If you have a farm or a homestead, odds are good that you have barn cats, whether you planned to have them or not. When we bought our homestead, there were 15 resident cats, according to my daughter’s count. She quickly gave all of them names, and then they started disappearing or dying.
We found the remains of a couple of them in the woods, where they’d obviously met their end as someone’s dinner. Some looked sick but were feral and impossible to catch. Others became badly injured in fights and disappeared. It was quite a sad shock for a little city girl who had only experienced two healthy, well-behaved house cats in her life.
Most of the people who lived out here had a strict set of ideals when it came to barn cats. You didn’t get vaccines for them or get them spayed or neutered. They wanted cats on their farms to help with rodent problems, but they were not convinced that the cats would be around long enough to spend any money on them. It didn’t take us long to figure out why their cats were not around for very long.
Tips for barn cat success
- Get kittens. Older cats may be more likely to leave and try to return to their former home.
- The kittens should be from other farms. They are accustomed to living outside, and their mother has already taught them to hunt and eat rodents.
- Although most shelters will not adopt a cat to anyone who says the cat will be kept outside, some feral cat programs might do so.
- If you have a building or a stall where you can keep them locked up for a month, that will acclimate them to their new home so that they know where they’re fed. It will also give you a chance to watch them and be sure they’re healthy. (More on that below.)
- Get your cats spayed or neutered. If you have an intact female cat, she will stray when she is in heat, and she will attract males to your farm. If you have an intact male cat, he will go looking for girlfriends, and he will get into fights, which can wind up with one of the cats dead or nearly dead. Plus you will wind up with lots of kittens, and if a cat is having kittens twice a year, it will take a toll on her health. I make a point of always getting males because neutering usually costs about half as much as spaying.
- Vaccinate your cats. We learned this one the hard way after an injured cat bit our daughter, and she had to get started on rabies shots while the cat was sent away to be tested for rabies. The cat’s brain had to be examined to figure out if he had rabies, which means he had to be put down. Although insurance covered our daughter’s emergency room visit, we had to pay the $100+ to get the cat tested for rabies. A rabies vaccine for the cat would have been much cheaper and less stressful. Before you accuse us of being paranoid, I should tell you that this cat looked like he could have had rabies. He had obviously been in a fight, but we had no idea if he’d been fighting because he and another male cat simply had a disagreement or if this cat had picked a fight because he was rabid. Plus, this cat, who had been very friendly in the past, bit my daughter as soon as she tried to pick him up.
- Feed your barn cats a good quality food. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive food at the pet store, but please don’t buy the cheapest generic stuff out there and assume that the cats can catch enough mice and rats to keep themselves healthy. I’ve met people who say that you shouldn’t feed barn cats at all because they’ll be better hunters, but that has not been our experience at all. Plus, your cats are more likely to go to the neighbors’ houses looking for food, if you’re not feeding them — and getting in fights with other cats along the way. If they’re doing their job, there shouldn’t be many mice or rats around your farm. And if they’re that good at their job, you want them to stick around.
- Provide a safe shelter. Since this article was first written, I’ve received a lot of questions from people who live in the country and have had stray cats show up, and they don’t have a barn. One option for shelter is to put a small cat house in a protected area, such as your back porch. These little houses should have two doors so that the cat can escape if a predator, such as a raccoon sticks his head into one of the doors. Be careful not to put either of the doors against a wall, which would block the cat’s exit if a predator should start to come in the other door.
- Do NOT put out more food than the cat(s) will eat in one sitting. Do not use gravity feeders that you fill up with several pounds of cat food at one time. We made this mistake years ago and eventually discovered we were feeding rats more than the cats! I know another person who kept putting out food for his cat, even though he had not seen the cat for weeks. He thought that the cat must be there since the food would disappear every day. Then one day he saw who was eating the cat food — an opossum!
A word of caution about barn cats
As pregnant women know, cats can carry toxoplasmosis, which they can give to women during pregnancy. Because the disease is transmitted through feces, pregnant women are told to avoid cleaning cat litter boxes or to wear gloves when doing it. Although cats with toxoplasmosis don’t get sick, it can cause miscarriages in humans, and unborn babies can wind up with birth defects.
This is also true for goats, sheep, and hogs, which will often abort. Luckily it is not seen in cattle much. Cats love to use the bathroom in loose straw in barns, as well as in loose dirt in the garden. So, if you’re pregnant, and you have a cat that uses the bathroom in your garden, you probably shouldn’t be ripping fresh carrots out of the ground and eating them raw.
In 20 years, we have never had a problem with toxoplasmosis (knock on wood). This may be because we have never had young cats in the barn when we have pregnant goats. All of our cats come from other farms where they were born in barns. They’ve probably been eating dead rodents, which is how cats are usually infected, since their mother first killed a mouse for them and taught them to hunt, so they’ve probably already had the disease when they arrive here.
However, when new cats arrive on our farm, we keep them in the barn office for a few weeks or sometimes months. When cats are infected with the disease, they will only be shedding the infectious oocysts in their poop for about two weeks, but the oocysts can survive in the environment and infect other animals for as long as a year, so I really don’t want them pooping in our yard or barn for at least 3-4 weeks after they arrive, just in case they happen to be in the midst of an infection.
Long term success with barn cats
As I said, it didn’t take us long to realize that the common wisdom around here was not a winning strategy. All 15 of the original cats had either died or disappeared within a few months of our moving here. One of the feral cats gave birth in the middle of the barn and then ran away, never to return, so we raised those five kittens on goat milk.
We began following the tips I’ve outlined above. It hasn’t been perfect because when cats live outdoors, there is always the possibility of being killed by a predator, but because they’re neutered and well fed, they don’t tend to go far from home.
Our oldest barn cat, Patches, lived to be 15 years old, and she spent almost all of her time in the house the last four or five years. She showed up here only half grown and pregnant all those years ago. After her kittens were a couple months old, we had her spayed. She was an excellent mouser up until she was about 11 or 12 when she seemed to lose interest. Then she started spending most of her time as a lap warmer for the humans around here.
Pepper, the cat in the other three photos, is one of the best rodent patrol officers we’ve ever had, killing rats, as well as mice. He is nine years old now and even catches and kills rabbits in the garden. That sounds sad, but it’s also really sad when you walk out to the garden and see that 20 or so of your pepper transplants from yesterday have been eaten down to the dirt.
Cats play a vital role on a homestead, helping to keep the rodent populations under control. Just as I would want a valued employee to stick around for a long time, I want my barn cats to stick around and continue doing a great job for a long time. That means I’m going to do everything I can to keep them healthy and happy.