FARM, BARN AND FACTORY CATS
Cats became domesticated through their ability to control vermin around grain stores. This happened around the same time in 2 widely separated locations, once in Egypt and once in India. Although other small predators such as mongooses, terrier dogs and even snakes were historically encouraged as vermin controllers, the cat is now the most common of these.
Farm, barn and factory cats are generally termed working cats on this page. Places that might "employ" working cats include:
… in short, anywhere likely to attract vermin.
Working cats vary in type and temperament from a small-holder's tame family pet with a sideline in hunting to feral cats that don't tolerate human contact. While the care of a family pet is obvious, owners of farms, small-holdings, stables and similar properties have a duty of care to their working cats. The same applies to factory cats who perform similar roles in industry.
Working cats offer a valuable service in controlling rodents and other small vermin that consume farm resources (not just grain, but also grease on machinery), chew electrical wires and potentially spread disease. They should be given the same consideration as other important farm equipment (tractors get oil, fuel, shelter and maintenance) and farm animals (these get food, water, shelter and veterinary attention when necessary). It is not necessary to turn working cats into pets, just to ensure they remain healthy and able to fulfil their duties.
Cats require shelter from the elements. Luxury 5-star accommodation is not necessary. Waterproof, draughtproof shelter is required. This may be an old blanket in a stable, barn or a kennel raised off the ground. Working cats of my acquaintance have slept in tractor cabs and converted cupboards.
FOOD AND WATER
Water is an essential for life. Many cats will use the troughs and ponds provided for livestock if they can reach them. Otherwise, ensure that a basin near the cat's accommodation is kept filled with water.
Contrary to popular belief, hungry cats do not make the best hunters. They hunt purely for food. Cats that have a good hunting instinct will hunt better if fed – they also hunt for sport (or to be more precise, they will hunt because they have a strong instinct to hunt even if they don't eat what they catch).
Working cats eat the same foods pet cats eat. In the past they may have been given kitchen scraps and milk fresh from the cow, but these are emergency rations, not a diet that will keep the cats healthy and active. Again, they don't demand a luxury diet, but they do require a good quality cat food, even if it is from the budget end of the market.
The cats should be fed in the same location(s) each day. Being creatures of habit, they will generally congregate in the area ahead of meals. This provides a good opportunity to see if any have signs of illness or injury (or of pregnancy). If other employees feed the cats on a voluntary basis, ensure that the use only the designated feeding areas and ask that treats are not given frequently – fat cats make poor hunters!
If it is not convenient to let the cat choose its own toileting area, provide a tray of sand, cat litter or even absorbent bran. Most cats adapt to using litter trays. The trays must be emptied at least daily and large enough to accommodate the usage of all the cats.
Litter trays are more frequently used in factories, haulage yards and warehouses where cat urine and faeces on a concrete floor would pose a slip hazard to staff.
NEUTERING AND VETERINARY CARE
A cat's hunting ability and enthusiasm depends primarily on instinct and on whether its mother taught it to hunt. Although neutering affects territorial behaviour, neutered cats that have a good hunting instinct will hunt as effectively as unneutered cats. Neutered males are less likely to get into rights or to roam away from their main territory i.e. the farm or factory where they are employed. Neutered females will not take time off from hunting in order to raise kitten (which would have a high mortality rate anyway).
Vaccination is preferable, and probably essential in areas where rabies is endemic in the wild animal population. There are oral rabies vaccines which are used effectively with foxes, but which may not yet be licensed for use with cats. If vaccination is essential for feral working cats, this will entail trapping them and having the vet use a crush cage. Vaccination of tame working cats should pose less of a problem..
Worming medication can be given regularly in food. It may be impossible to flea-spray the cats directly, but their bedding should be sprayed.
Sometimes cats get ill or injured and need veterinary care. Again, tame working cats pose less of a problem. A sick or injured feral working cat will need to be trapped. A very sick feral working cat might be handleable if leather gloves are used, but any wild animal that allows itself to be handled is usually in a very bad way. You must warn the vet in advance if the cat is wild as it may require sedation if he is to examine it. Unfortunately, nursing of feral working cats is not always possible and euthanasia may be the only option.
Where nursing is an option, the cat will have to be confined in a well ventilated, but secure windowed shed, and a litter tray provided in addition to food, water and medication.
A fund should be set aside to cover health care costs. In some factories, this (along with food) may be supplemented by staff who are fond of the cat(s), but the goodwill of employees should not be relied upon to cover all food and veterinary costs.
Sometimes a cat eludes spaying and produces kittens. If these are to be kept as working cats they should be neutered along with their mother. If she is a good hunter, she should teach her kittens to hunt. Some working environments deliberately keep one unsprayed female in order to perpetuate a good strain of working cats, however the kitten mortality rate is generally high.
If socialised with humans from an early age, the kittens can grow up as domestic cats and be rehomed accordingly. However, in most regions, the supply of "free to good home" kittens and of feral kittens requiring taming far outstrips the demand. If left to breed freely, the cats themselves may become a nuisance and, with insufficient resources to support them, will become unhealthy. In most areas, there are enough potential working cats and no need to deliberately breed more.
Where homing of the surplus is not possible, euthanasia of unwanted kittens (and indeed of unwanted cats of all ages) should be by an approved means. Drowning and beating, although still considered traditional by some, are not humane methods and is likely to result in prosecution under animal cruelty legislation.
In general, euthanasia should be carried out by a vet through lethal injection or, more rarely, overdose of gaseous anaesthetic. In isolated areas where veterinary care for small animals is unavailable, shooting may be a permissible alternative provided no suffering is caused to the cat. This is sometimes a necessity where a cat is severely injured, found already close to death or shows signs of rabies and immediate destruction is warranted.
HEALTH, SAFETY AND OTHER HAZARDS
Common sense should be applied to where working cats may or may not go in the working environment. In general, they should not roam freely in food preparation areas or where there is exposed food.
Sadly, many working cats are maimed or killed by machinery, ranging from baling machines to heavy industrial engines. Toxic substances that may be licked off the paws or coat and vats of liquid into which a cat can fall, but not climb out of are also hazards. Although common sense precautions (covering vats, preventing access to machine rooms while machinery is running) can reduce the likelihood of accidents, they cannot be eliminated altogether due to the curious nature of cats.
A cat that is poisoned or injured and that is not treatable should be humanely destroyed to prevent suffering. Cats with treatable injuries should receive veterinary attention although the ultimate decision on the cat's future will depend on the cost of treatment and the cat's value as a working cat (and to sentimental concerns such as being a favourite among staff or being a working pet).
ACQUIRING WORKING CATS
Cat shelters and feral rescue organisations frequently seek homes for non-domestic cats and also to tame cats unsuited to an indoor or domestic lifestyle (poor temperament, poor hygiene, stress at living indoors etc). These cats cannot be homed as pets, but may be suitable as working cats. Even purebred cats have sometimes ended up as working cats.
Strays may be attracted into an area by a supply of food, either scraps or prey. Before adopting these as working cats they should be checked for identification if tame (e.g. microchip, tattoo) and for injury or disease (including the contagious viruses FIV and FeLV). If not already neutered, they will need to be neutered. You local cat rescue may be able to help with trapping and referral to a vet for assessment and neutering.
Young cats descended from known hunting cats may be sometimes acquired from other farms. They must be confined to a well-ventilated, windowed but secure shed for at least the first 2 weeks and provided with food, water and a litter tray. This is to reduce the likelihood of wandering or attempting to return to their old haunts. Neutering and a health check should be arranged.
Very few working cats reach "retirement". Most continue hunting until, being older and less agile, they succumb to age, accident, illness or predation. Few reach a ripe old age. When a working cat reaches the end of its active life and is no longer able to hunt, the consideration are the same as for livestock. The farm or factory cannot usually afford to keep cats that do not earn their keep.
If the cat is tame or semi-tame and in relatively good health despite its age, it may have earned a retirement with an employee willing to adopt it. Where the cat is feral and possibly in poor health and no longer able to fend for itself, euthanasia by an approved method is more usual. Pet-owners reading this may be upset at the lack of sentimentality over working cats, but would not expect farmers to keep aged livestock well beyond their productive years when they are a drain on farm resources.