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Interview: Terilynn Mitchell, Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County

new batch of feral kittens huddled outside

Sonoma County Felines

Terilynn Mitchell, RVT, has spent the past six years at Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County (FFSC) in California, the longest running Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) organization in the country. In this interview, she talks about the importance of neutering/spaying feral and stray cats, and how it benefits both felines and communities.

Q. What is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?

A. TNR is a compassionate approach to effectively controlling the population of feral and stray cats in a community. The cats are humanely trapped and taken to a veterinarian to be neutered/spayed and vaccinated. After recovery, many are returned to their outdoor habitat, while those that are friendly and socialized may be put up for adoption.

Q. Can you tell us about your veterinary experience and work at FFSC?

A. I started as a volunteer at a veterinary clinic almost 30 years ago. I had good aptitude and a strong science background. Within a year, I was assisting in surgeries, which is my love and strength. A few years later, I returned to school to get an associate degree in veterinary technology. I passed the registered veterinary technician (RVT) board exam on the first try and received my RVT license in 2001.

Over the years, I began taking in orphaned felines with special needs, mostly older cats with complex medical issues. In 2016, I joined the Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County in California and worked as the spay nurse for six years, where I currently still take relief shifts. Most of the cats are feral (not domesticated) and, as the spay nurse, I would be the first to examine them for the surgeon. Years of experience taught me to distinguish any abnormalities quickly and assess the cat’s fitness for surgery. I’ve assisted in spaying cats of all ages, two months to ten years old.

Q. What procedures do you perform in your role with FFSC?

A. As the anesthetist, ideally, I would do an exam before inducing them with anesthetic. With feral cats, this is often impossible. For safety reasons, feral cats are put into a special cage to restrain them. The anesthetic is then given as an injection into a muscle; I prefer the thigh since there is less risk of hitting a nerve. Once the cat or kitten is unconscious, I look it over carefully, making notes of injuries, nasal or ocular discharge, listening to the heart for arrhythmias, murmurs or any lung disease, examining the mouth for dental disease and growths, and recommending treatments that may be needed.

I intubate the cat and give it oxygen, adding gas as needed, while a meter measures heart rate and oxygen level. The kitty is then vaccinated, microchipped, shaved and scrubbed for surgery. I express the bladder, so it doesn’t pop up in the incision, and for the cat’s post-op comfort. I may give a second intramuscular injection for pain control. If the cat is pregnant, I will do a nerve block to numb the area around the incision, which will be larger. If viral testing is requested, I draw a small amount of blood for the test.

After surgery, every cat goes to a post-op area to receive subcutaneous fluids, as well as flea, tick and ear mite treatment, deworming, and any antibiotic injections needed. If the cat is too slow to wake up, I will give another injection of a reversal agent and ensure the cat is further monitored.

Q. How safe is the neuter/spay procedure?

A. Neutering is a very safe and simple procedure, taking less than five minutes of actual surgical time. Complications are rare and usually occur from a reaction to the anesthetic. This is why the preoperative exam is so critical.

Spaying is a little trickier since it requires an abdominal incision. Proper maintenance of a sterile surgical field is vital to prevent infection. Over the years, I really haven’t seen problems in the majority of cases. Again, preoperative care is essential. I have ruled against surgery in a handful of cases where the cat turned out to be too compromised to safely undergo the procedure.

Q. Why is spring the perfect time to neuter/spay feral cats and strays?

A. Spring has traditionally been “kitten season” in California, although we see pregnant cats all year round. When the weather is nice, the mating hormones really get charged up! The two main kitten seasons are now late spring and early fall. Females typically have their first estrous cycle around six months of age, but some start as young as four months. It’s important to alter them early to avoid unwanted litters.

Q. How do neuter/spay clinics help reduce the homeless cat population?

A. Whether the clinic is in a building or mobile, operating from a van, it is tantamount to reducing the population of unwanted animals! By reducing the number of intact (not surgically sterilized) cats in a community, we are acting with compassion to improve their lives, while reducing the heartbreak of seeing them hungry, cold and sickly.

Q. Does TNR help stop the spread of disease and improve quality of life?

A. Yes! Instead of a mama cat depleting most of her nutritional resources to get through pregnancy and to care for litters two or three times a year, she can maintain a healthy weight and no longer have to defend herself against male cats wanting to mate. Males that are neutered aren’t as aggressive and fight less without that surge of testosterone urging them to mate and defend their territory. This reduces the incidence of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which is spread through bites, as well as the abscesses they inflict on each other and the female cats.

Smaller populations help keep feral and stray cats better fed, less aggressive and safer in an environment that is less conducive to the spread of disease. A homeless cat that is not busy mating and caring for offspring has less stress, a healthier immune system and better quality of life overall,

We extend our thanks to Terilynn Mitchell, RVT, Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County for sharing her knowledge and insight on this important topic.

Cecily Kellogg

By Cecily Kellogg

Cecily Kellogg, Felix guest blogger, spent eight years working as a veterinary technician before applying her knowledge and experience as a writer.

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