One look at the gnawed plastic feed bins convinced Melissa Wilson she needed four-pawed help to solve her barn's growing rat problem.
"I brought in three cats," she says about the barn on her 3-acre horse farm in Flower Mound, Texas. "Then, I didn't have rats anymore."
Choosing and caring for a barn cat, however, often requires a different approach. "When you first get them, you might think they're as wild as a June bug," she says. "But, they're still my pets and I get very, very attached to them."
Selecting the perfect barn mouser should begin with checking local animal rescues, says Nancy Kuntz, a volunteer with Barn Cats Inc., in Lewisville, Texas.
The group specializes in finding good barn homes for feral or unwanted cats, and it has placed slightly more than 3,000 cats in the past seven years.
For people more familiar with house cats, the idea of a feline living in a barn often takes additional education.
"We explain these are cats that don't want to be inside," she says. "In a barn, they can live out their normal lives and be productive. In return, they're given shelter and food."
Choosing the right cat, though, is critical. "Never take a kitten, because they're so vulnerable to hawks, owls, and coyotes," Kuntz says. "They should be at least the size of a small rabbit."
Choosing at least two cats — spayed or neutered — increases the odds of them staying on the property.
Confirm records of vaccinations such as rabies and distemper. If possible, opt for vaccinations lasting three years to limit the stress of doctor visits, Kuntz says.
Acclimatization begins with the cats staying in cages inside the barn. A friendly cat accustomed to people might need a week to grow comfortable, but a feral cat could require as long as two weeks.
Choose a protected spot for the cages, preferably in a barn that can be closed to guard against predators. Always supply water, food, and litter box. The litter box will be unnecessary once the cat is released from the cage.
"It's best if you live on the property, because the cat will know that you're there for them," Kuntz says. "Talk to them, and put an old towel or T-shirt with the family's scent in the cage."
Also, check the weather before releasing the animal for the first time. "Cats operate by scent, and if the ground is wet they'll wander away, lose the scent, and not come back again," Kuntz says.
For a permanent home, Kuntz suggests a medium-sized plastic container placed high in the barn. Cut a saucer-sized hole for an entrance and include the family item from the cat's first cage. "They'll follow the scent to the hidey box and it becomes their spot," she says.
Afterward, keep water available and leave out enough dry food for constant nibbling. A daily treat of wet food also connects the cat to the barn.
"Sometimes they might go away for a day or two, maybe to another farm," she says, "but they'll gradually find their way back."
Noble Sprayberry is a frequent contributor to Out Here.