It’s a tale as old as time. Cats go with barns. Our hard working barn cats are essential as a natural way to get rid of mice. Not only do they keep mice at bay, they also use the rodents they catch as snacks and gifts! What a pleasant surprise to find as you head into the barn on a chilly morning. A few of our barn cats have been gifted to us and some have been sought out. When we lose a couple to old age or illness, we do adopt some new cats for the barn. Our barn cats are an integral part of homesteading today for us, but anyone interested in working cats should first research how to raise a barn cat.
Since they work so hard, our barn cats deserve to be treated like other high-performing work animals. I have heard people state opinions about how you shouldn’t feed them much because then they won’t be hungry enough to chase their own dinner! Nonsense! If you want an animal to perform work for you, then you should feed it adequate nutrition so it has the energy and stamina to perform.
You have the farm, or homestead, and the barn for your animals. Now you have added the barn cats or they have found their way to your barn on their own. How do you care for these somewhat independent felines so that they live healthy long lives?
Spay or Neuter All Cats
A friend once told me that cats are like paper clips. They are everywhere, and in a lot of ways, she was right. The reason that cats are everywhere and that shelters are overrun with unwanted cats and kittens is because people simply don’t make the effort to spay or neuter their pets. Many animal welfare organizations now offer discount spay and neuter services. The local Animal Control facility, in my area, now offers spayed and neutered cats to farm owners if they will care for them as barn cats. This is a big step from a few years ago when you had to promise that the cat would be a house cat! The unwanted cat population will continue to grow as a problem unless all cat owners choose to spay and neuter.
Feral cats are another problem contributed to by careless or unthinking cat owners. Cats left intact and allowed to roam free and “be a cat” adds to the feral cat population. These felines are often not capable of being house pets and often the only choice is to euthanize. With some training, feral cats can often be acclimated to stay around a barn and hunt mice. The process involves keeping them in a crate for an extended time while being fed and cared for daily. The thought is that they will begin to associate the barn with food and shelter and when let out of the crate the feral cats won’t stray far. They may never be affectionate like a house cat, but they can be very good at hunting rodents.
An important point when learning how to raise a barn cat is just as your livestock and house pets need regular checkups and vaccinations, so will your barn cats. At the bare minimum, a rabies vaccination is probably required by your local government. This not only protects the cat but also protects you and your other pets from being exposed to the rabies virus. Feline Leukemia, Tetanus and Distemper are other vaccinations that will help your outdoor barn cat resist deadly illness.
While we are talking about veterinary care, let’s not forget to keep toxic substances put away from curious felines. A lot of machinery liquids are toxic, such as antifreeze. Wormers meant for livestock can also be fatal to cats. Any pesticides should be stored where cats cannot access them. Curiosity really can kill the cat.
You are probably wondering how to keep outdoor cats warm. Assuming that you actually have a barn on your farm, the barn cats will do just fine curling up in a corner during cold or bad weather. Our cats find lots of creative spots to take refuge or sneak in a cat nap. During extreme cold snaps, we have pampered our cats by building a small hut out of hay bales. They walk in and curl up in the insulation of warm hay and sleep through the storms.
Cats need a diet that contains quality protein. Living outside, chasing rodents, eating rodents, running from the big dogs, all these activities require strong bodies and lots of energy. Cats are carnivores. They only eat meat. Cats do not need vegetables, sweets, or grain fillers. Most dry cat foods contain a protein amount of 22 percent or higher. Unless your cat has urinary tract issues, feed a high-quality protein rich food. Our cats are rather spoiled for barn kitties. They have their own bowls and get fed twice a day, just like everyone else in the barnyard. Not only do they get dry cat food in their bowl, they also share a can of cat food. Cats often do not drink enough water. Feeding the canned cat food in addition to the dry increases their water intake. In the winter, when bringing warm water to your backyard chickens and dairy goats, make sure you save some for the cats, too. I know my barn cats enjoy a warm drink of water on a freezing cold morning.
Try to give the cats a place to eat where they won’t be chased off by livestock entering the barn, or in our case the dog trying to “share” the dinner. We put shelves up in the barn that the cats can access, and we feed the cats on the shelves. So far I have not seen the goats try to get the cat food up there, but they seem to be forming a plan.
To Collar or Not to Collar
Outdoor animals and collars do not always mix. The barn cat can get the collar caught on something, get caught in a fight with another animal, catch the collar on a tree branch or other mishap, with dire results. We chose to not use collars on our barn cats. If you feel a collar is necessary, purchase what is called a “breakaway” collar. The breakaway collar is designed to snap apart if it encounters resistance. It might save your cat’s life.
If losing your barn cat is a concern for you, microchipping, performed by a veterinary office might be a good alternative.
Get to know your cat’s habits and routine. I know that my cats are normally eager to greet me each morning. If one is missing, and still not seen by dinner, I know it has either gone off chasing something or it might have been locked in a shed on the farm. Once I had a cat hitch a ride to a neighboring state with the equine dentist. He had left his truck open while treating the horses. The cat climbed into the tool area and fell asleep. I am sure he was pretty surprised to wake up far from home. Luckily I knew that Tigger rarely left the farm. I started to think about what had gone on the day before and made some calls to people who had been on the farm. Fortunately, the Equine Dentist’s wife had decided to hold onto Tigger for a couple days to see if anyone would call about a missing cat!
Another time, Gremlin had worked her way to the back of a storage shed and became stuck. While looking for her, I heard a very faint meow. I knew she had to be somewhere! They usually don’t miss a meal.
Any changes in appetite, behavior or disposition should be noted and observed. Just as with house pets, catching any illness in its early stages will give the barn cat a much higher rate of recovery.
I have found our barn cats to be extremely intelligent, sociable members of our farm family. I wouldn’t have a barn without them. Oh, and yes, they do catch mice too. I hope this helps give you some insight into how to raise a barn cat.
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.