In some communities, feral or free-living cats have become an increasingly serious problem.
People who love cats and want to help these animals have developed various methods of supporting local feral cats who live in their area.
This is important for a number of reasons, but it is vital to have a method to let other cat rescuers know that a cat has already been cataloged and cared for. This is the basic premise behind notched ears.
In this article, learn what it means when a cat has notched ears. Also discover how to identify if a cat has had this procedure done and how it helps feral cats and people.
Why Do Some Cats Have Notched Ears?
Ear notching is typically done to alert people that the cat in question has been spayed or neutered.
This is an important part of community TNR programs. TNR stands for “Trap, Neuter, Return,” as Cats Exclusive Veterinary Clinic explains.
See a Cat Ear Tipping Procedure
In this short YouTube video, you can watch trained veterinary surgeons performing a typical “ear tipping” or “ear notching” procedure.
This procedure is typically done while a cat is being “fixed” (i.e. spayed or neutered).
Not only does this ensure the procedure is painless to the cat and is done safely under sanitary conditions, but it also protects that cat from being picked up again in another feral raid.
What Happens During a Cat Ear Notching Procedure?
As you observed in the short video you just watched, a cat ear notching procedure is a simple, straightforward procedure that is done in sanitary conditions by a trained veterinary professional.
Neighborhood Cats also offers a good step-by-step text explanation of exactly how the procedure is performed.
The goal is to make sure the cat does not experience any pain from the procedure and also to send a lasting message to future cat activists that the cat has already been fixed.
During the procedure, which is typically done at the same time the cat is being neutered or spayed, the very top one centimeter or seven millimeters of the cat’s left or right ear is trimmed away.
The wound is immediately cauterized or sutured and monitored so that by the time the cat has healed from the spay or neuter surgery, the ear has also healed and the cat is ready to be released.
Why Not Choose Just One Ear and One Length to Notch for Consistency?
This is a very good question. In most places, it is customary to notch the tip of the left ear and to tip it one centimeter from the ear point.
However, as Neighborhood Cats points out, some programs do things differently and choose to tip the right ear and tip it to seven millimeters.
There isn’t one way that is better or worse, but it can be confusing if you have been used to one type of messaging system and are suddenly confronted with a different system.
Do Female Cats Also Get Notched Ears?
You probably noticed that the cat notched ears program is called TNR, or Trap, Neuter, Release.
This means it is sensible to ask if female cats qualify for the same program. Even though the program uses N for Neuter, female cats that get spayed under this program will also receive notched ears.
Are There Other Methods Beyond Ear Notching to Identify Fixed Feral Cats?
There are many other methods that have been tried to establish a standard identification protocol for feral cats that have been neutered and spayed.
As FACE Low-Cost Animal Clinic explains, the best known alternative methods include microchipping, ear tattooing, collars, and ear tagging.
Micro-chipping might be the obvious first choice for keeping track of feral cats. But actually, micro-chipping doesn’t work well at all for feral cats because it is first necessary to trap and scan the cat to find out if they’ve been previously fixed.
This causes a lot of unnecessary trauma to the cat and can strain available volunteer and staff resources.
Feral cat ear tattooing
Tattoing doesn’t work well because a potential trapper or rescue worker has to get right up next to the cat to see if the ear has been tattooed. And as any experienced feral cat worker knows, feral cats don’t like people near them!
Feral cat collars
Collars and ear tagging can be dangerous to the cat in other ways. Collars may cause a cat to get trapped on a fence or branch. If a collar is placed on a young cat, as that cat grows up and gets bigger, the collar may actually cause strangulation.
Sometimes the collar can also fall off and then the cat is at risk of being picked up again, placing extra strain on the entire feral cat management program in that area.
Feral cat ear tags
Ear tags have similar risks. The tag may get caught on something and tear the cat’s ear as the animal tries to free itself.
A tag may also cause infection in the ear and illness that becomes more expensive to treat. And ear tags can also simply fall out, leaving the cat unidentified again.
Ear notching is by far the best and safest method for both the cat and for rescue workers.
A notched ear allows a fixed feral cat to be identified from a safe distance away. And since the ear notch is done when the spay or neuter surgery is done, the injury will be fully healed before the cat is released back to the local area.
Is There a Difference Between Ear Notching and Ear Tipping?
While the terms ear tipping and ear notching are used fairly interchangeably today in the feral cat rescue community, actually, these two terms refer to different surgical procedures used for identifying neutered and spayed feral cats.
As Alley Cat Allies explains, of the two procedures, ear tipping is now emerging as the identification method of choice.
Ear notching refers to putting a notch or tears into the ear of a feral cat. This is no longer the preferred method, although it is still widely used in some areas.
Ear notching is less preferred than ear tipping because the notch can look a lot like a natural injury instead of a deliberate human-made attempt to identify a cat.
Ear tipping, which is defined as removing just the top portion of one of the feral cat’s ears, is much less likely to be mistaken for a natural injury and does an even better job of helping rescue workers identify a previously fixed cat.
Does Ear Tipping Mean a Cat Will Be Less Adoptable?
In the majority of cases, feral cats are too skittish around people to be socialized to the point where they become adoptable as family pets. Feral cats are different than stray cats – pet cats that have gotten lost or have been abandoned.
As Clipped Ear Cat Sanctuary explains, a stray cat is typically quite adoptable by a new family because these cats are not afraid of people and are already socialized to living in a human family.
But feral cats are cats that have not had the type of early contact with humans that gave them the trust of people. So feral cats behave more like wild cats and typically never become tame no matter how much people try to interact with them.
In some rare instances, a feral cat may be adopted as an outside cat by a local family.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that cats will stop roaming around outdoors during the day, although that certainly could happen.
But it does mean that the family commits to taking care of that cat, which may include providing food and water, shelter during inclement weather, and veterinary care if needed.
As Barn Cat Buddies points out, there is no evidence that ear tipping or ear notching makes a feral cat less adoptable in the eyes of a prospective family.
Why Not Just Remove the Feral Cats Instead of Tipping and Releasing Them?
As the ASPCA points out, feral cat communities are so common in many areas throughout the world that they are now called “community cats” in many places.
Cats can reproduce quickly and tend to resist all efforts to displace them, starve them out, rehome them or otherwise move them. If a move is successful, it is likely more feral cats will move in from surrounding areas to claim the territory.
Dealing with feral and community cats is a difficult and ongoing problem with no easy solution.
At this point, ear tipping during spay/neuter and release into the same local area has been the most effective way to manage the cat colony’s growth and keep relations relatively cordial with humans living near cats.