Community Cat Diversion FAQ

What are “community cats”?

“Community cat” is an umbrella definition that includes any unowned cat. These cats may be un-socialized or friendly, may have been born into the wild or may be lost or abandoned pet cats. Some community cats are routinely fed by one or more community members, while others survive without human intervention. Whatever a cat’s individual circumstances, the term “community cat” reflects the reality that for these cats, “home” is within the community rather than in an individual household.

What is a Community Cat Diversion Program?

Community Cat Diversion programs promote public health, make sense for shelters and are a crucial lifesaving strategy. Healthy cats ‘found’ outside should not be admitted to the shelter but rather taken to a spay/neuter program and returned to their home location where they were found. This goes for cats who are unsocialized to humans as well as for cats who seem social and/or friendly. In particular, these friendly cats are most likely friendly because they already have a home. We know that cats are 7-10 times more likely to be reunited with their owners if sterilized and returned to the area where they were found as opposed to being admitted to a shelter for a stray hold period.

Community Cat Diversion is supported philosophically and financially by all reputable national organizations to include the PetSmart Charities, Best Friends Animal Society, the Petco Foundation, the Humane Society of the United States, Alley Cat Allies, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians and the Million Cat Challenge, among others.

In addition, the Center for Disease Control does not recommend euthanizing any species that could potentially carry rabies as a method of prevention. Stopping the population growth by sterilizing and vaccinating cats before returning them to their outside home increases community immunity against rabies that is not addressed by trap and euthanize.

This program has only benefits including:

  • Targeting the solution and stopping the reproduction cycle, thus decreasing the overall number of outside cats and their unwanted mating behaviors
  • Returns cats to their outdoor home where they had a known food source(s)
  • Increasing community immunity against rabies
  • Decreasing the number of cats entering the shelter and ultimately losing their lives
  • Increasing the chance of reuniting cats with their owners as studies show that cats are 7 to 10 times more likely to find their way home or find another home from the street versus a shelter
    Increasing the likelihood of adoption for those cats that do enter the adoption program (indoor only, declawed cats, young kittens)
  • Conservation of limited shelter resources (time, staff, money, supplies, cage space, etc.) for other proactive and lifesaving programs for shelter dogs and cats
  • Decreasing the number of free roaming cats so, in turn decreasing zoonotic potential of rabies and intestinal parasites
  • Fewer free roaming, reproductively active cats leads to decreased impact on wildlife
  • Decreased spread of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) or Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) since sterilized cats are unlikely to spread these diseases even if positive.


What is Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return?

One increasingly popular option is to spay/neuter and vaccinate healthy cats and then return them to the location where they were found. These programs are sometimes known as trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) programs. The fact that a cat is in good condition is considered evidence that it has a source of food an shelter – essentially it already has a “home” in the community and is likely to continue to do well if it is returned to that home.

Is this being done anywhere else in the country?

Yes! Community Cat Diversion is in place and thriving in more than 650 jurisdictions throughout the country, including communities in Tennessee and the Southeast. In fact, until 2019, Knoxville was the largest big city in the state without a cat management program. It is actually considered best practice in animal shelters and is supported by organizations including The Petco Foundation, Best Friends Animal Society, PetSmart Charities, Humane Society of the United States, Maddie’s Fund, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, Million Cat Challenge and Target Zero.

What’s wrong with cats going into shelters, isn’t that where their owners find them?

Community cats overwhelm shelters and cause overcrowding, illness and stress. While many good Samaritans turn in cats with the intention of reuniting it with an owner, cats actually have a 70-100% chance of finding their way home on their own than being reunited with their owner in a shelter. In fact, in 2017, <4% of stray cats were reunited with owners at Young-Williams, but 21% were euthanized. The national average of cats reunited with their owners through a shelter is less than 3%.

Why isn’t the current method (trap and euthanize) working?

By removing cats from their territory where there are resources attracting them and helping them thrive, we simply open up that territory for new, unfixed cats to come in and repopulate. This is referred to as the “vacuum effect.” The only other way to address the issue besides TNVR is mass extermination, which is unattainable from a budget and resource perspective and would not be received well by the community because we know more than 81% of community members do not support the trap and euthanasia of cats.

Can’t we just do more adoptions of community cats?

Many community cats are not social and would be neither appropriate nor happy as traditional pets in a home. In our increasingly urban society, there are few “barn homes” into which these cats can be adopted. On the other hand, many community cats have adapted to living in the community. These cats have found a source of food and shelter just as other wild animals have.

Won’t more wildlife be killed if cats are returned outside?

We’re wildlife lovers too and want to keep prey species safe from harm. Until now there has been no community cat management program in Knox County, so community cats have been reproducing rapidly, which means more mouths to feed. With a community cat program in place the number of free roaming cats will decrease significantly over time which protects wildlife in the long run. 

Knox County and the City of Knoxville have been attempting to manage the free roaming cat population through trap and euthanize methods for decades with poor results. It’s time we try something effective and humane for felines and wildlife.

Won’t people be upset that they can’t have their problem solved by removing the cat?

We get that not everyone likes cats. We have trained staff available to help troubleshoot common cat problems. We also offer free deterrent rental to help people keep cats our of their yard. The good news is that if you have an intact cat in your neighborhood and get him fixed, your problem will most likely decrease or stop entirely since most nuisance behavior (vocalizing, spraying, fighting) is hormone driven and eradicated once the cats are spayed and neutered. 

For more information please contact our Community Cat Program Coordinator at (865)556-9729.

What about disease?

Community Cat Diversion programs screen cats prior to sterilization to ensure they appear healthy and robust. Ill or injured cats are generally not eligible for return to their outdoor home. Healthy, sterilized cats are given a rabies vaccine at the time of surgery so returning them to their outdoor home increases community immunity against rabies, a benefit lacking in traditional trap and euthanize practices.

Does this mean we’re advocating for people to feed or care for community cats?


Our stance is actually to the contrary: by feeding community cats you are encouraging their dependence on humans for food, which leads to all sorts of problems. We don’t discourage community cat caretaking if done responsibly, but we do not feel that there is a need to supplement care for outdoor community cats.

What about pet cats, should they be allowed outside?

We strongly advocate for pet cat owners to keep their cats inside both for their safety, and the safety of neighborhood wildlife. Pet cats can live very happy lives inside with enrichment like cat trees, toys, interactive play and even other cats for companionship.

Which cats are eligible for the Community Cat Program?

Unowned, healthy cats over three months of age. Other cats that have medical issues, are declawed, too young or have been known to live indoors most of their lives are not eligible for the Community Cat Diversion Program. Click here for more information on how to determine the age of a kitten.

If you have any more questions or concerns regarding Community Cat Diversion, please contact our Community Cats Coordinator, Christi Jarvis:
(865)556-9729 or