Categories: Trap Neuter Return

Ear Tipping is Aesthetically Unacceptable

Ear tipping is aesthetically unacceptable to some people. So what! – I hear you say. Ear tipping makes a cat look less attractive. This may be important because a good percentage of cats that are trapped, spayed and neutered are domestic cats who are strays. They have a home and an owner. The owner may be reunited with her cat. She may be upset by the mutilated left ear and reject her cat. In a study of the roaming outside cats of Florida University, 25% of the cats were domesticated. They weren’t feral cats.

I don’t know of any research on this but I would expect that shelter managers would assume that any ear tipped cat brought to the shelter was feral. In which case he or she would normally be euthanised. Ear tipping is “branding” a cat. It places the cat amongst a lower class of cats. Yes, I believe their is a class structure amongst cats (from a human perspective). Ear tipping could be a death sentence to a cat. Although, perhaps, I am being a bit extreme in stating that.

Also sometimes local humane societies run free spay/neuter clinics. I presume – and correct me if I am wrong – that people can walk their cats in and get them sterilized. One person did this and made a donation to the charity. When he came back his three indoor cats had been ear tipped. From the picture you see below, I have to conclude that the ear tipping was carried out in a heavy-handed way:

Ear Tipping

I don’t understand why the vets ear tipped indoor cats. It may have been a mistake or they decided to ear tip all cats in the clinic undergoing spay and neuter operations that day.

Ear tipping is probably the only viable way to identify a spayed and neutered feral cat because you can see from a distance that the cat has undergone the TNR program. Other forms of identification such as a tattoo would require a person handling the cat and that is often impossible or impractical.

The fact of the matter is that the “collateral damage” of ear tipping, making a cat look less attractive, must be accepted by people who let their cats stray too much and who are subsequently caught in a TNR program. That would be the argument by 99% of the population.

Apparently, there are no medical problems with ear tipping. Cats don’t suffer and don’t even feel irritation in the ear when they wake up from the spay or neuter operation.

Here’s a wild suggestion as an alternative to ear tipping. The vet could clip into the left ear a small brightly colored plastic tag, which could be removed with a tool by a vet if the cat was a wandering domestic cat and the cat’s owner was upset.  Such a tag could be seen at a distance.

If the ear tipping is heavy-handed, as shown in the picture, I wonder whether hearing is affected slightly on that side? Theoretically, it should be because the ear flap collects sound and directs it down the ear canal to the eardrum. In theory, at least, removal of part of the ear flap would make the ear slightly less effective. This may affect the cat very slightly.


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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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  • I don't know how to respond to this mutilation?
    But I think everyone would find out fairly quickly-including myself if a Vet did this to one of my pets.


    • Yes Eva, I see both sides of this as I am sure you do but there is a tendency for people who deal with animals a lot like vets to objectify them, to fail to see them as sentient beings just like us. And removing part of the ear is pretty gross if it is lopped off as shown in the photo.

      • Ear tipping is the best way that ferals can be identified. A lot of cats have notches in their ears from fighting so a notch may not be a sign that the cat is fixed. Tags can get caught on things and rip the ear. A large ear tip is easier to see from a distance, however a lot of times a cat that we think is feral is just a scared stray and can be adopted so I do prefer the smaller ear tips for that reason. The size of the ear varies with different vets/clinics.
        Our shelters will not euthanize an ear tipped cat because they know someone is caring for the cat. They will try to return it to to where it was brought in from.

      • I don't know of any reputable vet who would eartip any domesticated cat that has a responsible caretaker without their permission. However, if the cat is inside/outside like some of mine are, it might be a consideration since any cat in the U.S. that spends time outside is at risk of being taken to a kill shelter by animal control. I have had all of my inside/outside cats eartipped for that very reason. I want to make sure that those officers know that my cats are protected, cared for, and are "hands off".

        If the cat is a stray and living completely outside, without anyone coming forward to take responsibility, the cat should be tipped for their safety. Just my opinion.

        For ferals, it's mandatory that they be tipped. The only exceptions are upon my request when I feel that I can socialize a feral or feral kittens to the point where they could be adopted. In those cases, the cats must come inside, continually, with me until they reach that point.

  • It's because too many humans are freaking HEARTLESS !!!! The same breed of human may easily not want to adopt a cat with an ear chunk gone. CHUNK, not tip. I've read "tattoos can't be seen." What, is the human blind?? If we can see a jail tatt on an inmate, we can see a tattoo on a kitty's ear. Most of the populace don't even know what the ear tip,-ear Chunk means! I paid for a stray cat to be fixed, logged her in as a scared STRAY and she still got ear chunked. Beauuutiful Himalayan. It just makes me SICK. How'd people like to have parts of them lobbed off?? Now I know if I want to rescue a stray I'll just tame the dang cat myself and take him/her to my vet and adopt the cat out like I used to.

    • I understand your frustration, Roberta.

      I work, mostly, with colony cats and they must be ear tipped for their own safety. Granted, some ear tipping is more severe than I think it should be.

      Stray cats, generally, don't need taming. It's ferals that require that sort of work. It's hard to domesticate ferals, as you may already know. And, there are time frames as well as short windows of opportunity.

      If the beautiful Himalayan was, merely, a stray that you were going to bring inside or try to rehome, ear tipping could have been deleted if you asked the TNR group to do so. I don't know of any that wouldn't consent.

      But, ofcourse, they would want evidence that the cat was inside your home and they would be able to tell if she was feral or not.

      Again, tipping is a safety measure so that all animal service groups know that the cat is a part of a TNR program and protected.

    • Roberta, thanks for sharing. Your story is distressing. I may do short article about it.

  • I'm shocked at the amount that was 'tipped' of that ear!! I think that there really was no need for that much to come off; certainly not tipping more like lopping half the ear off!! Completely not neccassary! All thats needed is a tiny square or triangle nipped off the tip of the ear all that photo shows is a scant regard for the cat from the vet :(

    • Yes, it was almost done as if the ear was a bit of paper. As Marc says, it is objectifying cats - making them something non-living.

  • That is a large part of the poor cat's ear that has been removed in the photo, I understand why it's done and I agree it's the safest and most visible way of marking out feral cats that have been neutered and are being cared for, but oh what an awful world where a cat has to be mutilated in this way, just imagine the outcry if a homeless human living on the streets was taken to a walk in clinic and ear tipped to show that he was a regular at the local soup kitchen. But of course the wonderful people that do the TNR and care for the ferals have to be able to tell them apart and this ear tipping is certainly safer than tagging or collars. As for people who's cats stray and they are so lucky as to have their cat returned then apart from shock and pity that their cat has been treated in such a way surely the ear tipping shouldn't make a difference to their love for their cat, I know it wouldn't for POC'ers and for most genuine cat lovers who don't need perfection in a cat to be able to love him/her.

  • When TNR first started here, I was under the impression that the ear tipping would be a somewhat small "V" made at the ear tip with scissors. I was shocked to see my first cat with the entire tip cut off (at least a 1/4 portion of the ear). I've never gotten an exceptable answer as to why it has to be so dramatic.
    I really hate it.

    But, the purpose of tipping is to identify that they are a part of a managed colony and, therefore, off limits to animal control or anyone else wanting to set traps for the purpose of "relocating", such as taking to the shelter. Theoretically, an animal control officer should immediately release these cats should they, somehow, get in a trap. Whether this is really done would be a whole other article.

    • It's fairly dramatic so it is visually obvious it isn't a fight wound. Many ferals have v-shaped notches in their ears (as do many feisty domestics!) It also has to be visible at a distance - very useful if you're sat in a car holding one end of a piece of string connected to a manually operated trap!

    • Perhaps it is more about how ear tipping is done. It could be done in a more cosmetically acceptable way like Marvin's right ear. How about the top quarter with a slightly rounded cut at each end. That would look nicer.

  • I agree with Sarah. Too risky.

    My two ear tipped beauties are certainly NOT second class citizens! I do agree, the cat in the above photo was over done. As you see in this photo of Marvin, even his good ear is well sliced and diced which for him, is a sign of being top cat!

      • They are damn good photos though. I'll rotate it so it is upright. Marvin's ears are lovely ;) They match and are a sign of character. He has done some living. It is like a person having lines on his/her face.

        When I stated that feral cats are 2nd class I guess I mean in relation to the general population and to shelters. But for you and me - especially with Marvin in mind - they are fine cats like any other.

  • As a one time feral cat worker, we looked into the plastic tag idea. Because cats use their hind claws to scratch their ears (and lack a fine aim in that respect), they risked snagging the tag and causing damage to the ear. Several other feral cat groups have looked into tagging and reached the same conclusion. The risk of snagging, injury and subsequent infection outweighed the benefit. So back to ear-tipping it was.

    • Have you ever thought of putting some type of permanent marking inside the ear? Maybe a tattoo or permanent ink to identify feral cats.

    • Yes, that is exactly what I thought when I wrote it ;) Thanks for adding so good detail to the problem. I think the truth is there is no good alternative to ear tipping. The answer once again is for people with domestic cats to do their best to avoid putting their cat in situations that could be harmful including being trapped and ear tipped after surgery. They should be fixed already.

      Update: In response to Dee's comment I suggested that ear tipping could be done in a more aesthetically acceptable way and still be effective. Top quarter to one third with rounded corners! In other words set some guidelines and standards on ear tipping.

      • Has anybody thought of marking the inside of a feral cats ear? Maybe a tattoo or permanent ink with identification. Do the caretakers have photos of the clowder?

        • Tattoos are sometimes (rarely) used. I can't answer your second question, sorry.

  • Firstly - hello - my house 'guest' has left and I have spent a good couple days making sure everything is back to normal for my cats and for me. It's been a hard couple/few weeks and I am just trying to get back to normal. Gigi is particularly depressed at the moment which is worrying me - she was even before my friend came to stay. I am going to spend the next week or so working really hard to try and make her feel better - no plans outside of work, just home time with my cats for now with limited computer time at home. Anyway - about the article...

    I understand the ear tipping thing 100% - what makes this shocking is the extent to which the ear was tipped. I agree that hearing will be affected if that much of the ear is removed. Secondly - I think if you follow the outdated notion that a cat is a posession then the 'owner' would have to be informed of anything that is going to be done - so there are no surprises. The cat's ear in the photo has been massively cut - I wouldn't call it 'tipping' in any way shape or form. It's far more. I would be angry. I would expect to be informed of it beforehand and I would expect it to be the 'tip' of the ear, and nothing more.

    I agree with Michael's idea for a little plastic button or something to be added. This could even contain a microchip with information about the cat. Being feral its important it can be seen from at least 15 meters away. Some feral cats just won't come near and I don't blame them.

    Who knows if such a massive 'tipping' does or doesn't cause pain, damage, hearing impairment or some kind of negative reaction for the cat. One would assume not - but as Ruth says, it has to heal and could irritate the cat and in turn get scratched or infected.

    I'm not sure how I would manage my cats if we were living in a place with feral cats and trappers and bad people and shelters that kill. It's a far more complicated and worrying situation with so many more risks than where I live now. I think I would either move somewhere away from it or keep my cats indoors with an enclosure. The idea of a nasty neighbour trapping my cat or a 15 year old shooting it with an air rifle gives me nightmares. Having said all that i understand the need to 'tip' cats - its a simple but clever system of identification. Sadly necessary.

    • Firstly, we are pleased you are back. Actually we are f***king delighted. OK that out of the way...

      Gigi is particularly depressed..

      This is upsetting. I think you are right. Plenty of contact with her is the way. I have forgotten what you assessed as the reason for her depression. I know you will fix it.

      I think you hit on the key to ear tipping of domestic cats. Don't place your cat in a situation where he or she might get mistaken for a feral cat or is placed in any sort of danger. It is about cat management in what can be a pretty brutal world, really. It is a rather unforgiving world and it is getting tougher.

      Ear tipping is a fairly crude way of identifying cats and is a reflection of the status of cats in society. Some people will say the ferals are lucky to be ear tipped.

      • Thank you Michael.

        ..yes the issue with Gigi is 'chronic' and I have to work at it - I have to get her out of feeling so heavy as she appears to...

        It's true - about the ear tipping - that people consider cats with tipped ears lucky. I kind of think the same in the sense that for an already feral cat - it's better to be ear tipped than not. A non tipped feral might get briefly taken for a stray domestic but after about 30 seconds it will be clear that the cat is not domestic and not neutered - and those 2 things alone put the cat at the bottom of the live list, or more to the point, the top of the death list.

        It gets more complicated with people's domestic cats in the area obviously. I personally think that in such an area the best thing you can do if you want to let your cat out is obviously microchip them but I would give them a very noticeable collar. Having a bright collar with a name and number on it will put your cat in another 'class' as you put it. People will know immediately without any doubt that the cat is cared for and should be left alone. I preferred to know that Red and Lilly were seen with collars on when out and about. It makes things clear. If it's a particularly nice collar with reflective material on it and so on people will think the cat is all the more loved and cared for versus the other cats that are out there. Perhaps your cat will behave feral when trapped and you don't want that to happen. It's a compromise to put a collar on a cat (Ruth and I have discussed this in great depth) and although it's not ideal my cats have never minded it otherwise I would have removed them - and there alot of pros when your cat roams the neighbourhood if it has a collar. But without going into the many reasons, just in terms of this question of confusion between identifying domestic cats, feral cats and stray cats from a distance, a collar can be seen and says alot and might be useful in the grand scheme of balancing your cat's survival outdoors in a dangerous area with quality of life.

        • About the collar. This is a good point. Collars are strong visual signals that the cat has a human carer and a concerned one. Collars do carry risks to health sometimes but you are right, a collar = domestic cat and usual one on a nice home.

        • Marc does going out onto your catio balcony not cheer Gigi up?
          Yes I have to agree that collars have their uses at times even though I hate to see cats wearing any form of thing against their nature.

  • Another reason all cats should be microchipped! Surely any vet would check for one to see if the cat belonged to someone, before anaesthetising the cat to be neutered, They would surely also be able to tell if a male cat had been castrated and know he belonged to someone or was a stray pet cat. With females it's impossible to tell if they have been spayed once the fur has grown back and the wound gone flat. I don't think vets should just ear tip cats like that heavy handed one did, only the very tip off is enough to show ferals have been TNR.
    Not so sure about the plastic tag idea, if it irritated, the cat would be scratching at it and end up maybe clawing at it and causing a nasty wound.

    • Another reason all cats should be microchipped! Surely any vet would check for one to see if the cat belonged to someone, before anaesthetising the cat to be neutered...

      My exact same thoughts, Ruth, but I am not sure all vets do this. They may have a blanket approach when they do charitable work for the community and simply state that all cats will be ear tipped. Also many domestic cats will behave like a feral when trapped and be defensive. There are examples of domestic cats being euthanised because the animal control officer thought the cat was feral because he got scratched. He got scratched because the cat was scared.

      The plastic tag idea is almost certainly unworkable but I was just throwing out an idea! ;)

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