How to trap cats

Many people use live traps to capture feral cats, whether to remove them from their property or as part of a Trap Neuter Return (TNR) effort. Regardless of your final goal, here are some useful tips for trapping feral cats (please be sure to check with your local laws before setting a live trap in your area):

Tip 1: If you are trapping a feral cat with the intention of short-term care, be sure to select a cat trap that features a back-door, divider, and some sort of cover. A great option is the Havahart® Feral Cat Trapping Kit.

Tip 2: Always place the cage on a level surface.

Tip 3: Position the cage against a wall of a building or in a path commonly traveled by the cat.

Tip 4: After setting the trap, it may be helpful to cover the cage with a blanket or burlap sac. Cats often venture into enclosed areas, so covering your trap may result in a quicker catch.

Tip 5: Remove yourself from the immediate area, but stay close so that you can check the cage as often as possible.

Tip 6: After the cat has been caught, place the cover over the cage. This helps to calm the cat.

Tip 7: Please do not allow children or pets near the cage.

Tip 8: Check with veterinarian/humane league to determine if you may feed/water the cat before you relocate. Follow the trap instructions for placing food and water in the cage.

Tip 9: If you choose to relocate the animal with a carrier or crate, the carrier should be large enough to hold a small food and water bowl along with an 8 inch x 8 inch tin foil pan for litter.

Tip 10: When transporting the cat in a car, place a trash bag or tarp under the cage. Keep the cage covered. Please do not transport the cat in the closed trunk of the car.

If you need to catch a cat-like an outdoor cat who’s afraid, a housecat who’s been separated from their owner, or a stray or feral cat that needs medical attention-follow these tips so you can capture Kitty safely.

Wondering what to do if you’ve found an outdoor cat? If you suspect the kitty has been separated from his owner, or if she’s a stray that needs medical attention, it’s critical you find a safe way to catch her and get her the help she needs. But luring and catching a cat—especially one who’s afraid of humans or feral—can be tricky. We teamed up with the ASPCA to share some tips on what to do if you’ve discovered a cat who’s less than thrilled about getting in a crate or being picked up.

You’ve Discovered a Stray Cat…Now What?

The first step is to identify what she may need. Maybe you’re her owner, but she won’t come to you because she’s scared. If your cat is not familiar with the outdoors, all of the new stimulants can make her confused or nervous. In other cases, there could be a stray or feral cat in the area that requires medical attention, such as spaying or neutering before she’s released back into the community. But because you need to be cautious with any unknown felines that could have contagious diseases, this method won’t require you to pick up or handle the cat in any way.

How to Bring The Cat Out of Hiding

In the area you’ve seen the cat, choose a location that’s secluded—somewhere quiet and with few distractions. Samantha Nigbur, ASPCA Behavioral Sciences Team Counselor, says that you’ll probably need to lure them out into the open using food. It will probably take several days prior to actually catching the cat, but Nigbur says you can try to win the cat over by feeding her consistently in your presence. 

“Feed the cat at the same time every day so she learns to come at this time,” Nigbur says. Leave the same dish of food in the same exact spot every day, and as the kitty becomes more trusting she should start to visit the area more often. As you put the food out at the same time every day, the cat will notice and begin to come around when she’s expecting a snack. Dry cat food certainly works to get their attention, but wet food might be even more enticing. Try out baby food, catnip, sardines, anchovies, or cooked chicken. The smellier the treats, the quicker she’ll learn.

How to Catch the Cat

For this part, you’ll need a cat carrier or kennel of some kind (try these before resorting to a trap). Once kitty is hooked on the daily food, try leaving the carrier near the feeding station. Over time, begin to move the food closer and closer to the carrier and observe to make sure the cat is still comfortable. Start to move the bowl a few inches every meal, until it’s settled all the way inside the kennel. Once the cat’s full body enters the carrier, shut the door and cover it with a towel to keep her calm. Bring the cat to a safe location until you’re able to see a vet. 

“If luring the cat into a carrier is unsuccessful, you can work with a local TNRM (Trap-Neuter-Return-Monitor) program or your local shelter to access a trap and get training on how to set it up,” Nigbur says. “Since cats can become injured or medically compromised if kept in a trap inappropriately, it’s important to follow TNRM recommendations on trapping.”

Once you’ve got kitty safe and sound in the crate, bring her to the vet immediately. They’ll be able to check for a microchip to find the owner, if the cat has one. If not, they will administer any medical care, spay or neuter the cat if needed, and release it back outdoors post-recovery.

Some cats just don’t seem to want to go into the trap, no matter how hard you try. You’ve used smelly bait, you’ve withheld food to get them hungry, and yet you still sit out night after night and come up with an empty trap!

Here are the top 10 tips and tricks I’ve collected over the years that may help you nab your wily kitty:

  1. Pray. Even if you don’t pray…pray.
  2. Drink. Even if you don’t drink…drink.
  3. Communicate telepathically with the cat. Even if you don’t believe in communicating telepathically with a cat…send them mental mindwaves to let them know their life will get better if they just—GO—INTO—THE—TRAP.
  4. Disguise the trap with foliage, tree branches, etc. so it looks nothing like a trap. (And boy have we seen some interesting trap camouflage come into the clinic).
  5. Disguise the trap with cardboard, covering it completely with cardboard on all sides so it looks like a mysterious box. Very important to make sure the cat still has plenty of ventilation.
  6. Sprinkle catnip all over the inside of the trap. In fact, we’ve even seen someone hang a catnip toy from the top of the inside back of the trap. You laugh? She got the cat.
  7. If the cat is an indoor/outdoor cat, try opening the back door just a little bit and set the trap inside the house—rather than in the back yard.
  8. Two of our favorite words – Laundry basket. This strategy is particularly good for those cats who are “kinda sorta friendly who you can sometimes pet or touch but only briefly and while not making direct eye contact”. You know the ones. Take a plastic laundry basket and plop it down over the cat when he/she is least suspecting. “Spider” the basket (with the cat under it) onto a sturdy piece of plywood or a plastic sterilite container lid. Duct tape the whole thing together and bring kitty into the clinic just like that. Be sure to bring a empty trap with you so the cat can recover in the trap after surgery.
  9. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Evidently the “original recipe” is paw-lickin good. Get a drumstick (yes it must be original recipe) and tie it to the top of the inside back of the trap. This is a great lure for even the hardest to catch ferals. (Don’t worry about getting it out of the trap, either; technically with this method there will be food in the trap after midnight, but they never eat the drumstick while trapped).
  10. Valerian Root Extract Oil. Buy it at a health food store, break open the capsule and sprinkle it over your bait. We have no idea why it works, but it does. Expect to be swarmed by bugs though—as it seems to attract insects, too.

If you’ve tried at least five of the tips listed, or maybe even just three in combination with #2, we consider you a seasoned master trapper. Good luck getting your kitty!

Everybody has that neighbor (OK, some of you are that neighbor) whose heart bleeds for all the stray cats in the hood. Cat Lady or Cat Dude leaves paper bowls full of Meow Mix all over the sidewalks, and the scraggly, fiercely independent kitties go tomcatting all over town.

You might think your local Cat Lady is really sweet or maybe eccentric. But you know who really hates the Cat Lady? Bird lovers.

Nationwide, a massive fight is under way between cat lovers and bird lovers (who say wild cats are nonnatural predators threatening bird species and other critters). The battle has become especially heated in Florida, where pending legislation could affect the way feral cat colonies are managed. This month, the issue caused problems at two recognizable publications after an Audubon writer wrote a shocking op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel.

Colonies of feral cats thrive all over the world — under the 17th Street bridge in Fort Lauderdale or in stately Palm Beach — and this creates problems for municipalities that must decide how to deal with them.

Cat lovers generally support a policy of “TNR” — Trap, Neuter, and Release. It calls for cats to be captured, taken to a vet, implanted with a chip, neutered, then freed. Theoretically, this lets the current generation of wild cats roam free but ensures they can’t produce heirs.

But the cat-loving crowd took a hit in January when a report was released, based on the work of scientists at the Smithsonian and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The report said that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals every year.

Cat lovers decried this report as fear-mongering, anti-cat PR, but in Florida, the report could influence a piece of legislation that’s kicking around Tallahassee. This year, Florida House Bill 1121, also known as the “Community Cat Act” was written by an attorney with Best Friends Animal Society and introduced in the House. It would establish that community cat programs that practice TNR would not be guilty of abandonment or unlawful release. The bill is supported by the Humane Society but opposed by the Florida Veterinary Medical Association. Last week, it passed the agriculture committee in the House by a 14-0 vote. A companion bill has been filed in the Senate.

On March 14, an Audubon writer and accomplished environmental journalist named Ted Williams contributed a column in the Orlando Sentinel describing TNR as a “dangerous, cruel, and illegal practice.” He said that “In Florida, where rabid cats attack people,” most wild cats have a feline form of AIDS. Feral cats infect Florida panthers with feline leukemia, he wrote, and they kill migratory birds and endangered species including lower Keys marsh rabbits and silver rice rats.

Then he wrote that there are “two effective, humane alternatives to the cat hell of TNR. One is Tylenol (the human pain medication) — a completely selective feral-cat poison. But the TNR lobby has blocked its registration for this use. The other is trap and euthanize. TE is practiced by state and federal wildlife managers; but municipal TE needs to happen if the annihilation of native wildlife is to be significantly slowed.”

After cat lovers of course called for Williams’ head (and also pointed out that Orlando Sentinel editors were dumb to have let this tacit endorsement of cat murdering slide), Audubon initially announced that it had “suspended its contract” with Williams.

But in a blog post Tuesday, the CEO of the National Audubon Society wrote that Williams would stay on with the magazine. David Yarnold wrote that although Williams’ op-ed “raised serious questions of judgment” and Audubon “absolutely reject[s] the notion of individuals poisoning cats or treating cats in any inhumane way,” they forgave the writer.

Yarnold linked to Audubon’s official resolution on feral cats, which describes the felines as “exceptional and prolific predators” and asserts that TNR does not reduce feral cat colonies. The resolution calls for governments to regulate feral cats and recommends neutering — but not euthanasia.

In the meantime, the online version of Williams’ article on the Orlando Sentinel has been toned down to omit the bit about Tylenol. Williams added a disclaimer at the top, saying:

Lastly, he clarified that his position as “editor-at-large” of Audubon magazine, which he had used in his original piece, was “a freelance, not salaried, title. I regret this slovenliness.”

A drop trap is an essential tool for the TNR trapper. Compared to a normal box trap, cats are not as wary of going in and so don't need to be as hungry. It can be used for selectively trapping a particular cat, catching several cats at once or general colony trapping. Watch it in action as we try for a pregnant cat.

How to trap cats

The Neighborhood Cats Drop Trap

Neighborhood Cats teamed up with Tomahawk Live Trap to design the first mass-manufactured drop trap, making this kind of trap easily available and affordable. It's all metal so it's easy to clean, folds up flat in a suitcase style and has an optional remote control. A sliding door on the side allows for transfer into a box trap with a rear door, transfer cage or feral cat den. To purchase one, go to Tomahawk Live Trap and order Model DT-1.

For step-by-step instructions on how to set up and use the Neighborhood Cats Drop Trap, read our guide. Many of the instructions apply to make-it-yourself drop traps as well. One word of caution worth emphasizing – don't use a drop trap for the very first time on that cat you've been after the last five years. Practice once or twice on cats you've already fixed, from dropping the trap to transferring into a box trap. If you need a volunteer, try your pet cat in exchange for a tasty treat. After you've gone through the process and made any first-time mistakes, you'll be ready for prime time!

Build Your Own

How to trap cats

If you're handy and know basic woodworking skills, you can build your own drop trap. Laura Burns, one of the pioneers of using drop traps for TNR, has provided instructions on how to construct a non-foldable drop trap out of wood and netting, For other designs, including traps made out of PVC pipes, visit the Drop Trap Design Bank where you'll also find video of a drop trap in action. Making a drop trap that collapses and folds flat is more complicated and requires more construction know-how. Also keep in mind that it can be difficult to disinfect a home-made trap.

How to trap cats

Gimme shelter!

When the weather turns cold, Neighborhood Cats provides winter shelters to colony caretakers at low or no cost. Your gift will make it possible for more community cats and kittens to have a warm place to sleep. Won't you give today?

How to trap cats

How to Use a Drop Trap

Read our complete instructions for using the Neighborhood Cats Drop Trap, including assembly, positioning, bait, dropping the trap and transferring a cat out after capture.

You've made the decision – you're going to get the feral cats in your life fixed! Now what? Often people reach for the first trap they can find, but that's a mistake. Doing a TNR project well requires planning and preparation. Taking the time to think it out will make the process easier for you and the cats and help you avoid the pitfalls that can happen when you've got a feral cat sitting in a trap and aren't sure what to do next. Here are the seven basic steps to follow:

Step 1 – Know your stuff

Working with feral cats safely and effectively requires some training. The good news is there's plenty of informational material available. You can read through the How to TNR pages on this site, download and review the Neighborhood Cats TNR Handbook and watch our How to Perform a Mass Trapping video. If you're in the New York City area, attend one of our workshops and gain access to free spay/neuter, traps and other assistance.

Step 2 – work the neighborhood

We call them "community" cats for a reason – they don't usually live in isolation, but are found among us, in the backyard, next to the office parking lot, behind the supermarket, etc. Many people will interact with the cats daily and attitudes may range from positive to hostile. The more informed you are about the neighborhood and how people feel about and act towards the cats, the better the situation you can create for them. Walk around, talk to people, ask them what they know about the cats. Hand out TNR infographics. Address issues residents may be having and explain how TNR can help. Recruit feeders and volunteers for the trapping. Gain permission from property owners for needed access. Remember that a cooperative and understanding community will make it much easier for you and the cats, both during and after the trapping.

Step 3 – establish a feeding pattern, count the cats and set out shelters and feeding stations

To prepare for the trapping, get the cats on a regular feeding schedule – as consistently as you can, put out their food at the same time and place daily, then take anything uneaten away after 30 minutes or as soon thereafter as you can. Cats are habitual creatures and will learn to all show up at the appointed hour – which means they'll come to you at that same hour when it's time to trap. While establishing a pattern, count the cats and assess if any have special needs like young kittens you'll want to foster. Put out feeding stations and shelters if you haven't already. It's especially important to have good shelter in place when winter trapping in cold climates, so the spayed females with their shaved bellies will have a warm, dry place to sleep.

Step 4 – find a holding space

Whether you're catching all the colony cats at once or aiming for one or two at a time, you should allow two to three days to trap, one day for the spay/neuter surgeries, and one to three days for post-surgical recovery. During this period of four to seven days, you'll need a place to hold the cats while they're confined in their traps. The space must be warm (at least 65 degrees F.), dry (protected from rain and other elements) and secure (no access to strangers or other animals). Examples might include a garage, basement, shed, barn, warehouse, empty office, spare room or bathroom.

Step 5 – arrange for spay/neuter, traps and transportation

Once you know how many cats you're dealing with, locate a low cost spay/neuter provider and schedule appointments. Reserve traps, trap dividers and any other equipment you'll need from a local trap bank, or purchase what you can afford if none are available for borrowing. Arrange transportation as well – trips may be needed back and forth from the colony site to the holding space, to and from the spay/neuter clinic and to pick up and drop off traps. If you'll be trapping a lot of cats, wrangle a volunteer or two as well.

Step 6 – action!

Now you're ready for the fun part – trapping! Withhold all food the day before trapping begins so the cats are real hungry. You could do everything else correctly, but if the cats aren't hungry, they won't go in the traps. Leave two days to trap even if you're after only one or two cats, and three days if you're after more than a few. That way, you're protected if there's bad weather or someone unexpectedly leaves out a bowl of food that morning. On the scheduled day, transport the cats to the clinic, then pick them up and bring them to your holding space for recovery. After they've had enough time to recuperate, return them to their territory. If there were a couple of cats you didn't catch in time for your spay/neuter day, keep trying to catch them for as long as the rest of the colony is confined. The hassle of arranging their surgeries will often be less than the difficulty of trying to trap them later when the rest of the cats are loose, too.

Step 7 – caretaking

The cats will soon return to their normal routine and your job, and those working with you, will be to provide regular food and shelter, keep an eye out for any new arrivals and smooth out any wrinkles that come up with neighbors. Now that the cats are fixed, you won't have to worry about kittens, there will be far fewer complaints and you'll know you've done what you can to make this a better world for your feral friends.

How to trap cats

Gimme shelter!

When the weather turns cold, Neighborhood Cats provides winter shelters to colony caretakers at low or no cost. Your gift will make it possible for more community cats and kittens to have a warm place to sleep. Won't you give today?

How to trap cats

The Neighborhood Cats TNR Handbook – download now

The Humane Society of the United States called our handbook, "the most comprehensive and up-to-the-minute resource for educating caretakers on all aspects of colony management." (Animal Sheltering magazine, Sept/Oct 2013). Download your free copy.

How to trap catsDonate today

Unfortunately, unwanted animals are a part of our society. They are the kittens that were dumped because they grew up, started being inconvenient and stopped being cute; and the cats that were too expensive (difficult, annoying, problematic) to move when their owners did and were, therefore, abandoned. Because many of these cats and kittens are not spayed or neutered, feral cat colonies have exploded.

These feral cats are a part of every community. And the more they breed, the bigger the problem becomes. Many of the strays are not suitable as housecats, either. So what can you do to help them?

How to Catch a Stray Cat

If you see a stray cat in your neighborhood, you can catch it humanely using a Havahart or box trap. You can purchase one yourself, but these can often be borrowed from local vets and shelters. Once you have the live trap and are prepared to catch the cat, line the bottom of the trap with newspaper and bait it with food. Take the trap to an area where you usually see the cat and set it. Keep an eye on the trap from a distance and check it frequently. Since cats are nocturnal hunters and feeders, trapping at night may be more successful.

What to Do with a Stray Cat

Before you attempt to trap the cat, try to contact a no-kill shelter and find out about trap, neuter, return (TNR) programs in your area. While the TNR do not find homes for the cats, they neuter or spay the cats (clipping one of their ears to make them easily identifiable for people) and return them to where they were found. This will not only stop them from producing more unwanted cats, but can also reduce their need to mark a territory or fight — giving them longer, healthier lives.

Most states also have humane societies. They are dedicated to handle situations just like this, and will have a website that can provide tips for bringing in a stray cat to the proper authorities. Some may even have suggestions on how to best integrate a homeless cat into your life.

What if you would like to bring a local stray to the veterinarian? There are safe and humane ways to trap a feral cat, and the best way is to get a special cage. Research the organizations in your area that practice TNR; they will often let you borrow one of their traps. These places, however, run on donations and usually operate beyond their means, so be generous. These organizations will also have vets who will neuter or spay the cats for a reduced fee.

Now, if you would like to adopt a cat from the streets, be aware that feral cats do not make for friendly house pets. These chances do improve if it is a kitten or a young cat.

You don’t have to feel bad feeding stray cats in your area. But make sure you help and have them fixed, as it will help stop the cat colony from growing further and give the strays a happier, healthier life.

Whether you wish to trap a stray cat to return to her home or trap a feral cat for the purposes of Trap-Neuter-Return, it’s important to approach trapping a cat with compassion and careful planning. Below, Havahart® provides step-by-step trapping instructions to help you learn how to prepare for a catch, as well as some tips for caring for your cat once she’s captured.


1 Make Arrangements

Before trapping a stray or feral cat, it’s important that you know how you plan on caring for the cat while she’s in your custody.

If you are trapping a stray cat, plan on locating her home as soon as possible.

If you plan on trapping a feral cat with the purpose of neutering or spaying, call your local humane league to locate a free or low-cost TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) clinic. You may also call your vet to schedule an appointment.

Prepare a holding area for the cat. This should be a warm, dry and secure environment where you will keep the cat 2-3 days before and after the surgery.

Purchase cat food.

For TNR, plan to set your trap 2-3 days prior to your neutering appointment.

2 Choose a Cat Trap

When trapping a cat that you plan on taking care of for a few days, the cat should stay inside the cage at all times. This means you must select a trap that’s comfortable and allows you to deliver food and clean up messes without the cat escaping. Important features to look for include:

rolled internal edges to prevent injury

a hinged auxiliary door that’s easy to open and lock from the outside

a trap divider that will keep the cat from accessing the back door when it’s open and protects you from contact with the cat

If you plan on trapping a cat and transporting her to her owner right away, you may not require a trap that will aid in short-term care. Any large-sized trap will do the trick.

3 Determine Trap Placement

The best locations for your trap include:

  • a feeding area where you or your neighbors have provided food, or where you notice cats have fed on scraps
  • 3-5 feet outside of its shelter
  • the area where you see or hear the cat most frequently

Place your trap on a flat, level surface with plenty of shade and visibility so that you can check on your trap often once it’s set.

4 Select and Position Bait

If you or your neighbors feed the cats regularly, use a food that your cat is used to eating.

If you aren’t sure what your cat eats, try popular cat baits like oily fish or catnip.

The way in which you position your bait is critical – place the bait towards the back of the trap to ensure your cat steps on the trigger plate while attempting to reach the bait.

For more bait options and expert tips, read How To: Cat Baits »

5 Carefully Set Your Trap

Set your trap according to its manufacturer’s instructions. If participating in TNR, set it 2-3 days prior to your cat’s veterinary appointment.

Once your trap is set, test the trigger and close mechanism by applying pressure to the trigger plate, prompting the door to close.

6 Monitor Your Trap

It’s important to keep an eye on your trap so that you can bring your cat to your holding area as soon as she is successfully in the cage. Cats are subject to hunger, thirst, freezing, overheating and/or predation if left trapped outdoors.

7 You’ve Caught a Cat!

Drape a cloth or piece of burlap over the cage to keep the cat calm.

Wear gloves when handling the trap.

Carefully transport the cage directly to the prepared holding area, where you will care for the cat.

TNR: Follow all veterinary instructions before and after the appointment. Your vet will likely recommend that you do not feed your cat the evening before surgery. Be prepared to care for the cat for 2-3 days after the procedure, before releasing her back to her habitat.

Expert Tips

Call your local humane society to determine trapping laws in your area before attempting to trap a cat.

When making an appointment with your vet or TNR clinic, inquire about available vaccinations to improve the health of your feral cat.

Before setting your trap, line the bottom lightly with newspaper to protect cats’ sensitive paws.

A set trap should never be left unattended for long periods of time. If you plan on being unavailable at all during trapping, unset the trap until you return.

Check a feral cat’s ears for an ear tip – this is a small slice in the ear the vet takes after neutering a feral cat to identify those that are fixed.

It’s critical to the survival of your feral cat that you return her to the precise location where she was trapped in the first place.

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