There are several predominant myths about barn cats. The first is that cats are "independent" and can fend for themselves if they have shelter and some milk.
In reality the domestic cats that live in barns or around people were created by people. Man had to foster genetic tendencies toward tameness, but, in the process deprived the cat of some of the natural instincts and traits possessed by its wild ancestors and cousins. As a consequence, the cat is no longer able to survive without man's help.While the barn cat population may double each spring due to uncontrolled breeding, there is a loss of up to 75 percent of the cat colony, accepted as "normal."
Mice could be in short supply. Milk is only a treat, and is not an adequate part of the diet. Feline distemper, once it becomes established on a farm, will kill and continue to kill up to 90 percent of susceptible cats, according to Jean Townsend in "Plight of the Barn Cat."
The second widespread misconception is that hunger stimulates cats to hunt. Although this statement may seem logical to humans, it does not apply for cats. Studies done by Paul Leyhausen, German behaviorist; David E. Davis of Johns Hopkins University; and English researcher C.S. Elton, showed that cats who were fed by their owners were just as eager to kill mice as hungry cats and, in fact, were more likely not to wander to other farms.
Leyhausen's unfed cats ate an astonishing 10-12 mice daily. How many farms can supply even half that number daily to each of their cats?
The third myth is that "farmers always need more cats." The misled public frequently contributes to the farmer's dilemma and to the mortality rate for cats.
The cycle begins when entire litters of kittens are unloaded on possible acquaintances who live in rural areas or abandoning kittens and cats at the end of a farm lane. How can farmers who wish to take good care of their cats do so with the public dumping an endless supply of cats on them?
Efforts can be made by farmers and the public to end the suffering of barn cats:
1 - Provide dry cat food. All feed stores will provide cat food. A well-nourished cat, like an athlete, is better equipped to resist parasites and disease, and to withstand cold and dampness.
2 - Sterilize all barn cats. In the Davis study, four cats were able to control rats on a test farm. If farmers keep between four and eight barn cats, there is no reason why the cats cannot be altered to prevent uncontrolled breeding.
3 - Vaccinate barn cats to prevent the sweep of an epidemic that will wipe out the entire population. Most large-animal veterinarians in rural areas will administer cat inoculations when making visits, if asked to do so in advance.
4 - Provide water in an accessible container. In the winter, a plastic container that will break out the ice should be used for frequent refills.
5 - Farms are not for dumping animals. If you have an unwanted pet, please take it to the Humane Society or an animal shelter. Remember, abandonment is against the Law!
6 - Look for alternative methods of rodent control. Sacrificing cat after cat isn't the answer, and some other way must be found. In the meantime, barn cat care must be provided.
The barn cat deserves respect from the owner it serves!
If you have any questions or concerns regarding animal health or welfare, contact the Salt Lake County Animal Services Humane Education Department, 264-2247.