Most farms have an all-natural pest elimination system: barn cats. In addition to their extermination services, farm felines offer a friendly, furry face during chores and perhaps affectionate head butting and leg rubbing if they are not too shy. It is hard to picture a farm without cats.
Although barn cats — as all cats — are mostly independent, they, too, appreciate a few extra considerations during winter months to stay comfortable.
Your cats may need more to eat during the winter because their bodies burn considerable extra calories warming themselves. Supplement their diet of rodents with dry cat food and any meat scraps you can provide.
“Most people won’t give them cat food, because they say they won’t hunt, or they won’t give water because they say they’ll lick an icicle,” said Julie Normand, owner of An American Girl Stables & Tack Shop in Clyde, New York. “The theory of them not hunting is completely false. Mine constantly leave me ‘presents’ (that they catch).”
As obligate carnivores, cats need meat to stay healthy, although when in desperation they may eat other table scraps. Cats enjoy milk; however, many adult cats are lactose intolerant and if they drink too much milk it is not good for their digestion. Thus, milk should be considered only a treat.
Store dry cat food in secure bins so it does not attract animals that can prey on your cats — and on some other farm animals. Wildlife can become more desperate for food during the leaner winter months and will eat cat food.
Check on the cats’ water twice a day to make sure it has not frozen. Normand uses a heated water bowl to keep her cats’ water ice-free.
“They’re all plugged into a ground-fault circuit interrupter,” she said. “If anything short circuits with them, it immediately shuts down the whole circuit. All the barn is protected with it.”
Safely store all chemicals properly, including antifreeze. Although cats do not prefer sweet things, the presence of a liquid may tempt them to drink this toxic fluid.
Ticks, fleas and worms may seem to be a problem only for summer months; however, outdoor cats can easily pick up these parasites from wildlife year-round. Cold weather can drive parasites inside to seek warmer areas to live — like your barn and home — when the weather is cold. Barn cats provide them with an easy means of transportation.
Tick, flea and worming medicinal drops can provide one- to three-month protection for cats. If your barn cats are skittish, squirt the drops between their shoulder blades — ideally directly on the skin — while the cats are eating. Or, use the drops that can be added to their food or water (although getting the correct dose is more of a gamble if you give medicine that way).
Provide the cats with a cozy nook. Normand offers a small, insulated doghouse, with a flap, inside a barn for the cats to access.
“The whole thing is completely insulated,” she said. “At Country Max, you can buy heated pads. You put a blanket or bed on top of it. They sleep in the hay inside.”
These measures help cats retain body heat. Ideally, set up the doghouse in a building and off the ground. This strategy shields it from the wind and prevents its doorway from becoming blocked by snow. If you have some sunny barn windows, build a small ledge inside for kitties and add a cushion or towel for them to sit on.
Look under and around your vehicles and farm equipment before starting them up. Cats love to find warm places to sleep and warm engines seem ideal to them. As semi-nocturnal animals, they sleep both at night and during the day. Honk the horn and bang on a fender to warn any snoozing cats. Normand turns the key until the fuel line turns on, but the engine is not engaged so the cats know it is time to scoot.
Be mindful of your cats when you use pitchforks to move hay and straw, as cats could be sleeping or hiding kittens under loose fodder or bedding to stay warm.
Illness is harder on cats during the winter while their systems are stressed from the cold. Cats are masters of hiding their illnesses. Instinct drives them to pretend everything is fine or, if they are quite sick, to hide and remain undetected. Look for signs of sick cats, such as weight loss, lack of appetite, hiding (you may notice a cat missing from the feeding bowls), nasal discharge, eye discharge, pawing at the face, excessive scratching or grooming, coughing (sounds like hacking up a hairball), sneezing, vomiting excessively (more than an occasional hairball), poor balance (may indicate an ear infection) and cries of distress.
And, finally, make sure to trap and spay or neuter all your cats. In addition to population control and reduced cat drama (no more females yowling in heat or males picking fights), alteration means cats tend to stay closer to home. Less roaming is important on nights when the temperatures drop. People often drop off unwanted kittens at farms, so it is unlikely you will run out of mouse catchers soon.
As your allies in defending your farm from rodents, pause a moment to offer your cats some thanks.
“I always take time to pet and love on them each day,” Normand said.