Barn Cats: Made to Live in the Great Outdoors

Whether your feline friend is curled up next to you on the couch or lives outdoors, cats have a way of making their way into our hearts one way or another.

An orange and white fluffy cat looks out from a window in a stone and wood building

When Dr. Elizabeth Jeter isn’t lecturing in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, she can be found bringing fourth-year veterinary students to care for the animals at the Aggieland Humane Society, including those in the Barn Cat program.

While some cats do prefer living outside, “all cats are considered domestic,” Jeter said, adding that there are some differences that set these felines apart from others.

One of those differences is that barn cats serve a specific purpose.

“Most people seek out barn cats for the main purpose of having a form of organic pest control,” Jeter said. “They help control mice and rat populations, which is especially important in barns due to diseases that can be transmitted to livestock.”

According to Jeter, outdoor cats can have a wide range of personalities—they can be very social and friendly, or they can be feral, meaning they do not associate with humans and may even avoid human contact altogether.

“Each cat is as unique as a person,” Jeter said.

Because of this, the level of interaction between barn cats and humans will depend on the cat as well as the human.

“Some cats become a household icon, greeting everyone who comes to the barn, while others are rarely seen,” Jeter said. “Both cats are still working cats—they just have different attitudes.”

Barn cats have the same basic needs as other pets, but Jeter says it’s important for owners to acknowledge that caring for barn cats looks a little different.

“Special care needs to be taken with these cats, since they do not obey the same rules as friendly or indoor cats and are often treated more as wildlife,” she said. “An example of this special care may be working with veterinarians who understand how to handle feral cats, since they cannot be caught and handled like friendly or indoor cats and may need to be trapped in humane live traps.”

When owners bring a new barn cat home, they should be placed in a secure location, like a tack room or an indoor enclosure, where they cannot escape for the first three to four weeks.

“This allows them to acclimate to their new environment and familiarize themselves with where they will be fed,” Jeter said.

As with any other pet, it is important to provide outdoor cats with protective medical care, including vaccinations and spaying/neutering. Jeter explained that long-term medical care is necessary, especially since barn cats are exposed to hazards such as wildlife more than your standard house pet.

“It is most ideal to spay or neuter barn cats so they are not reproducing or displaying nuisance behavior, such as fighting or yowling,” Jeter said. “Spaying or neutering will also help them to do their job more effectively and make them more likely to stick around.

“Sometimes the barn cat life chooses you, and other times there may already be outdoor cats established in your area,” Jeter said. “It’s important for prospective owners to be willing and able to provide care for their outdoor companions to help them live their best lives.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.