Q. Are barn cats considered pets? My brother has cats he keeps in the barn for catching mice, and while that’s OK, he never feeds them anything, not even water. He says they are just like wild animals and can fend for themselves. Some of them have weepy eyes and sores, and all of them are so skinny they are bony. Is there any legal way to make him at least feed them something? Or take them away?
A. Cats are defined in Maine law as companion animals. There are cats that are not anyone’s pets in the same sense as a house cat (or dog) may be considered a pet. Those are generally referred to as feral or barn cats. However, anyone keeping animals — pet or not, cat or dog — on his or her premises is expected, and required by law, to provide necessary sustenance including water, proper shelter and veterinary care as needed.
Weepy eyes, sores and low body weight can be indicative of diseases, possibly contagious, and malnutrition due to absence of necessary sustenance. Your brother should be aware that any pets he has in the house, other animals and possibly people could also be at risk from disease transmission by these barn cats.
If you cannot reason with your brother and convince him to have the cats checked by a veterinarian and begin caring for the cats he is keeping on his premises — including getting them spayed and neutered to prevent overpopulation — then it might be time to call the local animal control officer or the animal welfare program in Augusta. This doesn’t mean he automatically will be charged with a crime or civil offense. Whenever possible, the animal welfare district humane agents would rather get people to care for animals than put people in jail or file civil charges and fine people.
Once a complaint is filed, if the investigation shows that he was not properly caring for cats he kept on his premises, the animal control officer or the animal welfare program will work with your brother to come up with a plan to improve the care of the cats to the minimum standard required by law. If your brother is unwilling to comply with that, and the cats are indeed not being cared for properly, then he could be facing civil or criminal animal cruelty charges. You might remind him that those could be far more costly than caring for these cats, surrendering them to a shelter or giving them away to a carefully screened home.
This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. E-mail AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to “Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329, will be forwarded to the LRIS.