Keep Barn Kitties Happy All Winter Long
Where there is grain, there will be mice. When you have mice, your best form of natural pest control is cats! Having a mouser in your barn can keep the mice away (or at least the population down). Keeping your barn cat(s) safe is important so they can live a happy and long life.
In this post, we will go over the basics of barn cat care—including what it means to be a barn cat, how to keep them safe from predators, and warm in the winter.
Barn Cats 101
The Nevada Humane Society describes barn cats as feral—which is a behavior and not related to genetics or biology. This means the cat is usually wary of human interaction. Sometimes feral cats live in colonies and are trapped, spayed or neutered, and then re-homed into a barn cat or working cat program.
Barn cats are great for keeping the pest population (mice, rats, bugs) down. They will hunt these pests and also chase them away if they cannot catch them.
Sometimes barn cats also will become more accustomed to human interaction and will come over for cuddles or companionship. Don’t ever plan on a feral barn cat warming up to you; think of it as an added bonus. In addition, it is recommended that you adopt barn cats in pairs. Having a friend gives cats a level of security, helps keep them warm at night, and doubles your pest control.
Let’s pause for a few moments of cat cuteness:
Caring for New Cats
When you first get your barn cats, you will want to keep them in a confined space for around 3 to 4 weeks. This allows them to be fed in the same area and helps establish a routine. Moving is stressful for everyone, including cats, and when stressed, they may run and hide.
Keeping new cats confined to a specific space or zone will keep them safe as they adjust.
Make sure to talk to them so they can get to know your voice. Sometimes your barn cat may talk back with a meow! Did you know that adult cats only meow at humans? It is their way of saying hello or expressing a need.
To keep your cats safe after the initial four-week acclimation period, make sure to continue to feed them in the same enclosed space and close them in for the night. Keeping them ‘indoors’ at night will keep your barn cats safe from coyotes or other predators. If you don’t do this and notice that your cats are disappearing, local predators higher on the food chain may be the reason.
Feeding your barn cats ensures they are eating enough food. Did you know a well-fed cat will hunt out of sport, whereas a hungry cat will just hunt for nourishment? By feeding them well, you also give them the energy to hunt!
What to Feed Barn Cats
You should be feeding your barn cats high-quality cat food. Wet food is a great way to get them to come in at night. I would not recommend you just leaving out “free choice” food for the cats for two big reasons:
- Free choice feeding does not get them in the routine of coming in at night for safety
- You could also be feeding rats, mice, and other rodents accidentally!
- Cat food stays fresher if kept sealed between feedings.
Barn Cats in Winter Months
As the weather turns and we begin our cold weather protocol for our horses, we also need to take into consideration barn cat needs. Though cats can survive the winter by finding natural shelters, their chances of survival goes down when the temperatures drop below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Below 45 degrees, cats are at risk for frostbite and hypothermia.
Some people use a heat lamp to help keep cats warm in extreme temperatures. I would recommend an enclosed radiator heater to reduce the risk of a barn fire. An even better option is the Premiere 1 Heat Lamp—this is great for chicken coops and is engineered to minimize the risk of barn fires.
If you want to avoid heat lamps altogether, you could microwave rice heating pads. They will stay warm for a few hours in a small enclosed space.
If you don’t have an enclosed area for your cats, or you are just looking to care for feral cats in your area, building a cold-weather shelter is a great way to keep them warm and safe. The easiest shelter to build is a Tub Shelter.
To make one, you will need:
- Large Storage Tub with Lid
- Medium to Large Styrofoam Cooler that fits in the tub
- Bricks or rocks to weigh down the lid of the tub
- Insulation (example: Straw)
Do not use fabric! When fabric gets wet, it freezes and will draw heat away from the animals you are trying to keep warm.
- Cut a hole in both the tub and the styrofoam cooler big enough for a cat to get through–about 6 inches in diameter.
- Place the styrofoam cooler in the tub and if there are gaps, fill them with straw.
- Place straw inside the styrofoam cooler as well.
- Put the shelter outdoors and weigh it down with bricks/rocks on top so it won’t move or blow away!
I have one of these shelters built for neighborhood cats at my house. I keep it on the edge of the house, away from doors, so the cats don’t get spooked.
This video from Alley Cat Allies is a great walk-through on how to build a shelter, although they do use a few different materials:
In addition to providing a warm shelter for your barn cats, make sure they have enough water. Cats are still active during the winter and can get dehydrated. Also, make sure to avoid salting paths often used by your non-hooved animals as salt can be damaging to their paws.
Barn Cats Need Vet Care, Too
Though barn cats are not necessarily pets, they still need annual vet care and should be monitored and treated for any injuries.
Pet MD recommends treating barn cats like regular cats when it comes to vet visits.
This means annual trips, and regular vaccinations—especially for rabies, feline distemper, and feline leukemia. Barn cats are also at a higher risk of parasites, fleas, and ticks—so getting them on a monthly preventative will help them live a longer and healthier lives.
When you bring your barn cats in every evening, do a quick check for any physical changes, such as bites, scratches, or wounds. Outdoor feral cats have a higher risk of infection (and maggots!) due to being out in the elements and injuries left untreated.
Most importantly, spay and neuter your barn cats!
If you adopt your cats from a working cat program, they will most likely come spayed and neutered, but if you are getting some cute feral kittens from a friend, you have to spay and neuter them! Not only does it keep the population down, but it also prevents undesirable issues like spraying (by male cats), and loud concerts you don’t want to hear performed by your female cats.
Having cats in your barn will bring you and your barn mates lots of joy while simultaneously keeping your rodent population down. Be sure to give them proper vet care and a safe place to stay at night along with a warm place in the winter. You’ll have an a-meow-zing feline friend for years to come!
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