In a perfect world, all cats would live pampered lives inside homes designed for their specific needs, with runs and tunnels and high spots in every room. The reality is that not all cats are indoor cats, and not all cats are suitable pets. That is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat. A stray cat is one that has been a pet at some point and is easily reacclimated to living with humans. A feral cat is one that has never lived with humans and is self-sufficient for its food. Feral cats provide a vital service to humans in keeping down the rodent populations both in towns and farms. Programs that trap, neuter, and then release these cats back into the community sometimes relocate them to farms or warehouses where there is a specific need for rodent control. These are the working cats in our world, and they deserve respect and care. With temperatures starting to dip down into the 40’s at night now is a good time to start thinking about winter preparations for your outdoor working friends, the barn cats.
Caring for barn cats in the winter:
All too often people assume that barn cats will stay warm in the barn, but unless it is heated, it won’t necessarily be warm enough to keep them safe. Providing them with enclosed quarters is easier than you think and can be done with simple household items. One of the easiest shelters to make is done with a simple rubber storage tub. It is important not to use thin plastic tubs as they will crack in freezing weather. It is also vital that you don’t use the giant tubs. Ideally, you want to keep the shelter small enough to fit two cats. This minimizes air space and makes it easier for the cats to keep warm. Cut a door several inches up from the bottom that is no more than 5 or 6 inches in diameter. Do not use blankets or towels inside for bedding as they will retain moisture and end up making it colder inside. Straw is the best material for bedding. Specific instructions for creating the perfect shelter can be found on the internet and in print material. Never place food or water inside the shelter and make sure the lid is secure.
Freshwater is a must for barn cats, who tend to be chronically dehydrated. In extreme temperatures, you should check the water at least twice a day for ice. Freeze-proof water bowls can be purchased for less than $20 and keep you from having to go out in the dead of night and break up the ice in their water. Metal wrapped cords make them chew resistant as well.
Many people assume that because their barn cats are catching mice, it doesn’t need to be fed. This is not true! Cats hunt by nature. They will still chase things even on a full stomach. Free feeders can be placed in secure locations to give them a source of food. High-Calorie dry food will help them generate the body heat they need to stay warm. Offering them warmed canned food during extreme cold snaps is also a nice treat but remember canned food will freeze if not eaten promptly.
Barn cats should be vaccinated just like other farm animals and pets. At a minimum, rabies vaccination is a must. Vaccinating against Distemper and Feline Leukemia can prevent these diseases from spreading throughout your barn cat family. Care should also be taken to properly store things like livestock medications and antifreeze and other machinery liquids and pesticides. If you choose to collar your barn cats, make sure you use one with a break-away feature.
Finally, always spay and neuter your barn cats. Cats that are constantly breeding means fighting, inbreeding, disease, and over-population. Just because a barn cat works to earn its keep doesn’t mean it should have to fight for its life. Providing adequate shelter and appropriate care means your working friend can better focus on keeping your rodent population down and being happy, healthy members of your farm family.