How to Raise a Barn Cat Right

How to Keep Mice Out of Sheds and Barns

how-to-raise-a-barn-cat

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.

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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

how-to-raise-a-barn-cat

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.

Veterinary Care

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.

Shelter

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.

Nutritional Needs

how-to-raise-a-barn-cat

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.

how-to-raise-a-barn-cat

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.

Barn Cat

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.

how-to-raise-a-barn-cat

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.

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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.

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Comments
  • I really think this is a great article with practical information and appreciate you talking about the role barn cats play in rural life.

    Reply
  • We had a momma cat come around for 2 years. She gave us a present of 4 kittens back in April. We don’t have a barn but the “kittens” are still here and will be 9 months old. I’ve tried to “socialize” them so I could find them homes. I’m still trying. Got most of them to allow me to pet them on their back only, and one who would love to be indoors with us but my husband doesn’t like cats and doesn’t want a house cat. I’ve tried cat rescue groups but they won’t take them but if i pay $25 each, they will fix them. That’s $100 I don’t have. The SPCA would euthanize them immediately if they got them. I feed them and the law is “you feed them, they’re yours.” I can’t afford to get them fixed, being on a fixed income so all I can do is hope and pray. They go behind the house and visit their first “home” under the tarped steel they were raised in spring, lay on our swing on sunny days and sleep under our porch or under a construction trailer at night, depending on the weather. My husband did build them a house but they want nothing to do with it. So, here we are. Momma left home a month ago. I hope she didn’t have any more babies but if she did, I hope she doesn’t bring them here. I love these guys but need to find them a home. I need suggestions if possible.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry about your delimma. We had the same problem two years in a row. We finally took them all in and had them altered. We now have a visiting unneutered male. That’s no problem. But you, in the other hand are in for it if you have females. The males will wander onto your property, and trust me, you will have more kittens this spring and next spring and the spring after, if you don’t spay. If you cannot afford it, take them to the humane society. They might not euthanize kittens. But they will expect a donation, and if you are going to give them a donation, you might as well use the money to spay the females if you really like them. Either way, you will have to come up with the money, so do what you really want to do with the kitties. Ask friends and family to help–one kitty each person, maybe. Thank hard. You will find an answer.

      Reply
      • Best friends animal society is a national organization has free & low cost spay and neuter.

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    • Thank you for taking care of the cats. Like the other commenter said, you could spay the females first to make sure you don’t have kittens. Check with your local humane society for options. Some have special programs for people with feral cats. Some come in and trap feral cats and neuter them and return them to where they are from.

      Reply
    • Our local Tractor Supply Company offers spay/neuter and immunization for pets several times during the year that is much less expensive than taking them to the vet. Check with them. Also, ask people to ‘sponsor’ your farm cats with a donation to a local vet to be put on deposit for the cost of neutering/spaying the cat(s) of their choice. Good luck and thanks for taking care of the little ones!

      Reply
  • Andres S.

    Really enjoyed reading this article. I have a house cat that does great getting fruit rats from the property we’re living in. We recently acquired 2 more kitten and are hoping our older cat wild show them the roaps! As for the presents we get right at our front door, well rat heads and bodies wouldn’t be my first choice but I’m eternally grateful =D

    Reply
  • I adopted 2 feral cats in April. They were set up in a shed intended for the 3 week acclimation period. One (hoodini) immediately escaped and we were able to re trap but got away again. The other (lehe) stayed the full 3 weeks in the barn. Anyways we would see hoodini from time to time and after the acclimation period lehe was easy to find and would come when food was put out. Now lehe is nowhere to be found but hoodini is seen daily. Is this normal behavior? It’s like they switched places.

    Reply
    • were they spayed/neutered? I have found my cats stay around more when they are fixed.

      Reply
  • I rescued a kitten from the shelter with the intention of making her a barn cat. She is so tiny though, and has no mother to teach her how to do things. I have had her two weeks. She stays in the house during the day because it is a hundred degrees outside, bit at night I kennel her in the chicken coop with the livestock guard dog. When will she be old enough and big enough to let loose and how does she know to come back home. As I am sure you have realized this is my first cat!!

    Reply
    • What State do you live in? Many States have programs that can help. Be sure to have the kitty you have neutered/spayed. You may want to consider adopting a second older cat that already knows the ropes to teach the kitten. I live in Oregon and we have a terrific Barn Cat Program called MeowVillage. If you have a barn, they will deliver the cat(s), neutered, shots, and teach you everything you need to know / mek

      Reply
  • What do you recommend for feline fleas. My kitty gets sick off of the store drops and powders. Is there any all natural treatment that you know of?

    Reply
    • Advantage is really a good product and I use it on my cats every 2-3 months. It’s easy to apply. No fighting to get pills in, powders or baths. / mek

      Reply
    • Diatomaceous earth. Just be careful around the eyes and nose. Recommend food grade.

      Reply
  • Donna L.

    PLEASE find a way to spay and neuter! I have worked with feral cat welfare groups and am also a lover of our natural environment/wildlife. There are many low cost spay/neuter organizations out there. If there are none out there to help you with these costs, and I know having dealt with a number of vets myself, perhaps try contacting Alley Cat Allies for advice. My state offers help through our Agriculture Department and TEAM (Tait’s Every Animal Matters).

    Reply
  • We have a “No Kill” Humane Society, where we live. They used to provide spay/neuter services for “free.” However, they are not affiliated with the State/National Humane Society, so unless you make donations, directly to them, they don’t receive any money from any of the State/National Humane Society Organizations.

    Times have gotten very hard for them. They have very limited space and resources. If and when they can take in any animal, it is usually because the situation is of a critical nature. Plus, they exist on the generosity of people in and around our community, who really appreciate their efforts. There are no routine funds, from which they can draw from.

    About a year ago, they were forced to discontinue their “free” spaying/neutering of barn/feral/stray cats program. I was devastated because, I’m of the belief that there is an “invisible sign” in my front yard that says “Got a stray cat you don’t want anymore? Drop it off here! We will feed, care for, love on, provide shelter for and provide necessary care for the God given creature, that you no longer have a need for!” I’ve been trying to find it, but the cats just keep on coming!

    Fortunately, our Humane Society has restarted their spay/neuter program. However, it now costs $40.00/cat.

    I, too, am limited on funds. However, I go through a 40# bag of cat food, every week, to the tune of $25.00/bag. (I currently have “7” cats.) If I were not to spay/neuter, the expense of cat food would bury me! So, compared to what a Vet would change, ($150-200.00) $40.00 is a fantastic deal! (Basically, less than what I spend on cat food, every two weeks! So, in no way, am I complaining!

    Reply
  • Grey Kitty brought us 3 lovely kittens that we have adopted making us officially cat crazy with 8 house cats. Now she has 4 new kittens growing rapidly and being on fixed income the neutering is an unbearable expense. The neutering of stray cats is a major problem that needs to be addressed.
    The county will give $10. Neutering certificates but only for those on a welfare / food stamp program that people like us find distasteful . The counties should be lobbied to make them available for everyone or at least those on fixed incomes.

    Reply
  • We had a feral cat give birth in our barn. She will let us get close but not touch her. We waited until the kittens were weaned before taking them to be socialized, and we trapped the mom to have her fixed but guess what? She was already a month pregnant with a new litter. Knowing what we know now, we’ll be trapping, spaying, and returning her as soon as she gives birth. Females can get pregnant very soon after giving birth, even if they’re nursing newborn kittens. We’ll be taking responsibility for her offspring because we love animals, but it’s imperative that all of them are spayed and neutered.

    Reply
  • We have two barn cats (M&F) that we got from a local humane societies barn cat program. We did the acclimation period as instructed and everything went well for a long time. We are new to barn cats and maybe this is just normal but the female, although spayed, has a tendency to wander. Once she was gone for about 2 days and we ended up having to get a climber to get her down from a 30′ tree. Then she disappeared for 2-3 days and finally came home. Neighbors both heard coyotes as if they treed something so we assumed it was her and she escaped. Would not let us touch her for over a week after she returned, Eventually she let us pet her again… something we had to work hard to convince her to let us do in the first place. After the coyotes she stuck around our 2 acres pretty tight for a while but now is missing again! Do farm cats just wander? Is it just in her personality? I am very upset but I was very upset the first 2 times then we found her. We covered our 2 acres very well looking for her but nothing. There are 200 acres behind our place and lots of wildlife including brown bears. I am so upset but maybe I just don’t understand barn cats? Any advice would be helpful! Thanks =)

    Reply
  • Vicky B.

    This is a great article. I don’t have a barn but have 10 inside cats and feed 6 or more outside. Last year I got a mother and two kittens fixed. The one kitten I couldn’t catch came back this year with 4 kittens. So now it starts over again.

    Reply

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