Ear tipping cats in theory and in practice

By Patty Khuly, DVM on Mar. 5, 2009

“Trap, test, spay or neuter, vaccinate and release.” That’s my mantra when it comes to treating stray cats, feral or not.

If you were paying close attention, serious cat people, you’ll have noticed that my party line didn’t include “ear tip.” Wondering why? Here’s my answer, couched in a recent experience:

In a couple of weeks a group of veterinarians will be getting together at Miami-Dade’s Humane Society shelter for a marathon day of free feline spays and neuters. Sure, it’ll be fun...and great for the community, too, but planning the day was not so easy as you might imagine.

Among other details (where to set up the surgery tables, what anesthetics to use, how our patients will be recovered, what pain meds will be included, etc.) was the pesky issue of ear-tipping.

So you understand, tipping a cat’s ear (usually on the left side) is a helpful way to ensure that cats don’t get trapped and/or re-submitted for sterilization. It’s a visual device that helps feline colony workers gauge the success of their efforts and helps animal control officers know which colonies of cats are well-managed and stable.

It’s useful. And relative to a dog’s ear crop, it’s absolutely painless when performed under anesthesia. Cats recover without pawing at their ears or showing any other sign of distress.

The only down-side? Cosmetics.

Many pet owners are reluctant to adopt cats with tipped ears. They view it as a slight on the animal’s natural beauty. And I guess I can’t dispute that, much though I prefer to tip a stray cat’s ear at the time of spaying and neutering because...

1) It’s the right thing to do for the safety of the community at large and the welfare of its stray populations.

2) It’s the right thing to do for the individual cat. (Who wants another experience under the knife?)

Nonetheless, I’ve learned that sometimes concessions must be made to a cat’s appearance depending on the individual cat’s circumstances.

1) Is it a feral cat (essentially a wild animal) or a sweet stray?

2) Is the stray entering an adoption program?

3) Might this stray actually belong to a neighbor?

If the stray might be reasonably expected to have a home waiting for him, knowing as we do that humans may refuse to adopt a marred specimen, wouldn’t it be best for him to retain all his feline glory? (Sans his reproductive bits, of course.)

That’s what I tend to think. But then the realities of humans and their often-empty promises sometimes sway me in the opposite direction. Why leave it to chance if what’s best for everyone (save a future owner’s persnickety aesthetic requirements) is that the kitty get his “fancy haircut”?

That’s why so many veterinarians refuse to perform low-cost or no-cost feline spays and neuters without an ear tip attached: “If I’m going to do it for nothing, they’ll have to abide my my rules and my personal ethics.”

So that’s why we eventually voted on the mandatory ear tip. We veterinarians are the ones running the show on this upcoming spay and neuter day. So it’s an ear tip or nothin.’ We’re the ones waking up at the crack of dawn to meet the big demand for freebie feline sterilization, right? So it’s our way or the highway.

But I’m not so sure that’s right. My argument: If the cats are clearly owned and loved, I wouldn’t want to affect the cat’s relationship with his owner, no matter how low-income they may be, no matter how “silly” I believe the requirement for aesthetic perfection to be. After all, consider how you would feel if you couldn’t afford a spay and had to “buy” your cat an ear tip in the bargain. 

It’s so easy to sit in our veterinary throne rooms where we make these grand ivory tower decisions and call down to our minions, demanding obeisance on our fine recommendations. But do we have to be so rigid? Sure, it’s only an ear tip. And it means nothing to the cat. But to an owner? To a future owner? In many cases, it may mean more than we know.


Patty Khuly, DVM


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