Thursday, July 21, 2011

Barn Cats

Our homesteading group just finished Marjory Wildcraft's Backyard Food Production where she discusses everything on her property that relates to raising food for her family within a self contained system. Her goal is to raise everything they need, including feed for animals, on her own property. One of the animals she covered was dogs and their uses on a small homestead. What she didn't cover were barn cats.

You may not think of cats as being that essential to a homestead, but where I live, they're very important. In most rural situations, you have field mice, rats, gophers, moles, voles, ground squirrels, and probably a number of other rodents that can wreck havoc on a garden or eat plenty of grains and other food stored for yourself and your livestock. Rodents also carry diseases in their droppings, another reason to eliminate them or greatly reduce their numbers. They're notorious for destroying property, chewing through almost any type of material, including electrical wiring, insulation, and other essential construction materials.

Cats can live pretty independently without outside resources when feasting on these small pests. At our homestead, we currently have 5 barn cats. While we don't have a "barn" per se, we do have a chicken coop, a large garden, and our farmhouse with the hopes of adding a goat shed or barn in the near future. I use the term "barn cat" because that's what we always called them when we were growing up and it refers to cats that are not fed a full diet of commercial cat food so that they will hunt for the bulk of their meals.

Siesta, our largest cat and best hunter!

Now I know someone will think that we're starving these poor cats, but I assure you, they are happy and healthy, doing what cats were designed by God to do - hunt! We love on them, enjoy them, and meet their basic needs, but we consider them a working animal on our little homestead farm. It would be easy to start doting on them and spoil them to where they won't hunt, so we have a routine and way we do things in order to keep them happy and hunting.

When we get new kittens to raise as barn cats, we actually keep them in the laundry room for the first couple of weeks, making sure we handle them as much as possible. We don't want ferrel (wild) cats, but rather tame cats that will hunt. A ferrel cat can be a real problem. Trust me on this, I've had to have rabie shots when I was bit by a ferrel barn cat and while it isn't as bad as everyone has heard, it certainly isn't my idea of a great event! You don't want to worry about visitors to your homestead having to go through an experience like rabie shots because their child cornered a ferrel kitty trying to pet it.

Soleil, sister to Siesta, and almost identical!

After a couple of weeks, we move the kittens to the garage, but we don't let them out. We play with them, handle them, and love on them, but we expand their area. When we want them to come to us, we call "Here kitty, kitty, kitty" and give them a wet treat (canned cat food). Just a bite, not a lot. Finally, after another couple of weeks, we start letting them out of the garage for short periods of time, using the treat to get them to come back when we're ready. Over the weeks we extend the period of time they are out of the garage and eventually, we lock them out of the garage during the day, feeding them a small amount of dry cat food only at night when we bring them inside.

Because we live in an area with lots of hawks, owls, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and other animals that consider cats a nice dinner, we do bring them in at night. Yes, this defeats some of the purpose for having them, especially since cats are nocturnal and a lot of what they hunt is nocturnal as well, but if we don't bring them in, we run a high risk of losing them. I give my cats vaccinations and spay or nueter them when I want to control the numbers and to keep the males from spraying and marking their territory, so I've invested not only time, but money in these felines. To lose one is costly, so we try to bring them in as much as possible. And since they are trained for the wet treat, they're pretty easy to call into the garage.

Marco, who's fur is a lot longer than it looks here!
See more of Marco HERE.

Marjory Wildcraft uses the bi-products of her butchering to feed her dogs and if I were to start butchering on a regular basis, like Marjory does, I could do the same. I could also stop getting the cats fixed and leave them out at night. Doing these two things would keep their numbers down to a reasonable number, but since it isn't necessary at the moment, I don't see the need to do so. My food bill for the wet treat is very minimal, even with 5 cats, because they get one bite a day in the evening in order to get them to come in.

Keep in mind that if you wait until it is dark, you're not going to get the cats inside. You need to call them in just before the sun sets. Otherwise, only the very hungry cat will come for a treat. This has happened to us on occasion and we've learned that it's just best to wait a while, try one more time, and if we're not successful, the cat spends the night outside. For some reason, they usually are the first in the next night and they seem plenty tired the next day!

Ricco. What can I say; I'm not sure he's totally sane.

There are a few things you might consider when selecting a barn cat. Don't get white or light colored cats if at all possible. I made this mistake on our last round of kittens, and although they were darling and irresistible at the time, it was not a wise choice. The light colored kittens, especially the white, show up like a neon sign in the dark. If you're cat isn't in that evening, it has a high chance of not making it back the next morning. On the plus side, the white cats are well hidden when it snows, but the dark cats look like bushes sticking up out of the snow, so they're still the better choice.

Look for shorthaired cats if at all possible. The longer the hair, the more foxtails, burrs, and other stickers the cat will pick up in his fur. This requires more grooming on the cat's part and they look a bit unhealthy as a result. I think the exception would be if you could find a Maine Coon.

Maine Coon's are one of the only native breeds to North America, if I'm not mistaken. They're very large, which makes them less appealing to certain predators and means they have a better chance in a fight. Also, they're excellent hunters. So the trade off of a longer coat would probably be worth it. If you live where there is plenty of snow, Maine Coons do well in a cold winter environment. With large paws and an extra toe, they can move in the snow easily and use their large bushy tail to wrap around them. And their kind personality and intelligence make them a good choice for families.

Pablo, a real sweety and my next top notch mouser!

Despite the fact that we still have gopher issues, an occasional mouse, or some other rodent, if it weren't for our five barn cats, we would be overrun with these pests and no amount of organic repellent would be able to compete. Barn cats are just one weapon in our arsenal in the fight against unwanted critters, but I would say, without a doubt, that they are also our first line of defense.

Many of you may be allergic to cat hair. Actually, I have a mild allergy to them and my husband is even more allergic. Keeping the cats outside curbs a lot of the issues as does as does not handling them and washing our hands after being outside. The girls do most of the loving on the cats for us, but I've learned that if I just don't pick them up I'm usually fine. Instead, I give them a good scratching and rub here and there and they seem perfectly content with the attention. Don't leave your patio chair cushions that are covered in fabric outside when not in use or your cats will make a bed of them. An old dog bed in the garage makes the perfect sleeping quarters for cats and many a night I've found all 5 of them curled up next to the dog!

I hope a few of you who haven't considered cats in the past will find this information helpful in handling pest issues around your homestead. If it's as big a problem for you as it has been for us, I think you'll find cats a welcome addition!


  1. Hello, I have no place or need for a barn cat in our neighborhood, but I really enjoyed learning about that part of country living. I am sure that those cats are in Hunting Heaven living on your property. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. While we don't live in the country, our indoor/outdoor cats do also hunt mice. We feed them regularly but still often find dead mice outside the doors. :P I like to think they also help keep other critters away from our chickens and coop.

  3. We live in the city but have a large garden and Izzy, our cat does a wonderful job of tending to the birds! She is very healthy and like you we bring her in at night with the shake of the cat food container.

  4. Great post! We have one barn cat - we call her the farm manager! The only reason she is the ONLY one ie because she doesn't let any other in on her territory. There is a feral (but he was caught and neutered) Maine Coon that she always to stop by for a bite to eat, but that's it.

    If it weren't for her, I couldn't imagine all the things we'd have running around :/

  5. When we had property we also had five "barn" cats. We loved each and every one. They did a wonderful job hunting and keeping the chicken coops clear of rodents. We let one have kittens once, which was wonderful, but for the most part, all of our cats were fixed, when a coyote got one, or the road :( we would easily find a new kitten from a friend. My son is very allergic to cats- so keeping them outside is a must. When I have property again barn cats will be one of the first animals I add to my land. Thanks for this wonderful post about such a valuable member to any homestead.

  6. I have experienced that a 'fed cat' is a better mouser. A cat that is not starving does not take chances when the moment is in front of them to pounce on the prey. They wait for the RIGHT moment and never miss. Cats that are 'hungry' make many mistakes and jump too early and their numbers are lower. It wouldn't hurt and may even help if you give them a bit more food throughout their day and also de-worm them twice a year because they are most likely full of worms from the rodents. Deb

  7. Thank you for giving a shout out to a very important (IMO) part of the farm! Hooray for Barn Cats! Yours are absolutely beautiful :) -Tammy

  8. I have adopted 3 spayed females that work here,, did you know they're up keep can be a tax deduction if you have a working farm that makes and income.

  9. Here in the city unwanted pets become feral and overpopulate and end up in shelters to be killed. Please pass on that although “barn cats” might be
    a part of country life neutering and spaying pets and wild cats as well is
    of utmost importance if you truly love and want to protect animals...especially cats.

  10. Carla, I did not know that! Wow!

    Thanks, Deb. My cats leave food in the bowl, so I'm sure they're getting enough food. Not to mention they're weight is good. If I notice them getting thin, I always worm them an extra time just to be sure. Otherwise, I do so a couple of times a year.

  11. When I was growing up on our hobbie farm we had 7 barn cats, we had them all vet checked every year and shots so that they dont get diseases or fleas ! Are your barn cats vet checked and protected from diseases ! Just a ? why I ask is some people dont think of their cats carrying the diseases and possiable spreading them to other farm animals ! Have a great day !

  12. You are a brave woman. I am a wimp. The list of rodents that you have, plus coyotes, fox, snake and so on is the #1 reason I do not want to live in the country though I love my garden.

  13. Does anyone keep cats in the house as mousers? I would love to have farm cats, but 1) I'm a sucker and always let my animals in the house, and 2) I didn't know how to establish them as outside cats... your post helped me with this last one. But my thought as I read this post was that, instead of keeping them in the garage, I could keep them in the basement at night, which seems to be the entry point for the mice in the winter. Then they would be inside and protected from predators but still hunt if they desired, or at the least keep the mice OUT. If we had an outside cellar door this would be ideal, but as it stands we'd have to herd them through the kitchen to the basement door, which may or may not be too much of a pain. Oh, and do you keep a litter box in the garage for them, or do they just go outside only?

  14. Brandislee, yes, I do keep a liter box. It's like a large wash tub and we keep it next to the garbage can so it's easy to scoop out each a.m. I use to let me cats in some, but with allergies, it just wasn't a good idea. My husband was miserable sneezing all the time. The older he got, the worse the allergy.

    Country Gal, fleas have not been an issue here. At least not on my property. I'm wondering if it's our cool climate?? Other than vaccinations and getting fixed, we don't really take them to the vet unless we notice an issue that needs to be resolved. My uncle was a vet and I learned a little about what to watch for and how to treat at home before going to the clinic. Kind of like how I do my kids. Not everyone will agree with that, but each person needs to do what they feel comfortable with.

  15. Great post! I think cats are a great contribution to a family and they can make great hunters. I like your tips on the cat breeds and colour too.

  16. Marjory's place is not far from ours. We've taken a few of her classes and give her a call when we have questions or need advice. It's nice to have someone so close that is doing the same kinds of things we've been doing. And it's really great to SEE what she talks about in the video!

  17. This was an interesting read! As a city girl, I usually associate cats with being lazy and pampered (but still oh so cuddly and sweet). Thanks for teaching me some new things :)

    This Good Life

  18. Like you, I agree that barn cats need to be treated as working animals. In fact, here in the cottage, my cat is loved, but also is expected to do his job as a mouser :-)


  19. Our chickens free range over our land, we've tossed around the idea of getting a barn cat but were afraid it might kill our smaller bantams/chicks if the wild critters get too sparse. Any thoughts?

  20. We have no cats at our place...Not to say that we don't need some....We do have gophers and they are very hard to catch...

    Thanks for all the info...interesting...

  21. Jennifer, I can only tell you my own experience in which the cats seem enchanted with chicks. We must keep the chicks secure and out of harms way, but that once "teenagers" (as we call the larger chicks), the cats are actually scared of them! They'll walk around the chickens and hang out on the fence along the chicken yard, but they keep their distance. Dogs are more of an issue, but they can be trained to leave chickens alone.

  22. We live near a main rd. So our 2 cats are indoors. But, the neighbor's cat loves our yard. I was worried about the chickens but, our biggest chicken Doris put the fear of god in her one day when she went near the younger girls and she now gives them a wide distance. I like having her around to catch voles and such. She spends more time in our back yard than her own. The back yard is a little jungle like.

  23. I would love to have a couple of barn cats, even though I live in a suburban environment. We have lost most of our preditors, so no-one is eating the rabbits. We have a rabbit population explosion going on. We really need some preditors!

  24. I am allergic to cats and dogs and timothy hay (so most farm animals) and we have two cats and a dog and two rabbits indoors. While it takes we a couple weeks my immunne system seems to catch up and I end up being okay as long as I'm around animals. If we go on vacation I have a hard time when we get back. Thanks for sharing! :) Love your kitties!

  25. I got some kittens the other day- thanks for the inspiration! After I read your post I started watching Craigslist, prepared to wait for just the right cats, and it only took two days! There are two of them, they are 10 weeks old, already used to living outside AND litter trained, and about the friendliest little things I have ever met. I'm so glad I did it!

    We do let our chickens free range in the evening, and I was curious to see how the cats would react. They acted pretty indifferent to them, but stayed a good distance away. If anything I was afraid the kitties would get too close to my mean rooster! But you're right- generally speaking cats won't chase (to kill) anything their own size or bigger. Like I've heard of people who had both a rabbit and a cat as house pets and they played together. So chickens should be okay.

  26. Braandislee, that's great! They sound wonderful and I hope you enjoy them for years to come!

  27. We live in a neighborhood that backs up to woods and we have 3 barn cats. 2 of them we got from the barn where we keep our horses so we always just called them the barn cats! They look just like your 2 tabby cats too! They do control our pest population including help with frogs. It isn't always pleasant to walk outside to the treasure on the door step or in the garage but, I know they are earning their keep!

  28. Oh and the barn cats at the barn with our horses don't bother the chicken coop at all. The coop doesn't have a roof all the way around and I'm sure the cats could get in...I never seen one even try! Though "the girls" are some hefty chicks that even scare my husband some days! lol

  29. I'll have to pass this on to hubby. Our Amish neighbor's barn cats visit our property on occasion, but we still catch a couple of rats a month and have mice that like to hunker down in the house for the winter. We have cat allergies so they would have to stay outside. Good advice!! Thanks!

  30. Thank you for this post. We are starting some barn cats next week with our upcoming move. We have 3 black cats, two sisters that are almost a year old, who are indoor only and a 7 year old male who is indoor/ outdoor. We intended on moving last year and were planing on putting the kittens to work then. Plans changed and they are more like pets and as we are coming up to this move I have been hoping we won't lose them to the many predators out in the night. We plan to keep them in the old barn with access to an outdoor enclosed chicken yard for a few weeks to establish a "home base" and get them on an evening feeding schedule, right before sunset like you are saying. Do you have any other tips for a barn cat newbie?

    1. Krystal, the two light colored cats above, Ricco and Pablo are no longer with us :-( We were very unwise to bring home cats that were mostly white in our area. Some of our daytime predators got them (at least that's what we've assumed as they never came home again). We've also been guilty of overfeeding them this past winter and they didn't do as much hunting as they should have. Being down two cats and not having them as hungry made a big difference in the mice damage around here. We'll be more careful in the future, but just keep this in mind.

      Oh, and if you notice they're too skinny... it's usually worms. Just give them a wormer (such as Molly's Herbal Wormer) regularly.

  31. Great article. I just got 3 kittens and have them in my garage bathroom. You confirmed all my instincts about how to move forward.

  32. Great article. We just moved into a place surrounded by grain fields and there are mice all over the place. This is really my first experience with them, and my MIL keeps telling us to get a barn cat. I've never had (or needed) one before so I don't have the first clue how to do this, but after reading this, I think we may be able to tackle this - and the kids will love this "experiment".


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