traps after use. In particular, it is not acceptable to return borrowed traps dirty. In fact, failure to follow this guideline may result in the loss of a rental deposit. One can rinse the traps and then thoroughly brush them with soapy water before sanitizing them. Bleach solution has to be freshly mixed and remain wet on contact for least 10 minutes to be effective. Products like Trifectant (available from Amazon) remain active when pre-mixed and work faster.

10 - Care for the Cat

Continue to feed as normal. The cat will quickly return to its regular food source.

FAQ's - What if ...?
... I happen to trap a cat that I have never seen before? Answer: Unless it is clearly an owned cat (e.g. indicated by a collar and name tag), take it to the clinic as you would with one of your known colony members. Do not try to determine whether a cat in a trap is socialized.

... I unintentionally trap somebody's pet? Answer: If you know the cat's owner, return the cat to its home. If the cat has a collar, call the owner and grow your network of cat advocates in the neighborhood. Otherwise, if the cat turns out to be already fixed, it may get a rabies booster and ear-tip. If a neighbor has not yet gotten around to fixing a cat with outdoors privileges, you did a great job helping your community.

... a cat looks as if it wants to be petted? Answer: NEVER stick your fingers in the trap or try to touch a trapped cat! You may get scratched or bitten. Rabies is common in Pennsylvania and it's a serious and fatal disease. While it is rare, free-roaming cats that have not been vaccinated have tested positive for rabies, including in the City of Pittsburgh. ALWAYS be extremely careful when handling any animal whose vaccination status and history is unknown.

... I do not trap the number of cats I had planned? Answer: Call the clinic to let the surgery coordinator know. There is no penalty for cancelling an appointment. Clinics know that cats can be uncooperative and will not be upset with you. Next time, give yourself an extra day and try pre-baiting the traps.

... the cat thrashes around the trap? Answer: Cover up the trap immediately. The cat will calm down.

... the cat is sick or injures itself in the trap? Answer: If that happens, bring the cat to the scheduled clinic appointment. The veterinary staff will give it the best possible treatment.

... a cat is too smart to go in the trap? Answer: Use a different, bigger trap or pre-bait the trap. You can also ask an experienced trapper to help you with a drop trap.

... my cat scratches itself, seems to have lost weight even though it eats a lot, seems to have lost hair and its coat does not look as shiny as a few weeks ago? Could it be parasites like fleas or worms? Answer: Just like family pets that have outdoors access, community cats can suffer from parasites. You can ask for Frontline Plus (ticks, fleas), Advantage multi (fleas, roundworms, hookworms) and a Droncit shot (tapeworms) at check in for an extra fee. If the clinic offers it, you can also ask for topical treatment with Profender (all worms). If you are unsure, talk to the surgery coordinator in advance and discuss the available options.

... a cat turns out to be pregnant? Answer: That is a challenging situation and can pose a moral dilemma. The kittens may not survive the mother's anesthesia, and there is also a chance that they may be born with birth defects. Spaying the mother and terminating the pregnancy is usually the best path. Always spay and neuter before that becomes an issue.

... the cat is upset at me for what I put it through? Answer: Just put out food and the cat will be back soon after it is released. They do not hold a grudge.

... I get two cats in one trap? Answer: Congratulations! Bring an extra trap to the clinic and a box of donuts for the vet techs who safely separate them. Do not try to release one cat or separate them yourself.

... I trap an already ear-tipped cat? Answer: If possible, bring it in for a rabies booster. You can also safely release the cat, but you may want to wait until you are done trapping for the day.

... I accidentally trap a raccoon/opossum? Answer: Carefully open the trap and give it space to get away. You have to release wildlife where it was trapped. It is illegal and inhumane to relocate wildlife to other locations.

... I accidentally trap a skunk? How can I avoid being sprayed? Answer: Get a plastic tarp or plastic painting drop cloth. Do not use a sheet, canvas tarp, or other porous material. Approach the trapped skunk from behind and throw the tarp over the trap. Walk a reasonable distance away and wait a few minutes for the skunk to calm down. Approaching from behind and wearing gloves, open the trap from the opposite end at which you're standing and release the animal. If the skunk will not move, gently shake or kick the trap so that it runs out. Immediately distance yourself from the animal. You have to release wildlife where it was trapped. It is illegal and inhumane to relocate wildlife to other locations.

Every third Saturday of the month from 3-5 pm we hold an informal meeting to discuss different topics that pertain to community cat related issues. Community Cat Chats are held at the Animal Rescue League in the Multi-Purpose Room at 6620 Hamilton Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15206.

For more information or to RSVP, please email jbarnard@animalrescue.org.


Community cats have their homes within urban neighborhoods rather than in individual households. Some community cats are routinely fed by one or more community members, while others survive without human intervention. This term includes what is commonly known as feral and stray cats.

"Feral cat" is often used to refer to domestic cats that have never been sufficiently exposed to humans to become socialized. While some can learn to live as indoors cats, they require an experienced guardian and are almost always unsuitable for placement through a shelter or rescue program.

"Stray cats" were a fully socialized house cat at some point in their life, but have to live at large. Most stray cats are abandoned, rather than lost pets. Some strays are easily adoptable into a home, some find they way back to their owners, others may lose their bond to humans when they have to fend for themselves.

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs help control the community cat population by preventing them from reproducing. TNR also contributes to healthier conditions through a medical check and especially through a rabies vaccination.

A colony is a group of feral cats that live in the same area.

A caregiver is someone who feeds and provides continuing care for community cats, as well as ongoing TNR for the colony.

A trapper is someone who humanely catches community cats and returns them back to their home colony after they are spayed/neutered and vaccinated.