Rats and mice are everywhere. That’s just a fact of life. But if you live out in the country on a homestead with other animals, both are going to be a constant part of your ongoing struggles.
They will poach eggs from your chickens and ducks, contaminate feed, scare animals, tear up insulation, and spread lots of nasty diseases. Pet rodents might be cute, cuddly, and allegedly fastidious, but wild ones are nothing short of a plague on your days.
Accordingly, if you want to keep your own animals safe and healthy, and protect your property, you’ve got to get rid of them.
Poisons are obviously a no-go, and it’s not like you don’t have enough to do if you plan on spending your time setting and checking traps all day long. A better way is to let nature take care of it in its own way: with a cat.
Cats are among the most proficient and deadly apex predators on earth, and they are the historical arch-nemesis of rodents for a good reason.
Getting a couple of cats to live in your barn or elsewhere on your property might be all it takes to put an end to your rodent problem for good. I’ll tell you how in the rest of this article.
Just What is a Barn Cat?
A barn cat is a cat that lives in a barn, of course! Glibness aside, a barn cat is indeed just that, but one that is kept around on your homestead for the purposes of pest control and suppression.
Usually, barn cats are feral, or you might charitably say semi-feral since they often show up unannounced and decide to move in, or else get brought home from shelters specifically for the purpose.
Barn cats have several important benefits for homesteaders:
- They rapidly eliminate mice and rats, reducing population to manageable numbers.
- Relying on barn cats means no dangerous poisons or traps that can hurt people or animals.
- They suppress rodent populations: The presence of one or more barn cats means many rodents will flee instead of hang around.
- Less rodents means less transmission of diseases of all kinds!
- A barn cat can just be fun to have hanging around on the homestead.
Barn cats aren’t just an “accessory” for your homestead; they have very real and tangible benefits.
They also have a storied history, and were brought over purposefully by the first European settlers of America specifically for protecting food stores from pests.
They’ve even been a fixture on ocean-going ships for the purpose! Though I guess in that case they are ship cats, not barn cats.
Barn Cats vs. House Cats for Pest Control
When it comes to pest control on your property and in outbuildings like barns, sheds, stables, and more, you’ll definitely want a dedicated barn cat or two instead of your usual, friendly, fat house cat.
Make no mistake, a domestic cat is a domestic cat, but it’s all about policing a territory: since domestic ones live indoors most of the time they aren’t outside where the rodents are and that means their chances of detecting and killing them are smaller and less frequent overall.
Barn cats really are truly devastating to rodent populations, and as they cruise around the property, they’ll be figuring out where they congregate, where they go to get food, and where the best ambush sites are.
Plus, these cats will supply much of their own food by eating their kills! It’s a win-win…
Bottom Line: if you want really effective pest control, you need to invest in a dedicated barn cat.
What Does a Barn Cat Do Around the Homestead?
If you couldn’t tell from the introduction, a barn cat is an all-natural, nocturnal and autonomous pest control solution for your homestead. Rats, mice, various larger bugs and any other tiny critters that they can catch and kill will fall prey to them…
That’s pretty much all they do aside from lounging around in the sun, getting into mischief, and following you around as you do chores. Your barn cat should still be plenty friendly with you!
Aside from that, they don’t do much else and aren’t expected to. They’ll never help you bring in the sheep like a good sheepdog will, they definitely don’t carry people or cargo and you aren’t going to get eggs or milk from them.
What’s the Best Way to Get a Barn Cat?
The best way to get a barn cat is to simply buy one, assuming the cat doesn’t choose you. It’s possible to buy or adopt cats from all kinds of sources- be it a private seller, a breeder, or even a shelter- for subsequent installation in your barn, shed, or elsewhere on your property.
However, I know plenty of folks who picked up a barn cat “along the way” because the cat chose them. Stray or feral cats will often hang around because of shelter, warmth, food, and water opportunities on your property.
I know a couple of folks who got one after they caught the little sucker picking off their chicks and hassling chickens, but gave it a “stay of execution” and let it hang around. They were fast friends and, indeed, partners after that.
Cats are strange like that, and even the most seemingly ferocious feline might settle down when you show it a little kindness and respect.
Likewise, the predatory instincts of domestic cats are still quite strong, and even a precious kitten that you pick up from a breeder will be right at home living, sleeping, and hunting around your property at all hours according to its whims.
In short: get cat, put in barn, wait. Okay, there’s a little more to it than that, but not much.
Barn Cats Must Be Spayed or Neutered, Kept Up on Shots, and Given Company
Before we go any further, there are some things you must do to be a responsible barn cat owner. And make no mistake, it is your cat however you decided to acquire it.
For starters, make sure you get the cat spayed or neutered. Cats roam around, that’s just the way it is, and they are very prolific and rapid breeders. That means you can expect at least one and probably two litters of kittens a year.
Yes, adorably cute, but they will often roam off to start tearing up the countryside or else you might have to dump them in a shelter if you don’t want them around. Not cool, so spay those cats.
Also, it’s imperative that you give your barn cats all of the necessary shots, including boosters, against typical feline diseases, parasites and other infections.
This is especially vital because the cat is going to be moving around a shared area and have it by your other livestock and, of course, you.
Toxoplasmosisis a particularly devastating disease, but cats can be infected by and transmit a host of others that can hurt you or other animals. This point is non-negotiable if you care about the well-being of all your animals.
Lastly, every barn cat needs company…
They don’t act like it a lot of the time, but cats are social and need company and although a house cat might be able to get by just fine with its human family, your barn cat will lead a mostly solitary existence without you aside from periodic interactions as you go about your day.
A second cat, or multiple cats, will not only increase success and depopulation rates against rodents, but it will greatly improve the well-being of all of them.
How Can You Train a Barn Cat?
You don’t really need to train a barn cat. The vast majority of cats, as mentioned, have strong prey drives although this is variable from breed to breed and individual to individual. In short, as long as you let them stick around they will start hunting and almost certainly find success.
But, you can increase the chances of success by not overfeeding the cat or cats with supplemental food (more on that in a minute) and also by giving the it encouragement and affection if it brings you a gift of a mangled mouse or rat carcass.
Gross, I know, but you should be honored because that’s how cats show that they love you. The cute little killing machines…
What Do Barn Cats Eat?
These cats predominantly eat what they kill. If you live in an area with a substantial rodent population, they can subsist almost entirely on mice, rats, small lizards, and a few choice bugs.
Almost, but not entirely…
Should You Feed a Barn Cat Daily?
Yes. This is controversial, but only for people who don’t care about the welfare of the cat. Even if a cat is getting enough calories from the mice and other creatures that it catches, it will not have a nutritionally complete diet doing so.
It’s important to give it fresh food every day. The reason some people balk at this is thinking that if the cat is well fed it will lose its “edge” when it comes to hunting: no motivation, you might say.
That’s not entirely unreasonable, but assuming you are not giving your cat an excessive amount of food this won’t be an issue, I promise.
Cats instinctively hunt, whether they are hungry or not, and it is true that they will kill for fun sometimes. Either way, it won’t hurt your purposes to make sure they stay fed and healthy.
Does a Barn Cat Need a Litterbox?
No, but this is an option if you want to cut down on the likelihood that the cat will poop in an inconvenient place. As always, you must keep up on changing out the litter so your cat will stay healthy and continue to use the box if that’s the route you want to go.
An alternative is to place a patch of sand or mulch where you want the cat to go since they do like to dig and bury their leavings. Otherwise, you’ll have to keep an eye out for cat turds where you least expect them and remember that other animals can be infected by the parasites and germs in cat feces.
Can a Barn Cat Become a House Kitten?
Yes! Remember what I said about cats being prolific breeders up above in the basics section?
I’m not exaggerating, and cats that go into heat will wander or else wandering cats will come to them and, before you know it, you’ll have a batch of kittens if you’ve got a female living on property.
If that happens, you do have the option of keeping one of the kittens as a house cat. When the time comes, bringing the kitten in and acclimatizing it to your family and to household living will turn out a well-adjusted house cat.
Barn cats don’t necessarily breed “barn kittens”; they have to stay out there and learn the lifestyle before they get that official designation!
Keeping a Barn Cat from Running Away
You can’t, not really. The bottom line is that cats tend to go wherever they want at any time, and folks who call their cat an indoor-outdoor cat are fooling themselves.
Cats roam far and wide even if they do have a home that they return to as a matter of course. Nonetheless, the urge to hunt and explore is pretty strong even in those that have been neutered or spayed.
Likewise, a cat that’s in pursuit of prey may get very far away depending on the agility of the animal in question, though very few animals can get away from a cat.
Since cats are such excellent climbers, fencing is pretty much right out unless, as it is electric fencing and even then cats are so smart they will find a way around it one way or the other.
You might use invisible fencing and a shock collar to try and incentivize a barn cat to stay put no matter what, but these devices don’t work too well with felines as compared to dogs.
No, the very best thing you can do to keep a barn cat on your property is to make it worthwhile for them to stay on your property.
Give them food and clean water, be nice to them, take care of them, and sure they have entirely adequate shelter. If the cat is happy and satisfied, it probably won’t leave for a very long time under any conditions.
How Many Barn Cats Should You Have Per Acre?
Not an easy question to answer. Even a single cat will start to roam a property during hunts and can kill many mice or rats a day, but it can’t be everywhere at once.
My rule of thumb is a cat for every two acres if I want constant and excellent rodent reduction. Keep in mind that rodents instinctively avoid the smell of cats, so having enough to service your property, however big it is, will ensure continual protection.
What are Some of the Best Breeds?
Almost any kind of cat, be it a legacy domestic breed or a tomcat of uncertain parentage, can make for an effective barn cat if they have the gumption to hunt. And not all cats will have the “right stuff” to be a barn cat!
One of the very best barn cats around is the Maine Coon. These huge, beefy cats are known for their robust constitution and extraordinary hunting IQ. They also have a very thick coat that makes them highly resistant to cold weather.
American Shorthairs are another perennially popular barn cat breed, being directly descended from cats first brought to America for the explicit purpose of protecting grain and other food from rodents.
Bengals are also tremendous hunters, but tend to be expensive unless you can “inherit” one that has gone wild.
A hybrid resulting from the intermingling of domestic cats with the Asiatic leopard cat, the resulting feline is basically a pint-sized panther that will massacre rodents by the hundreds.
There are plenty of others besides, but don’t get too caught up in trying to find just the right breed! Any cat you get must go through a trial period, anyway.
How Can You Keep These Cats Safe from Predators?
For the most part, you can’t. Any predator protection you can provide for your barn cat is going to be downstream of your own predator reduction efforts.
This means decoys or bird bombs for scaring away large birds of prey, adequate fencing and other countermeasures to drive off coyotes and foxes, and being alert to the intrusion of bobcats.
If a cat is going to be left to live and roam outside, it is going to be exposed to predators the same as any other animal.
The good news is that a healthy barn cat has supreme senses and lightning reflexes since they are apex predators in an ecosystem all their own, and this will give them a great chance of escaping an attack.
You can help them in that regard by always leaving them plenty of cover spots to retreat to and a secure shelter location that is only easily accessible to the cat.
But I warn you: it’s usually only a matter of time until you lose a cat or two to a predator. It just goes with the business.
How Long Will a Barn Cat Live?
Again, it’s hard to say. Different breeds have different lifespans, but these lifespans are indicative of household life with ongoing veterinary care as appropriate.
As a rule, a barn cat will not live as long as a house cat even if you are doing everything right when it comes to care; giving them food and water, parasite preventatives, medication, shots, and more. Living wild and free rarely means living long.
Cats versus Chickens, and Other Small Animals Around the Homestead
Now, if you’ve read this far you’ve probably got some reservations if you own chickens, ducks, or other small critters. You might be worried that your cat could get after those animals the same as it gets after rodents. I’ll tell you right now: you are quite right to be worried!
Although goats, cows, horses and sheep have almost nothing to fear from a cat and generally will get along fine when they get used to each other, the same cannot be said for chickens, ducks, quail, rabbits, and to a lesser extent, geese.
I will just say this: any of these animals must have effective and continual protection from the cat, especially if they are laying eggs or with live young.
Cats could massacre chicks and bunnies! You must also be cautious with smaller adult ducks and chickens although larger breeds and roosters that show fight rarely have to deal with them ever again.
Goslings are vulnerable to cats, but adult geese have nothing to fear from a cat unless it is a truly huge one like a Maine Coon. Even then most cats are smart enough to avoid the “cobra chickens!”
I know lots of folks that have a barn cat and let them free-roam all over the place with an uncovered and unfenced chicken or duck run nearby.
These folks swear up and down that there’s never been a problem. “The cat knows better, etc., etc.”
That may be the case for them, and it might even be true, but listen to me: I am imploring you to make sure your smaller livestock animals are absolutely protected from a visit from your barn cat or cats.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.