Farm Cats

During the early years of my rescue efforts, I felt that all cats should live indoors. Ideally, I still feel that way. But realistically, I have to accept the fact that many farms will forever have "barn cats." I've also discovered that many farm folks treat their barn cats very well. I've also seen quite the opposite, unfortunately, as many people still feel they are "only" cats and are "earning their keep" by reducing the rodent population. If they fail in this job, the owners couldn't care less what happens to them, as if that will teach them a lesson.

Admittedly, we have acquired some cats in our shelter that just can't adapt to indoor life. They are miserable residents inside and we feel sorry for them. These cats just never adjust to human companionship for some reason. Maybe they were never socialized as kittens. Maybe they never were treated kindly by humans. For those poor kitties, we have sought and found some very good farm homes. If we're lucky, the requests for barn cats come in when we happen to have cats that would do well outdoors. More often, though, we wind up with unhappy cats and no farms to place them on. Well, no *suitable* farms.

We screen potential adopters to help ensure the cats will be treated well, though some people feel that's an intrusive procedure and refuse to adopt animals from shelters or rescue groups. We do not argue with them, as we feel that attitude is simply another indication that they would not be a suitable home anyway. We take the attitude that those are the kind of folks who wouldn't think twice about kicking a cat across the yard. No matter what the potential adoptive situation, we are ardent about ensuring a good home, even if it's a barn, and even if we have to continue our search for nice people.

Here are some of our guidelines for placing cats in outdoor environments:

  • If there are other cats there already, the owners must have some kind of policy in place to introduce the new cat(s). It is not acceptable to simply dump the new arrivals in the barn and expect them to stick around, make friends with the old cats, and start hunting mice right away. The old-timers will immediately start turf wars and may even run the new cats off the property.

  • Even if there are no other cats at this home, there still must be a period of adjustment wherein the owners facilitate the new cats becoming familiar and comfortable in their new surroundings. New cats must be made to feel secure and comfortable in their new home. The new owners must agree with this and willingly provide a safe environment that includes food and shelter.

    Initially, the new cats will have to be restrained so they don't run away. This may mean living in a cage for two or three weeks, or being held inside a building they cannot escape from, such as a granary, or a tool shed. Most out buildings on farms are full of escape hatches, though, so the cage system is often the best method.

  • The new owners must agree to feed the new cats. As we say, "A fed cat makes a better mouser." This seems to astonish many people. They think that if you feed the cat, she will not want to hunt for mice. On the contrary, if she becomes too hungry and possibly weak from lack of food for a week, she will not be in her best condition to hunt at all. Only a healthy, strong cat will be able to hunt most effectively. Also, there are several other factors involved: Many cats do not hunt to eat. It's an instinct to catch mice, of course, but not all cats feel the urge as strongly as others do. Some cats will only play with their catch, and will soon become too hungry to stick around. Those cats will run away, in search of a home with food available. Another factor most people never think of is that wild mice carry all kinds of parasites and any cat that eats one will ingest those organisms. This is one way outdoor animals get tape worms, for example. If you don't think worms are dangerous to the animal's health, you would be wrong. They can die from a severe infestation, which is what any infestation becomes if not treated.

    Outdoor cats also carry ear mites, body mites, ringworm, heartworm (yes, cats get them, too) and possibly mange. Is this a life you would wish on any cat? Not surprisingly, cats on farms where there is no health care program will suffer and die much earlier than a well-kept cat.

  • New owners must agree to provide a safe place for their outdoor cats to run to for protection from other hazards, including predators, such as marauding strays, dog packs, coyotes and predatory birds (hawks and owls), and to get in out of severe weather conditions. A small "dog house" with a tiny opening, just big enough for a cat to squeeze through, is an adequate shelter in most cases. You don't want badgers, raccoons and skunks running in after them. Or dogs. Or coyotes. A second hole at the other end is often a good idea, too, in case something does follow them in, and they need to get out quickly.

  • Water must always be available. Clean water. Not puddles in the drive way.

  • The owners must accept cats that have been spayed and neutered. Not only does this prevent overpopulation and weakening of the mothers, but it helps to ensure a longer, healthier life for the cats. Outdoor cats that are not "fixed" suffer terribly, not only from overproduction, but from health problems such as cancer.

    Uncontrolled breeding causes the mothers to become depleted from producing dozens (or even hundreds) of offspring, and soon are unable to hunt at all, dying before their young are able to survive on their own. Most new kittens in such circumstances don't live long either, because their mothers are not healthy enough to care for them adequately. Owners who don't know this aren't paying attention. They just look out their windows and say, 'Hmmm, I wonder what happened to that gray cat? Oh well. Must have run off.' But an altered cat is less likely to roam, and thus less likely to run away, too. (Fix 'em and feed 'em, and they will stick around.)

  • The new owners must agree to maintain a recommended schedule of vaccinations and to use veterinary services regularly, and as needed, for cats that become sick or injured. If they are callous about just letting the cat population "take care of itself," we will not send any of our cats to that kind of cruel future.

    Unvaccinated cats often die from viral infections such as distemper, leukemia and FIV, as well as respiratory diseases. It's also much more important to be protected from rabies in the outdoor environment where there is greater likelihood of coming into contact with wild animals that might be infected.

While we prefer to see cats living happy lives inside a warm, loving home with gentle and kind owners, we realize the outdoor life can be adequate for those cats that have no other options, if the people involved are willing to take proper care of them. If that is not possible or acceptable, we would rather euthanize them than see them go to homes where they will certainly suffer.

Copyright 2009 - Dr. RJ Peters 
The Problem Cat