This story was originally published in March 2022.
New owners of a farm or homestead at times find something unexpected and not part of the original property sale negotiations hiding in a barn or outbuilding — feral cats that have no intention of moving out just because the former owners did.
Having a cat or two on a homestead is not a bad idea. Born predators, they more than earn their keep controlling unwanted vermin. But when your new homestead comes already equipped with a feline, there are some steps to take when it comes to the animal’s health and well-being, no matter how feral it may be.
“First and foremost, get them fixed or you will end up with 100 cats in a hurry,” said Dr. Christiana Yule at Fort Kent Animal Hospital.
Yule said that can be tricky depending on how many cats there are and how feral they are. A feral cat is an unowned domestic cat living outdoors and avoiding human contact. They don’t like to be picked up or touched by people and often remain hidden.
Some may be friendlier than others, Yule said. Especially those that were abandoned as adult cats by their owners and are used to people.
“Your best bet if they are really feral and won’t come to you is try to get several live-traps to catch them,” Yule said.
Those traps should be set up near each other in an area the cats are accustomed to finding food.
Ideally, you should let your veterinarian know what you are up to and try to schedule a date ahead of time to bring the trapped cats in for an exam, Yule said . Ask the veterinarian if the appointment can easily be rescheduled if the cats are not trapped in time for the original time and date.
At the vets, Yule said the staff will be able to sedate the cat just enough so it can be examined.
“They will check if it has been spayed or neutered and if it has any injuries or health issues,” she said. “With that health screening the cats can get their initial shots, even though it may not be practical to bring them back in for boosters.”
House cats and friendly barn cats should get those scheduled boosters, but for a feral cat the trauma of repeated trappings is often not worth it.
Checking them over and treating them for any internal parasites is also a good idea, Yule said. Especially since some of the parasites can spread from cats to other farm animals and even to people.
Cats live in groups called colonies and do not welcome outsiders. So if all of them are spayed and neutered, the colony’s population will not increase.
“You may find yourself with a new cat showing up if you live in a spot where people dump their pets,” Yule said. “But when people do dump cats, the cats are usually tame enough you can catch them easily and take them to animal shelter or to your veterinarian.”
According to Yule, there are two classes of feral barn cats: those who do everything they can to avoid people and those who are eventually won over and may even transition to a house cat over time.
“But if the cat or cats turn out to be tame, they may still prefer living outdoors,” Yule said. “In those cases, maintain them as you would a house cat.”
In all cases, Yule said farm cats should have access to food, clean water and shelter. She said it is a myth that a feral cat can completely survive solely by hunting.
“Always put out food,” she said. “You don’t want them to be fat, waddling cats with no interest in hunting mice, but they are domesticated animals — they are not bobcats — and they appreciate food, water and some shelter in bad weather.”
That shelter can be an outbuilding or a simple insulated box with a thick layer of straw on the bottom. Blankets tend to absorb moisture, which can draw the heat out of a cat in cold weather. Yule also suggests feeding them in regular “feeding stations” so the cats know where they can always get a meal.
“If a new cat does show up, make sure none of your cats are wounded,” Yule said. “Colonies will fight with new cats.”