Monday, February 8, 2010

Volunteering at a trap/neuter/release clinic

This weekend I volunteered at a TNR (trap/neuter/release) clinic. TNR is one way to deal with the feral cat population: volunteer trappers trap the cats and bring them to clinics like this one, where they are vaccinated, spayed or neutered, perhaps given some other basic medical care, and returned to the trappers, who release them. Maintained colonies, provided food by caretakers, can be surprisingly healthy, and this sort of birth control keeps their numbers reasonable and in fact allows them to gradually decrease in size as cats age. If, on the other hand, colonies are destroyed outright, new colonies will move in to take over.

I rotated through all the stations, so I got to see how the entire clinic worked. The first station was anesthesia. The animals arrive in traps, with sheets over them to make things a little less scary for them. Some of them are pets gone feral, but some were born feral and have never interacted with humans. The cats are forced into a corner of their trap, either with a long stick or with a separator pushed through the bars of the trap; truly feral cats are often too scared to move at this point, and therefore can be easier to handle than the moderately tame cats, which may be less scared and more angry. Then a volunteer injects them with sleepy juice. This is an IM (intramuscular) injection, and I had only performed my first IM injection earlier that day, on an anesthetized animal that I could handle at my leisure to find the muscle. Sticking an animal through the bars of a trap, when the animal was liable to suddenly start wriggling around again, was challenging. A tech showed me how to find the muscle and make sure it was not bone (that would hurt!). By the end of this rotation I was able to confidently say I’d found muscle and stick the animal without the tech’s assistance.

Because we can’t interact with the cats while they’re awake, they have to be given somewhat more anesthesia solution than an owned, handleable animal would be, because they have to stay out for the physical exam before the surgery; they also can’t be checked out for heart problems before being given anesthesia which are a warning flag for potential problems. I have heard people ask why owned animals can’t be included in these clinics as a way of expanding low cost spay/neuter services, and the answer is, owned animals are and should be handled differently than ferals. For one thing, you’re moderately sure an owned animal has had its rabies vaccination!

After the cats go under, some after a booster dose to get them there, they are transferred to the physical exam station. It was so relaxing to get to practice a physical exam to an unconscious cat who wasn’t trying to kill me when I looked in his mouth! I checked eyes, nose, mouth, ears, double checked gender, listened to hearts (I heard some arrhythmias, but only ones which were normal for the anesthesia solution that was being used), and checked breathing rates. I also did a full body check for wounds. Cats coming in with wounds can’t be released because of the risk of rabies. They can be isolated, or they can be euthanized. I did find one cat with obvious bite wounds, but his trapper was able to promise to isolate him for the required period. We also noted the physical condition of each cat, which varied considerably; some were well fed and shiny, others dirty, skinny, and matted. The cats are weighed, and the number of their trap is written on the inside of one ear, so that they can be put back in it later.

After the exam, cats move to pre-op, where the relevant bits are shaved and exhustively cleaned. Shaving testicles is a tricky thing! They were given a booster dose of sleepy juice here and sent off to surgery. Some cats were getting light (starting to wake up) at this point, so the booster was sometimes very necessary.

In surgery, I watched a spay and a neuter. You wouldn’t expect female cats to be pregnant at this time of the year, but it is the policy of almost all TNR clinics to spay even pregnant females. In addition to the spay or neuter, cats have the tip of one ear removed. This provides a visual indication of the fact that they don’t need to be trapped again. All the surgeons were volunteer veterinarians and veterinary students; they seemed to be mostly people who wanted some extra surgical experience.

At the post-surgery station, cats are given vaccinations and pain meds, and then the reversal agent to wake them up. The reversal is given last, as it can take effect quickly. The cats are returned to their original trap and taken to the recovery area, where they are watched by volunteers as they wake up. One cat had trouble regulating her body temperature and had to be taken back out of her trap and placed on a heating pad for a while.

As we were cleaning up at the end of the clinic, I asked the animal control officer who had brought in a lot of the cats if she was seeing a difference in her community. She replied yes — she’d received only three calls for kittens last year, as opposed to thirty in some previous years.

It was a tiring day, but a good one. The clinics happen about once a month, and I’m intending to attend some more, for good hands-on clinical experience during a year when I’m otherwise very research-oriented. This kind of work might also be a good way to not forget all my clinical learning during years spent earing a PhD, if that does turn out to be my next step.