COVID-19: Advice for Those Undertaking TNR and/or Feeding Unowned cat Colonies During the Coronavirus Crisis

The following article first appeared on iCatCare:

If you are part of a larger organisation which is dealing with unowned cats undertaking trap, neuter and return (TNR) or feeding colonies, then they have probably given you direction and advice on how to deal with the many different situations which may arise during the coronavirus pandemic – follow the advice for the safety of staff and others.  There may also be government guidelines to try and follow, although it may be difficult to translate some general guidelines to specifics in what you are doing. However, there are also many individuals, or small groups who may not have help in deciding what to do in these COVID-19 times. We hope this information will be helpful. Remember that the welfare of people is paramount, the health of employees or volunteers must come first, and stopping the spread will save lives.

General advice regarding coronavirus and cats

The advice International Cat Care and the International Society of Feline Medicine are giving remains as previously stated by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA):

  • For households with no symptoms of COVID-19, take normal sensible hygiene precautions and wash hands after handling pets
  • If you have symptoms of COVID-19 you should avoid close contact with pets if possible, wear a face mask and wash hands before and after handling any pet
  • There is no current evidence of transmission from pet fur to humans, hence no current advice to clean cats before handling them. The use of disinfectants on cats may cause significant distress to both cats and humans, and potential toxicity or chemical burns (especially for cats), so this is not recommended at this time
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) currently state there is no evidence that companion animals can spread the disease and there is no indication for taking measures that may compromise companion animal welfare.
Comprehensive handwashing guidelines are provided by the World Health Organization

Advice for those working with unowned cats

Different organisations/countries may be at varying stages of ability to function, or are in lockdown or coming out of lockdown, depending on government direction. Whatever we do, we must prioritise human health and coronavirus control while trying to maintain care for the animals as much as we can. Here are some ways that organisations are being advised to function during the pandemic.

  1. Preserve critical functions

These may vary depending on the country you are in, what is required by law and what is possible. Definitions of what is critical and what is not may also vary in different countries or areas. If you are feeding colonies, you may need to check with your national or regional authorities that you can continue to do so.  For example, feral and community cats’ rights to be protected, and people’s right to keep their volunteer job taking care of them, have been officially recognised in Spain at national level and India’s Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying has declared the feeding of community and stray animals as an essential service.

  1. Suspend non-emergency activities

TNR is not considered to be a critical function in lockdown situations and needs to be considered carefully as restrictions are lifted – staff and volunteers must not be put at risk going outside and veterinarians may not want to undertake neutering at a time when they are trying to keep only emergency functions open. Veterinary clinics are subject to strict control measures according to the government or professional body of the country they are in and this may include neutering clinics. However, not all countries have halted all their neutering and return programmes – anecdotally, some are focusing efforts on unowned and difficult to catch animals, not requiring community support for catching/handling.

If non-emergency activities have been suspended in your country then essential (emergency) surgery will be for life-threatening, rapidly deteriorating, serious problems and for the relief of suffering. This may change as things improve, but there will be a backlog of pet cat owners chasing vets for neutering. Only start trapping again once there are adequate veterinary resources in place.  Do not trap cats and then hold on to them until a slot appears – this would be very stressful for cats.

If people call regarding their concerns about feral, street or community cats, try to resolve their concerns by giving advice without staff and volunteers becoming actively involved. If any cats have life-threatening illness or injury then a local veterinarian should be contacted. Have an answerphone message about being closed, and direct people to your social media page or website where you can have some general guidelines about what their options are, during the pandemic, for the more common issues and enquiries. You can agree to stay in touch via phone with people who have complex problems and are struggling.

If you are concerned about the population growth resulting from the postponing of all TNR programmes in your region, please follow this link where there is a short video which will give you hope if you have a population which you have invested in neutering already. This is also a video to show to local municipalities as a counter-argument if they decide to undertake culling as part of a catch-up on population management after we move out of lockdown.

  1. Do what you have to as safely as possible

If you are feeding colonies, follow all normal hygiene precautions – hand wash before and after touching cats (this ensures other animal diseases cannot be passed from cat to cat too, so should be a normal part of your care for cats). As explained above the risk of picking up the virus from cat coats is probably absolutely minimal, but it is worth just being careful. Most community cats, although they may be tolerant of touch when they are being fed, probably feel safer if they are not being handled anyway. Take care also about going into dangerous areas as there may be fewer people around to help if you get into difficulties.

ICAM, the International Companion Animal Coalition has advice on the Q & A part of its website about feeding of roaming and stray animals, including feeding of cat colonies and is a very useful resource; 

Follow social distancing guidelines, consider working in shifts, remove work clothes and shoes at home and keep washing hands before and after interacting with animals and people.

Those working alone or in small organisations will need a contingency for both illness and quarantine, if they live with someone infected, as they should not be working with cats or people for 14 days.

  1. Look after yourself

Stay in touch with others doing the same work locally via Skype / Facetime / social media – everyone is in the same boat. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Good mental health is really important at times of uncertainty. Do the best you can under the circumstances – there will be much work to do catching up with neutering and TNR when systems return to normal – spend some time planning how you might do that.

Useful websites:

WSAVA Coronavirus hub

The American Veterinary Medical Association

International Society for Companion Animal Infectious Diseases

The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement

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