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Keeping Your Barn Cats Healthy

They’re tough. They’re loners. They rebuff your attempts at affection. It’s easy to leave your barn or feral cats to their own business and let them care for themselves. The truth is, however, those integral residents of your barn do need your care and attention. They are susceptible to disease and illness just as much as your other livestock. If you take the right precautions and care, you can have faithful ratters and mousers for years to come.

Of course, not all of your barn cats are prickly and averse to human attentions. You may have some truly feral cats hanging around who run from you when you try to pet them, but you probably also have some loving and affectionate kitties who shout for attention when you come by to work in the barn. Regardless of their level of affection, to keep your barn cats healthy, you will need to think about vaccinations, spaying and neutering, and even feeding. Killing mice probably does not provide them with all the food they need.


Cats are considered to be the only animal that domesticated itself. Humans saw the potential in keeping wolves as companions and domesticated them for safety, hunting, and companionship. Next came livestock, which we domesticated to make getting food easier. Cats, although they also serve a purpose for humans, took the matter into their own hands. Thousands of years ago, these clever creatures realized that if they hung around humans, they could find an easy source of food and shelter.

Now, those of us who homestead or farm continue this tradition by keeping cats on hand to minimize the mice, and sometimes rats, who invade our barns for warmth and shelter and who eat many of the same foods we love and grow. Mice can be very destructive, so having a few cats around is essential on a farm. Traditionally, we think of these cats as being anti-social towards humans. That doesn’t have to be the case, though. In fact, if you have friendly barn cats, taking care of their veterinary needs is much easier. Cats that shy away from you will need to be trapped when it’s time for vaccinations or treatments.

If you are starting with kittens, take time to socialize them with everyone in the family and outsiders as well. Some people may think that friendly barn cats will want to come in the house, but that is not usually the case. Barn-dwellers can be people-friendly and perfectly happy in the barn if all their needs are met. If you end up with a cat that is not friendly, maybe a rescue or a feral cat, you should try to socialize her. She may not come around, but it is worth a try. And don’t give up easily. Some cats take years to warm up to people.

Basic Needs – Food, Water, and Shelter

A common misconception about barn cats is that they don’t need to be fed. True, they will be catching and eating mice, but they need more than that. It is not true that a well-fed cat will no longer hunt. In fact, a healthy, happy, and full cat will be more inclined to hunt, even if it hunts for fun and not to eat the mice. Additionally, feeding your cats regularly guarantees that they are getting all of the nutrients they need to maintain good health.

If you don’t care to purchase and use cat food, another option for feeding your mousers is a natural, raw diet. This type of diet, which has been used successfully for many dogs and cats, approximates what wild cats eat. If you choose to go this route, you can refer to this Off the Grid News article. The principles outlined apply equally to cats as they do to dogs.

If using store-bought cat food, you can keep it in the barn at all times for free feeding. With both cat food and raw food, you can also schedule the cats’ feedings. A great way to get the cats in the barn at night where they are protected from nighttime predators like owls is to feed at night. Eventually the cats will learn to come into the barn at night for their food. You can then shut them in safely for the night. Your barn cats are tough, but they need twenty-four-hour access to shelter. Be sure that they can get in the barn at any time day or night.

Medical Needs

Many feral cats survive in our world with no assistance from humans, but their life spans are woefully short. To keep your barn cats healthy for a long time, you will need to tend to their medical needs. There are all kinds of dangers to cats outside besides predators: disease, illness, parasites, accidents, and poisonous substances are all things from which you can protect your cats.

Leukemia and FIV

There are plenty of illnesses and diseases that all animals are susceptible to, but there are a couple of devastating sicknesses that affect cats only. Feline leukemia is very contagious between cats and is a virus that suppresses the immune system. Some cats that have the virus will survive and be fine, but a significant number will become very ill and die. Another disease that affects the immune system in cats is feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV. FIV is similar to HIV in humans. With good medical care, an FIV cat can live a long time, but it can also spread the disease to other cats. Both of these diseases can be tested for and vaccinated against. Before you bring any new cats into your barn, be sure they are tested for both illnesses. And, of course, be sure to vaccinate your cats against them.

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Feline leukemia and FIV are specific to cats, but there are plenty of other diseases that cats can contract. Your cats should be vaccinated against rabies, distemper, feline viral rhinotracheitis, calici virus, and palneukopenia. Failing to vaccinate your cats not only harms them, it can also pose a threat to your other animals. It is well worth your time and effort to keep them up-to-date on vaccines. The easiest way to get your cats vaccinated is to find a vet that does house calls. If you are in a rural area, you should be able to find a vet who is familiar with handling barn cats.


Besides illnesses, your cats can be plagued by parasites. Your cats should be dewormed by the vet to prevent an infestation of tapeworms. They will also need a heartworm preventative pill and a flea prevention treatment. The parasites can be detrimental to your cats’ health, but they can also infest your barn and affect people and other animals. As with illnesses, prevention is key here.


To prevent an accidental poisoning, you should make sure that your barn is clear of toxins that your cats might get into. Keeping your barn clean and well organized is important. Keep possible poisons out of reach of the cats. These include antifreeze, batteries, fertilizer, rat poison, and moldy feed. All of these can be harmful. If you keep farm equipment like tractors, be sure the radiators are not leaking.


Accidental traumas are a fact of life for outdoor cats. There is not much you can do to prevent them beyond keeping a clean and organized barn. The best way to deal with trauma is to treat it. Wounds from fights are fairly common and often nothing to be concerned with. If a wound becomes infected, however, your cat will need to see the vet.

Watching for Signs of Illness

Despite your best efforts, your cats may become ill and require vet care. It is important to observe your cats and watch for signs of sickness. The sooner you notice and treat an illness, the better chance you have of recovery. Look for changes in eating habits. This may be tough, but if you notice that the cats’ food is no longer disappearing completely each night, you may have a sick kitty. Weight loss is another sign of illness. Watch your cats to see if any are getting too skinny. Look for behavior changes. For instance, if a friendly cat is now retreating from you, there could be a problem. An active cat that starts to appear lethargic is also a bad sign.


Unless you want to be overrun by kittens each spring, you will need to spay and neuter your barn cats. This not only prevents unwanted litters but can also stop fights. Unaltered male cats tend to fight a lot, which causes injuries and possibly will require medical care. If you need additional cats, it may be better to pick up a kitten or cat at a shelter than to allow your own cats to breed. This will give you an idea of the consequence of not spaying your cats: if left to their own devices, within two years just two cats can multiply to as many as fifty cats. Their gestation periods are short, just three months, and their litters are anywhere from three to eight each time. It’s pretty easy to see how this can happen, isn’t it?

Having cats in the barn is very rewarding. No farm is complete without at least a couple of good mousers or ratters. These cats provide a valuable service that keeps your barn and farm in good working order. Reward them with excellent care.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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