Barns and barn cats are practically synonymous. Not only do we need the cats to keep the rodent population down in a barn, horses as a rule, seem to like the cats’ presence. They’re company, come a calling. I love it when a cat greets me at the barn, wanting picked up and petted. I like watching them play. Horses appear to like cats and watch them with keen interest too. A stray or new dog showing up out of the blue in a barn or pasture unnerves a horse. Perhaps the horse associates a dog with coyote or a wolf. They certainly look similar and I’m sure they smell similar. But cats, domesticated or feral, do not seem to pose such a threat. A horse apparently doesn’t associate a cat with its distant cousin the mountain lion. They’re just cats. Horses don’t mind mice, and they don’t mind cats.
Tom cats are good hunters, but they are also “scrappers.” They like to fight and they’re territorial. They also like marking their territory, which means spraying. The last thing you want is them “marking” hay bales and feed sacks. Furniture in tack rooms is another favorite for their saying, “Mine, mine, mine.” I don’t like Tom cats at the barn, for all of the above reasons. To me, they spell trouble. I’m not saying there isn’t a Tom cat out there that would make a great barn cat. I just think that they are few and far between by nature. If you have a Tom cat at the barn and you absolutely adore him, have him neutered. It’s the responsible thing to do, and you just may save his life in the long run. No more fighting.
Cats in abundance for a cat breeder in business is one thing, but that’s rarely what’s going on at a horse barn . The majority of barn cats are usually conceived “accidentally” or multiply by way of strays and drop offs. I’ve been to some barns that have dozens of cats. Surprisingly, those barns are also infested with mice. I’m not sure exactly why this phenomenon occurs, but I’d wager that whoever is allowing that many cats, is also feeding the cats, and more importantly, feeding them too much. Plus, cats are lone hunters. They are stalkers. It’s hard to be a lone hunter in a crowd. Numbers cramp their style.
There’s nothing wrong with feeding barn cats. Don’t get me wrong, I think they should be fed, most definitely. You just don’t want to over feed them. You want them in hunting mode, which usually means having a bit of a hankering feeling going on in their stomachs. A good barn cat is a good mouser and should be rewarded. Not with food or goodies, but praise, and the opportunity to feast on their catch. I know this sounds disgusting, and hopefully the cat will take his kill elsewhere, but chances are you are going to see him or her with a mouse dangling from its mouth. It’s best to just look the other way.
You want barn cats to be healthy, and it’s hard to have healthy cats when the numbers are too high. Barn cats need to be examined annually by a veterinarian and vaccinated just the same as house cats. And they NEED to be spayed or neutered. A litter of kittens at the barn, though cute as can be, is not an ideal place for them to grow up. Kittens are oblivious to danger and extremely playful. They don’t know to stay out from underfoot in a busy barn. The odds of them getting hurt, or worse, are extremely high. They’ll need to be kept in a protected area until they are old enough to climb to safety.
Barn cats need to be people friendly for those trips to the veterinarian’s or if emergency medical care is needed. They should be happy to see you. You’ll want to pay attention to any disturbances in their behavior. Keep track of them and care about them. It’s not unusual to go days without seeing a particular cat. But be wary if too much time passes. Go look for that cat. He may be ill or injured and in need of your help. If a new cat shows up on the scene, friendly or not, he or she needs to be caught and assessed. One sick cat left unattended could infect all the other cats. If you have an elderly barn cat, he or she will need extra special attention. At some point it may be time to bring him or her into the farm house at night.
The ideal situation is to have two or three, maybe four barn cats, depending on the size of the barn or barns on the property. The cats should have free will to run and hunt and socialize with their human friends. They should have a healthy supply of dry food and access to clean, fresh water at all times, and a favorite place of their own to lie down and take a nap or sleep. Barn cats are an important part of the barn family and their care should reflect that. And most importantly, allow them to be cats. It’s what they know best.