When it comes to natural rodents and other pest control on a farm or homestead, few things are more effective than a barn cat. While not all felines are cut out to be barn cats, for those that prefer the solitary life away from human companionship, the relationship between homesteader and cat can be quite mutually beneficial.
Barn cats — or working cats — as they are also known, have proven to be excellent for keeping rodent and insect populations under control around farms, in garden centers, warehouses and breweries. Basically, anywhere there’s a food source for vermin, a working cat can be a great addition.
“Cats are versatile workers,” said Kate McHugh-Westfal, volunteer manager at Midcoast Humane in Brunswick. “There are lots of different options for cats who are much happier being outside or want little to no interaction with humans.”
Like several other shelters in Maine, Midcoast Humane has a “Barn Buddy” program which places feral or full time outdoor cats with people specifically looking for a working cat. In return, all the cat requires is food, water, shelter and appropriate veterinary care.
“When you adopt from us, the barn buddy will have their vaccines, be spayed or neutered and have a microchip,” McHugh-Westfal said. “Right off the bat you are going to have a cat in good shape medically.”
Barn buddy cats are usually at least 6 months old as even the wildest of kittens can be socialized to enjoy being around people.
“With kittens you have a maximum of about 16 weeks when they are developing their feelings about the world,” McHugh-Westfal said. “So if you can get to a feral kitten before then and bring them inside to do some behavioral work, there is a good chance you can socialize it to be an indoor cat.”
McHugh-Westfal knows there are people who firmly believe that every cat should be an indoor cat and never be let outside. That kind of thinking, she said, goes against thousands of years of evolution and genetics.
Scientific studies published in The National Geographic and Nature have shown that while modern domestic dog DNA differs extensively from the DNA of ancient dogs, the DNA of modern cats has not changed much over the last 9,000 years. It’s believed that dogs began living among humans 14,200 years ago. It took another 5,000 years for cats to join up with humans.
“Dogs today are so different from the ancient dogs because we domesticated them so long ago,” McHugh-Westfal said. “Cats, on the other hand, domesticated us to meet their needs.”
Today’s domestic cats are every bit the apex predator as a lion, tiger or leopard. They are highly skilled hunters with a prey drive strong enough that they will hunt and kill birds, small mammals and reptiles if given the opportunity.
That’s another reason some people feel cats are best confined indoors. Cats can have disastrous effects on songbird populations. They are also at risk of getting hit by vehicles, attacked by larger predators or coming into contact with dangerous toxins if allowed to wander at will.
It’s important to make sure your working cat has everything it needs right in its barn, warehouse, garage or whatever structure in which it is living, McHugh-Westfal said. That means having a designated space out of the way and private just for the cat. This can be as simple as a box with straw in it or as fancy as an actual commercially purchased cat house with blankets inside of it. A happy working cat will not need to wander off and get into trouble.
When a barn buddy is first adopted out, McHugh-Westfal recommends placing it in a large dog crate or similar large container inside the structure it will be living in. Keep the cat in that crate for two weeks, feeding it in there. That way once you let it out, it recognizes the location as home and where the food and water is.
It’s also a good idea to have at least two working cats at the same time, as they are less likely to wander off if they have a friend.
From there, it’s a simple matter of putting out fresh food and water every day for your working cat.
“Cats are made to survive outside,” McHugh-Westfal said. “Some are happier to do that with little human interaction.”
As long as cats are not directly exposed to the elements, they are capable of regulating their own temperatures and keeping warm by curling up in that special space provided for them — even when it dips well below freezing. You can help them stay warm by providing an insulated sheltered area for them and even install an electric heating pad that can be turned on during the coldest periods of winter. The real key, McHugh-Westfal said, is making sure they have plenty of food and water at all times.
As for thinking that people who have barn or working cats are being cruel or don’t really love their cats, that is not the case, according to McHugh-Westfal.
“These cats are being loved in the way that is best for them,” she said. “For these cats being stuck inside a house would be scary and unhappy for them so letting them live the way that makes them the happiest is an act of love.”