This is Montana. This is dog country for sure, what with the “Montana dog walk” (owner in pickup, dog running happily in front of the truck, up the trail) and hunting with our canine partners. But cats have their role to play for the prepper too. And not as target practice or for dog "training".
I'm talking about working cats here. Ones who pull their weight just like our dogs and horses do. For our purposes, we will call working cats barn cats to indicate cats that do not live mainly in their owners' home but rather spend most of the time outdoors, sheltering in outbuildings.
Sure the family dog can sound the alarm if intruders approach, or physically defend the family from looters. But it can't control vermin as well as felines nor is it as capable of personal survivalism as a feline. Cats can be a real help to the prepper as rodent hunters, alerters (though not as good as dogs), and “therapists”. Plus, they are small enough to function as "bioheaters" on cold Winter nights in our bedrooms.
But note that they cannot automatically “get by on their own”. So if you must move or evacuate, take your felines with you too. Felines that have been abandoned by families that move or evacuate are often scarred by the experience for life, assuming they survive. Don't “put the cat out” when the wildfire sweeps toward your compound, show the same compassion you show your dogs or horses.
Cats have been used for thousands of years for protecting stores of grain from vermin. They work as well today without the need for poisons, traps, or need to dispose of dead vermin that more “modern” methods require. The very scent of a cat in the area deters rodents and affects their reproduction negatively. Cats would also help the prepper who has berries as the cats will chase away the birds. Keep in mind that some cats will not kill birds, but will only chase them as “moving objects”. Providing wood fencing or ramps around the berries will help the cats deter birds from "harvesting" your crop.
Cats will alert to approaching strangers pretty well as their hearing is more acute than humans. Cats will have the edge over the family dog as “therapists” post disaster as felines will usually require less social reassurance by the family unit than the dog will. Cats, as "therapists", provide affection, play solicitation, and some camaraderie, though often less than dogs .They could serve as message couriers between two residences, though they would have to be taught, and given a reason, to travel between points on command.
Cats can pull their weight in the Hope and Change economic depression or TEOTWAWKI. My past barn cats have proven to be tireless workers; often following us into the fields “on patrol”, providing emotional support for humans, and alerting to deer in the flower and garden beds. I had significant feed losses until I got barn cats.
Here is a site that profiles working cats in developed areas, read it for examples of how felines can improve your operation with less “overhead” than dogs.
A few quick notes for the prepper. Cats are resourceful and can forage better than dogs. But your working cats need to be fed regularly and have access to clean water. Starving them won't make them hunt better. It will just weaken them. After all, do you go after that big muley buck when you haven't eaten properly in two weeks? A fed barn cat is a healthy, effective barn cat. Also, fixing your barn cats is vital as cats breed as well as , or better than, rabbits. When getting your new feline workers, please consider supporting a local feral rescue organization by adopting one of their fixed cats.
Cats have entirely different dietary requirements than dogs. Dogs are omnivores, cats are [absolute]carnivores. They require much more protein and fat in their diet than dogs. Unlike humans and dogs, cats require the amino acid taurine in their diet.Cats cannot survive on dog food. Always make sure that the store bought food label states that the diet has been found to be adequate by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The same applies for your dogs' food. No Dollar Store, made-in-China chow.
Other caveats: tuna is a rare treat as too much results in vitamin deficiency, occasional table scraps are ok as long as they are unspiced meat, or small amounts of grain or vegetables. Texture of cat's food matters to felines so try different presentations if one is rejected or try another texture of food. Homemade cat food takes more planning than dog food. A future article will deal with this.
Your barn cats will require shelter. We had modified dressers inside an old hen house for our barn cats that provided shelter and a refuge from coyotes, dogs, and the mountain lion in our valley. In Montana Winter, you need to provide insulated shelter that is large enough to accommodate all your barn cats so they can huddle together for warmth. If possible, the shelter should provide some elevated perches as cats have an instinctive need to survey their territory from a high vantage point. Also, don't forget toys for your barn cats. Racquetballs and sturdy commercial cat toys will help maintain the mental acuity of your cats. But do not give yarn or string toys as these are unsafe for tongues, limbs and intestines.
Veterinary care should be factored in. Worming the cats a few times a year is important as they will probably become infested with roundworms and tapeworms from their prey in Montana. Vaccination, at least for rabies is important. Annual feline 4-way vaccination is good, especially if there are other cats in the area.
Also, cats are not social by nature so it is vital that your barn cats let you handle them. Cats revert to “wild” in a single generation so early human contact is necessary. Or else, when they become injured or ill you will have to put the animal down as you will not be able to take them to a vet. Patience is necessary in approaching feral or semi feral cats. Feeding, coupled with "systematic desensitization", is a time proven way to tame down shy or feral cats.
Some of the links below describe how to tame down feral cats so that you can handle them and engage them as “employees”. I've had good luck taming feral cats ; two even served as good "watchcats", alerting to strangers and defending me when they thought I was in danger. Often, feral or semi-feral cats can be tamed but you can never trust them completely. Ferals do not just scratch you or nip you; they go all out. I once rescued a feral that destroyed my heavy leather glove in under five seconds and inflicted bites requiring medical care within seven seconds. See the movie Sleepwalkers for a sample of what damage domestic cats can do ;-)
Finally, let's put to rest the myth of the always “aloof cat”. I have done feral rescue, worked in animal shelters, and have owned felines for over twenty five years. It has been my experience that cats respond pretty much as they are treated. Sure some will only interact with humans for food and water, just as some humans are recluses. But approaching a feline in a friendly manner usually elicits a friendly response. Just like humans, many felines are wary of strangers at first, but warm up as they get to know the person.
They do show personal loyalty, though less than canines do. Dogs loyalty is to the pack. Cats loyalty is to the individual human or human family, with some cats showing generalized compassion for injured or ill humans . Treat your barn cats with at least with the level of affection that you give your horse. Friendliness and warmth elicit the same from felines as from humans.
Grooming is an excellent way to develop a relationship with a feline as it is a bonding mechanism in their “culture”. Plus, grooming your cats helps avoid serious problems like intestinal blockages from swallowed hair and burs. Pats are not well received as pats are discipline or combat gestures to felines. Running in front of the owner and dropping to the ground is a usually a play solicitation move by the cat.
See links below for more on communicating with your feline workers. Consider felines to be that guy with the pony tail who keeps your firm's computers running, who knows nothing about RBIs or who's going to the Bowl. Consider dogs to be the guys who get together after work for a few beers or a bbq. Now, work with your new feline employees for mutual benefit.
Handling Barn Cats
Working cats have care requirements that differ from working dogs' needs. Also, a site with hints on keeping felines off your property without resorting to callous savagery.
Very good coverage of how to manage barn cats
Article on how to repel cats from your property. Without gunfire or poison
A reminder that felines have a vital role to play in ecosystems. Australian attempts to save the birdies on McQuarrie Island by booting the cats resulted in rabbits damaging the biome.
Links for the newcomer to cat ownership. As well as good information for current owners.
Felipedia.org section on feline behavior. Good, basic coverage of feline behaviors and common problems, with solutions. The anthromorphic section is, of course, a joke. Felipedia is a good resource for all aspects of domestic felines, but double check as this is a wiki.
Sacramento SPCA guide to feline behavioral issues. Very well written. For new barn cats, pay particular attention to the roaming cat article as cats must be initially confined for a time until they imprint a locale as home. This is normally not a significant issue with dogs.
Simple suggestions for play therapy to help with cat behavioral problems.
Good comparison of feral vs tame cat behaviors.
Disaster Preparedness and Cats
Cats disaster time needs. For example, a pillowcase with a rope is a great way to evacuate a frightened cat. For both your dogs and cats, remember to have current photos and ID on the animal.
Disaster kit for your cats.
Vital information on evacuating with your cat(s). Felines are much more likely to run and hide in a disaster than canines. How to successfully evacuate cats.
Disaster lists for our animals. This links to the cat page. Site also covers horses and dogs. This organization also trains animal disaster workers.