By Danielle Bays, WHS Community Cats Program Manager
I’ve spent a lot of time in alleys across the District looking for community cats. Most of them keep their distance, but I can usually get a good enough look at them to see if they have been spayed or neutered. No, it is not that I have X-ray vision or some magical way to tell if they have reproductive organs or not. It is because the sterilized outdoor cats have been “ear-tipped.”
An ear-tip is the universal sign of a spayed or neutered free-roaming cat.
Since the Washington Humane Society (WHS) started the Cat Neighborhood Partnership Program (CatNiPP), we’ve spayed and neutered thousands of free-roaming cats. Our Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program is based on others like it across the county and is promoted by DC law as an effective model to control outdoor cat populations. In addition to the sterilization surgeries and vaccinations, each cat is ear-tipped. While the cat is anesthetized for surgery, approximately one-quarter of an inch of the cat’s left ear is cropped by one of our veterinarians. This doesn’t hurt and it heals quite quickly.
Ear-tipping of free-roaming community cats is done across the country by groups such as Neighborhood Cats in New York City and the Feral Cat Project in Washington State, and it is supported by national organizations like Alley Cat Allies and the ASPCA.
Ear-tipping in an indispensable part of an effective community cat program.
An ear-tip is an efficient way to identify spayed and neutered free-roaming cats in the field. For the adoptable cats that come into our Adoption Centers, we can look for the absence of testicles, a spay scar, or a tattoo—WHS as well as many other veterinarians give cats a small tattoo after spaying or neutering to prevent an unnecessary second surgery. But when an Animal Control Officer is driving down an alley and spots a community cat, or a resident sees a cat outside through a window, an ear-tip is an easy visual to let us know if we need to trap the cat to be fixed or not.
In areas with a lot of cats that we are spaying and neutering over time, ear-tipped cats will inevitably be re-trapped. While some cats will only ever go in a trap once, others will go in repeatedly in pursuit of the bait (cat food, catnip, etc.). Ear-tipped cats can be released on site. Without this, we'd be trapping the same cats over and over again, transporting them to the clinic, and subjecting them to anesthesia. This isn't good for the cats, and it isn't an effective use of our resources, which can be better spent trapping the cats that do need to be sterilized. Ear-tips also save cats a trip to the shelter, and in some locations may save their lives, as in the case of Ale, one of our Relo-Cats.
DC is very pro-community cat, and an ear-tipped cat will be left in their community. Neighboring Prince George’s County, which in the past has not supported TNR, recently took steps to becoming more alley-cat-friendly, enacting a law allowing ear-tipped cats to be transferred to rescue groups that can return them to their outdoor colonies, rather than euthanizing them.
Some of those cats do transition to indoor cats -- they may be adopted by someone in their neighborhood or we may come across a friendly, already ear-tipped cat who is a great candidate for adoption. Kitten Liam O’Fuzzpants (left) came in around St. Patrick’s Day and was adopted earlier this month! It is becoming more and more common to see ear-tipped cats leading luxurious indoor lives.
As far as the cats are concerned, they don’t care about ear-tips. My cat Rocko (below) will attest to that. He’s proud of his ear-tip, and so am I.
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