Some shelter cats are too aggressive or too wary of people to be adopted out as house cats, so they become what we call “Barn Cats”; ideal residents for stables or barns. They are healthy, sterilized, up to date on shots and in need of a job and an alternative home.
Some shelter cats are semi-friendly but have either lived outside for most of their lives or are not quite friendly enough for a home; this makes them ideal residents for stables or barns that may be looking for a barn cat that may be more likely to befriend the human residents on the property. These are what we call “Working Whiskers”. They are healthy, sterilized, up to date on shots and in need of a job and an alternative home.
If you are looking for a barn cat, call the Routt County Humane Society to see if we have any available for adoption: 970-879-RCHS (7247).
Caretaker responsibilities include providing daily food and water, protection from the elements, and long-term veterinary care. The cat needs to stay in secure confinement for the first 2-3 weeks so that it becomes familiar with and identifies with its new location. The cat will then be ready for its new job and will be chasing mice out of your grain with enthusiasm.
Guide for Relocating Barn Cats
Thank you for giving your new barn cat(s) a second chance at life! While relocation is stressful, it does provide cats with a new lease on life in a new home where they can also perform a green rodent-control service for their new caretakers.
Please be aware that these relocation instructions are absolutely vital to a successful transition onto your property and that deviating from these instructions will likely result in the loss of your newly adopted cats as they frequently try to return to their home territory. Please feel free to reach out to RCHS staff with any questions you may have as we are always a resource available to you.
Feral Cat Definition
Feral, stray, and pet cats are all members of the same species; they are all domestic cats. But stray cats and feral cats are also different from each other in a very important way—in their relationship to and interactions with people. A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with humans or her contact with humans has diminished over time leading her to be fearful of people.
A feral cat is not likely to ever become a lap cat or enjoy living indoors, but will eventually enjoy a relationship of some kind with you that develops over time as trust is built.
Barn cats from RCHS can be all over the spectrum, ranging from cats who have too many conflicts in a traditional home environment to completely feral cats who will never approach a human being. RCHS staff works with you to determine the best match possible and encourages you to lean on us for support when needed.
Congratulations on saving a life and thank you for opening your hearts and extended homes for cats in need. “Not all heroes wear capes…”
Take wildlife in the area into account. Raccoons, foxes and opossums typically get along with adult cats in their own fashion. Kittens, however, are at risk because they can be prey. Coyotes will prey on both cats and kittens. In areas with coyotes, the cats stand a much better chance if they have access to a sheltered building with several small openings that they can run in for safety, especially when small openings are only about 5-6 inches in diameter to prevent predators from following or to at least slow them down.
Ensure that the cats are properly introduced to the property’s other animals. Dogs must be leashed and introduced slowly so the cats will not become frightened or be chased away. Giving the dogs things to smell that contain the cats’ scent can help appease some of their curiosity for information. Cats and horses frequently get along well, once the cats adjust to a horse’s size.
If the cats seem ill or injured, they may require veterinary care. Live traps can be used to catch your cat and are sold at most tractor supply stores, and several online sites. Before making an appointment with your vet, it’s helpful to let them know in advance if the cat you have is feral and unaccustomed to being handled by people so they can appropriately prepare for your visit. Examples of conditions that need veterinary care include, but are not limited to:
- Visible injuries that look like puncture wounds from an animal attack
- Excessive discharge from the eyes/nose or excessive sneezing
- Drooling from the mouth or visible pain when eating
- Limps that last more than a week
- Matted fur that makes them look raggedy
- Broken bones
- Drastic weight loss or consistent loss of appetite
- Large lumps or masses on their face or body
- Disorientation or inability to walk or eat properly
- We do also recommend occasional de-worming medications—the more parasites they treat, the better—from your vet, which can be given via Pill Pocket treats that hide the pill inside. We suggest feeding unfilled treats alongside the filled one so they don’t come to associate the treat with a less-than-tasty filling inside.
How to Prepare
Safe Home Base
The more feral the cat, the more you should avoid locating their home-base shelter location near busy roads or high foot-traffic areas.
Prep your holding/shelter area and collect your supplies prior to bringing the cats home. RCHS will provide you with some food to transition them onto your preferred food brand. This helps ensure they don’t develop gastrointestinal issues related to changes in diet, which can lead to diarrhea. Supplies List: wet cat food, dry cat food, cat treats, litter, large litterbox (ideally 1 box for each cat plus 1 extra), litter scoop, water and food bowls, washable beds, cardboard boxes for them to feel safe when hiding inside, catnip, cat toys, straw for extra insulation and bedding if appropriate.
If set free upon arrival, all cats will attempt to return to their former home and will likely become lost. So it’s vital that cats be confined in pre-installed large crates or completely contained enclosures or buildings for 3-4 weeks. Confinement allows the cats to adjust to the environment in safety and to accept it as their new home with you as their new caretaker.
They do need help with staying warm enough in the winter. If you don’t have a heated structure for them, you can check out many different kinds of small cat shelters here: alleycat.org/resources/feral-cat-shelter-options-gallery. Additionally, loose straw changed out seasonally is a wonderful insulator that cats will often burrow in because it does not retain moisture, but does retain heat well. This is particularly important if the shelter is exposed to the elements in any way. Pillows/towels/blankets can freeze when wet, creating an unintended cooling effect.
Remove any existing pest-control products that could poison or harm your new cats. That includes poisons, glue traps (flies/rodents), snap traps, etc. Ingesting poisoned rodents is also a danger. Be aware of any other chemicals on your property that might need more secure storage like antifreeze. Walk around your property to see if any other dangers might need removal like sharp objects near where they might be jumping, etc. If you want the cats to eventually eliminate away from the property, create a natural and attractive “litter box” option filled with sand or peat moss somewhere acceptable. If you want them to avoid certain areas like gardens, check out this resource for solutions and humane deterrents: alleycat.org/community-cat-care/humane-deterrents.
During the first few days, the cats will expeditiously try to find a way out. Most cats settle down when they realize that no harm will befall them. While they are confined, they must have clean water, fresh food, and clean (or scooped) litter at least once each day. The larger the litterbox, the better, and models with high sides can keep litter better contained.
Feeding canned wet food during the confinement period appears to help them accept their new home. We also suggest creating a routine by feeding the wet food every day at approximately the same time that’s convenient for you, although it is very common for feral cats to only feel comfortable eating what you leave for them after dark while not in your presence. Cats love structure and dislike change, so creating a daily feeding schedule will help them adjust and thrive and you will find them anxiously waiting for you at meal times as your relationship progresses. Continue to do this after the cats are released and this will encourage the cats to come back for food every day at the same time so that you can check on them. Feeding frequency of wet food can be done 1-3 times a day according to your preference and schedule. Cats burn more calories in winter, so scale up your food portions to accommodate their nutritional needs. Cats will hunt rodents whether they are hungry or not, so there’s no need to withhold food for that purpose and if they are not fed, they will likely leave your property. If insects become a problem, you can purchase ant-proof bowls and/or sprinkle food-grade diatomaceous earth on the ground intermittently. If flies are present, only put down food portions that can be consumed within 20 minutes. Do not put up adhesive fly tape strips that have any chance of being reachable by the cats as you can imagine how enticing a dangling item with flies on it would appear to a cat.
Fresh water is extremely important for cats and their health. They are typically poor drinkers and often need their water to be very clean to encourage drinking. Cats are particular and you may find that a pet water fountain with moving water will encourage them to drink more, although they will rarely do so in your presence. All bowls should be cleaned out with low-fragrance soap regularly (water bowls at least 1-2 times a week) as biofilms that develop can be harmful. Additionally, water bowls should be kept a distance (ideally 4+ feet) away from their food bowls, as they instinctually assume a water source near food could be contaminated and will avoid drinking as a result. If freezing water becomes a problem, you can purchase solar or heated bowls. And if you have concerns regarding dehydration, you can also add small amounts of water to their wet food.
Bonding with Treats
Cat treats also assist in forming a bond between you and your new cats. They can be used to show that delicious rewards happen when you enter a room or are cleaning their spaces. They will likely be too nervous to take them from your hands, but gently tossing them within their reach will be just as advantageous.
Caretakers are encouraged to make some kind of audio cue when they feed at each meal. That can be you whistling certain notes or any other (non-scary) noise or tone that will travel over a distance if you need it to. The goal of this is to create a mental association for the cats that when they hear that audio cue that a meal follows. If a cat is missing, you can use that audio cue to call and have them return to you.
Try not to co-mingle other animal scents when handling items that will be in their home-base space. That can be as simple as washing your hands to washing/drying bedding in their own load of laundry without other pet items. Speak softly and avoid jarring loud noises in their space. Avoid sustained eye contact so they don’t misinterpret your interest as aggression or predatory behavior. Blinking very slowly at them gives them a nonverbal cue that you are not an aggressor of any kind. And sometimes, they will blink back to show their trust! Try not get frustrated if they continue to run from your approach – some cats will be capable of forming relationships that allow touching and some never will. Their fear of the unknown was a honed survival skill that kept them alive before you came into their life and is part and parcel of loving a feral soul. They appreciate you even when they cannot show it in a traditional domesticated manner.
In Case of Escape
Fill the Holes
Assume that if there is a small hole in your transition containment area (4 inches in width) that a cat will attempt to escape through it until they are successful. They are resourceful and focused when they have a goal in mind.
The Nose Knows
If a cat escapes from the enclosure, you can set food and water out – the smellier the food, the better (i.e., sardines in oil). This will encourage the escapee to stay close and help lure the cat back to its new territory. Cats often hide for a period of time after escape (~24 hours), but usually stay on or near the premises and will often only come out after dark when they feel safer. They tend to slink close to the ground and along things in the environment that can hide or camouflage them. You can sometimes find them more easily in the dark by looking for their reflective eyes with a flashlight. Using infrared heat-sensor thermometer guns can also be immensely helpful to locate a cat.
Pavlov Recovery Method
Use your audio cue to call any missing cats who might have wandered off and use the sound of shaking dry food/treats or opening cans to encourage them to come out so you can get a visual location to ensure they’re unharmed.
Do not try and chase or handle a cat who is nervous. They are faster than you and can injure you if pushed into a fear-inducing situation, so we encourage luring them with irresistible “bread crumb” foods/treats leading them back to their enclosure. A humane trap from RCHS can also be provided to assist with trapping if needed.
Upon Planned Release
- The cats can ultimately be transitioned to be fed dry food upon release if that’s your preference, but the wet cat food is more exciting and enticing and increases additional water consumption, which is helpful for their overall health.
- Make sure you choose a quiet spot and create nearby hiding places where the cats can go after being released, like bales of hay or boxes. If done during colder months, be sure the cats have adequate winter shelter, such as large Styrofoam coolers stuffed with straw (not hay).
- Cats will take some time to explore their new surroundings, so leave their enclosure area open for them to return. Encourage their return by using smelly cat food that will lure them in at the same time of day you always fed them. Be sure to use your audio cue to tell them it’s meal time and do not disturb them when they return as they need to feel as safe as possible to be reassured that their new home is where they choose to live.
Tips for Success
A survey of caregivers revealed that relocations were most likely to succeed when four main steps were followed:
- Cats were confined in adequate climate for 3-4 weeks with the option to release sooner if the cats become agitated and regress.
- Cats were fed canned food every day for a short period (2-6 weeks) and then changed to dry food, or continue with some canned.
- The new caregiver made frequent (minimum twice daily) verbal attempts to bond with the cats. Avoid staring into their eyes so they don’t interpret that as aggression. Slowly blinking at cats also puts them at ease and they will often blink back when relaxed!
- While they might not know how to use them, toys and catnip can be presented to them. This is what we refer to as “worry toys” (toys will help take cat’s mind off the stress of relocation).
Just like you would if you owned an indoor domesticated cat, barn cats also need relocation when you move to a new home. It’s important to consider how this will be accomplished well in advance of your moving day. Cats should never be abandoned to fend for themselves and RCHS will always take in a barn cat who was adopted to you if for some reason you cannot bring them with you to your new home. We are happy to provide humane cat traps to assist with relocation and counseling services to help you through the process.