Ear Tipping and Community Cats

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A cat with his right ear tipped .

By Dr. Tracy McFarland, a veterinarian and writer for Pets Best, a pet insurance agency for dogs and cats. 

Have you ever wondered why a cat you see on the street or in a vacant lot or field has one ear that is neatly squared off at the top? It can be the right or left ear, and it is done at the time of neuter or spay, primarily with cats that are not suitable for adoption and will be released into a “cat colony” area instead. The ear tip surgery allows concerned cat rescuers to recognize that this cat has already been sterilized and released, and does not need further intervention.

Cats were first domesticated several thousand years ago, in contrast to dogs who became domesticated tens of thousands of years ago. This difference may explain why early positive contact with humans is critical for kittens to become comfortable as household companions, while dogs are more naturally disposed to trust humans, even if they don’t receive as much early socialization. There is a golden period from 2 to 7 to 8 weeks of age, when kittens develop the ability to trust humans and to enjoy close contact with them. If kittens do not interact closely with humans during this critical period, it is highly unlikely that they will become comfortable living with humans in a household later.

Sadly, I often hear from clients of mine who adopted or rescued nonsocial kittens or cats, hoping they’ll become friendly with time. While some may learn to tolerate minimal contact, such as sleeping on the bed, when their guardian is already in a nonthreatening, horizontal position, they usually panic if their human tries to pet them or pick them up. If the cat becomes ill, it can be really difficult to treat them, since they won’t usually tolerate the handling needed to medicate them on a regular basis. It is very stressful for these cats to live closely with humans, as they are often in an almost constant state of fear.

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Organizations such as Alley Cat Allies advocate trap /neuter/return for feral cats and kittens. By humanely trapping these cats, spaying and neutering them and returning them to an appropriate environment with other cats, they can live in a way that feels natural to them. Because they can’t reproduce, the colony doesn’t increase exponentially the way it would if uncontrolled reproduction were permitted. Trap/neuter/ return is a humane alternative to wholesale euthanasia of feral cats, and ear tipping is an important tool to avoid trapping cats who have already had their spay or neuter surgery.

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