understanding ear-tipping in feral cats

Cutting off a portion of a cat's ear? To many, this may sound cruel and unusual. But it's a thing–a good thing, in fact. Ear-tipping or ear-notching helps protect the feral cat population.

what is a feral cat?

A feral cat is an outdoor cat that has not been socialized to people. For this reason, feral cats are often skittish around humans and are not adoptable. They live and thrive in all types of communities, from the big city to open farms and live full, healthy lives with the same life span as pet cats. Along with pet cats, they are protected under state anti-cruelty laws.

If found young enough, feral kittens have a chance to be socialized and become adoptable, but rarely does an adult feral cat appreciate close interactions with humans. 

The main problem with feral cats is population control. The population can only be controlled through spaying and neutering. 

how are feral cats spayed and neutered?

Thanks to nonprofit groups such as Alley Cat Allies, we have a chance to keep the feral cat population at a manageable level through Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs. How does this work? It's a three-step process;

1. the feral cat is humanely trapped

2. the feral cat is spayed/neutered and ear-tipped

3. the feral cat is returned to it's community

When feral cats are spayed and neutered, not only does it control the population, but it also eliminates the mating behaviors that bother humans in the community. The cats are better-accepted and can live in peace and harmony. 

what is ear-tipping, and why is it necessary?

Ear-tipping is a process by which the tip of one (usually the left) of the feral cat's ear is removed. It is done under general anesthesia at the same time that the cat is spayed/neutered. It heals very quickly, causing minimal pain and recovery.

Feral cats who have been ear-tipped are easily identifiable, even from a distance. photo credits: animalvogue.com, alleycat.org, startpets.net, chatofwakulla.org

Feral cats who have been ear-tipped are easily identifiable, even from a distance.

photo credits: animalvogue.com, alleycat.org, startpets.net, chatofwakulla.org

Ear-tipping is effective in helping to identify a spayed or neutered and vaccinated feral cat. One can easily see at a distance that the cat has already been "taken care of," thus eliminating the inevitable further trappings and surgeries. Since cats show no outward sign of being spayed or neutered, it's important for identification purposes. If we can immediately recognize the the cat has already been spayed/neutered, they will not be traumatized by repeated trappings. This also helps preserve the resources of groups that help feral cats. Alley Cat Allies says, "feral cats may interact with a variety of caregivers, veterinarians, and animal control personnel in their lives, and so immediate visual identification is necessary to prevent an unnecessary second trapping and surgery."

other options just don't cut it

Other ways to identify feral cats have been explored, but deemed ineffective. These methods include:

• collars: As the cat grows or gains weight, a collar may become too tight, subjecting the cat to wounds or slow strangulation. There is also the chance that the collar may become caught on something, causing injury or death. Or, the collar may just fall of, so the spayed/neutered cat can no longer be identified as such.

• ear tags: Aside from simply being bothersome to the cat, ear tags may become infected, tear the cats ear, or fall off.

• microchipping: Though microchipping may provide us with information about a feral cat, if done alone, it does not allow for visual identification, so the cat may be trapped repeatedly.

• tattooing: A tattoo is often not visible until a cat has been trapped and anesthetized. 

This is what ear-notching looks like. photo source: santisookdogsandcats.org

This is what ear-notching looks like.

photo source: santisookdogsandcats.org

Alley Cat Allies is a group highly-recognized for helping the feral cat population. They practice ear-tipping of the left ear, but some feral cats may have their right ear tipped or may have an ear notch. Ear-notching–in contrast to ear-tipping–is when a small triangular piece is clipped from the cat's ear. This is usually done at the tip of the ear, but may sometimes be seen in the side of the ear, instead. Ear-notching is not as widely accepted because it may be more easily-confused with an accidental battle-wound. 

So next time you see a cat with it's ear tipped or notched, wave from afar and know that someone has cared enough to help protect him.

Do you have a feral cat presence in your area? Have you noticed ear-tipping? 

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main photo source: wwno.org