The Hitchhiker`s Guide to Barn Cats

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Barn Cats
Barn Cats
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Part 1: A Few Words from a Founder of South County Cats
My cats are not the barn cats of our grandparents. I lived back then and it makes me sad to think back on how the cats were
'managed' on our farms, and how many kittens died from parasites, ringworm, rats, etc. On the other hand, I now realize that
nature tends to produce a surplus of most animals, and not all baby animals survive to adulthood. Nature has also made a
certain segment of the 'domestic' cat population—namely the barn cats--for a reason other than to entertain humans. Nature
designed small cats who live in the wild to be rodent predators. That’s why barn cats primarily prey on rodents. Their frequent
rodent snacks help lower the food bill, and increase their overall health.
The only reason that barn cats fell out of favor for rodent control is that humans invented poisons. And they poisoned
and poisoned, until there were no songbirds left.... DDT was the big ‘thing,’ until the book Silent Spring came out in the '60s.
Sadly, we're still poisoning away, in spite of the enormous effort of many to educate folks about the ‘old’ ways. I enjoy the notes
and emails I get from my adopters about how their rodent problems evaporated after they got their cats. Before getting their barn
cats, many of these folks tried poisoning rodents, but found that not only was poisoning expensive and ineffective, it posed a
constant danger to their pet animals. Check out our Testimonials to read the comments of satisfied barn cat guardians.
Since I started rescuing feral cats and placing them in barn homes, I’ve learned a lot about what makes these animals tick, and
what it takes to keep them happy and effective as rodent hunters. Our approach to placing cats in barn homes is a ‘modified’ old
way in that we ensure that the cats are spay/neutered and given shots before placing them in their new homes. Because they
are fixed, the males don't have to suffer through endless fights for dominance, and the females don’t have to suffer from
cranking out litter after litter of kittens.
All of our cats are given a health check and the same vaccinations pet cats receive, including the rabies vaccine. We place
our cats in groups that are large enough to help ensure they can protect each other. They do very good work for their humans.
BUT, every now and then a cat gets whacked by a predator. When that happens, we strongly encourage the owner to get TWO
new cats (for socialization reasons) to replace the one who disappeared. Otherwise, the existing barn cat colony will treat a
single newcomer as a pariah and may cast that cat out. On the other hand, if a pair of cats are introduced, they present strength
to the colony and will be invited in.
We also try to maximize the health and safety of the cats we place by requiring their new guardians to provide a safe structure in
which the cats can hide from predators, plus a reliable supply of basic dry food and fresh water. But, it’s not a perfect world. We
carefully select kitties for barns and try our best to ensure the barn kitties we place are a good fit for their new home. We never
knowingly put a tame kitty in a barn unless we have integrated her into a feral colony on purpose, for her protection. Doing this
takes a LOT of work and quite a bit of time."
Our standard placement is four cats per barn for their safety and protection. This minimum barn cat colony size helps ensure
that the cats can successfully evade predators through “scatter behavior” when they are hunting. Sometimes barn owners
question whether they really need to take on four cats, thinking perhaps a couple of cats will do. We tell them that these cats are
nearly invisible. The only difference between groups of two and four cats is that the food dish needs to be filled a bit more often.
The upside is that four cats will do a better job of rodent management, because your barn will contain a critical mass of cats to
get the job done. In short, these kitties will become part of the ecology of your barn.
In the same way that many of us have gathered tremendous knowledge about computers and other forms of technology, I've
spent quite a bit of time learning about the biology, physiology, and behavior of "tame cats gone wild." It is a fascinating subject.
From my perspective, barn cats are some of the best pets anyone could ever ask for. They play with each other, and are fun to
observe, kind of like bird-watching. They never leave footprints on your kitchen counters or scatter litter around that yucky old
litter box in the basement. It’s a great arrangement—they let you be, and you let them be.
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Part 2: It’s All About Matchmaking
The cats we work with come from a variety of origins. Some free-roaming cats have lived their whole lives in or around
barns and outbuildings in rural areas. Others have lived in urban or suburban situations where, for various reasons, their habitat
(sources of food, water and shelter) is no longer available because of development or inability of their former guardians to care
for the colonies in which the cats used to live.
The cats we work with are all used to living outdoors, but their degree of tameness ranges from hard core feral cats who want
absolutely nothing to do with people, to friendly cats who have grown up outside, or were abandoned by their owners and have
become used to living outside.
We constantly seek homes for outdoor cats by posting flyers in rural areas and advertising in community newspapers, the Little
Nickel ads and area-specific postings on Craig’s List. We try to screen both the cats and their new guardians very carefully to
provide the best possible match between the cats and their new homes.
We recognize that “city kitties” and the “country cats” are WAY different! A small shed in a city may work perfectly for two
friendly or semi-friendly “city kitties”--outdoor friendlies, semi-friendlies or ferals that came from an urban location. A country
location makes the best home for “country cats” who grew up in a rural area. Such cats have already been exposed to predators
such as coyotes and aggressive, free-running dogs, as there are far more of these predators in the country than in the city.
"Trailer park cats" may be anywhere on the friendly-to-feral spectrum in terms of their relationship to people, but they are
typically fat, spoiled and naïve when it comes to predators. We have found out the hard way that placing a group of trailer park
cats in a rural barn almost guarantees that they will be slaughtered by critters they’ve never seen before including coyotes,
raccoons or aggressive, free-roaming dogs. When we relocate trailer park cats to barn homes, we solve this problem by mixing
one trailer park cat with at least three hard core feral cats who have had minimal exposure to humans and maximum exposure to
predators. The ferals look out for all of their feline friends, and “show them the ropes” by exhibiting behaviors aimed at alerting
the entire colony to the approach of predators.
A friendly or semi-friendly outdoor cat that has—for whatever reason—grown up outside, yet has had prolonged early contact
with people, can survive quite well if placed in a group of at least four cats that includes hard-core ferals that are skilled at
evading predators. The ferals generally want nothing to do with people but will readily accept tame cats as companions. In such
groups, the friendly is like an ambassador between the ferals and their human guardians. Our “four cat minimum” in country
situations also maximizes the physical comfort of the entire colony, since they tend to huddle together to keep warm during the
Country Cats - Sheds and garages that are used to store machinery that holds fuel are not suitable as permanent homes for
outdoor cats, because fuels typically release hydrocarbon fumes. Long-term exposure to such pollutants can cause cancer in
cats in as little as two years. However, a shed or garage that is free of such pollutants can provide an excellent home for outdoor
cats. Some rural landowners who don’t have a closed barn or garage provide their cats with shelter in the form of a small
wooden cat house attached to an interior or exterior wall to protect their cats from the elements and predators.
Cats prefer to congregate in the upper parts of out-buildings whenever possible, because heat rises and warms these upper
areas more than the lower parts. A hayloft is ideal, but you can also create a cat lounging area by placing a sheet of plywood
over a set of rafters. Barn cats are generally adept at climbing walls to get to such spaces, but of you don't have a hay loft a
stairway, it is helpful to build a narrow ramp between the ground and the loft so the cats can easily reach it. You can build a
small “cave” in the loft made out of a stacked set of hay or straw bales, with loose hay or straw stuffed inside for the cats to sleep
on. Hay and straw are wonderful insulation materials, and can be changed regularly to provide fresh bedding. Some rural
landowners also mount one or more shelves several feet off the ground for their cats to lounge on. Cats like to perch on shelves
because they sense that predators (which can’t jump as well as cats) can’t reach them there. As mentioned above, some cat
guardians provide a wooden cat shelter inside the barn or shed and insulate it with hay, straw or Styrofoam to give their cats
extra protection during cold weather.
City Kitties - As mentioned above, pairs of feral cats from urban colonies or trailer parks, or pairs of friendly or semi-friendly
outdoor-only cats generally do quite well in a urban or suburban garages and sheds. You can also house a pair of city kitties in a
free-standing, insulated cat shelter in your yard. It should be noted, however, that cats living outside homes near greenbelts can
be attacked by coyotes and other predators that live and travel within such habitat corridors. If you live near a greenbelt, we
recommend placement of no fewer than four cats to ensure the physical safety of "city kitties."
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Part 2: It’s All About Matchmaking (cont.)
Moving Day - Trapping and transport of feral cats to a spay/neuter clinic, surgery, recovering from surgery in a cage, and being
transported to a new location are extremely stressful experiences for cats used to a free-roaming lifestyle. If a group of relocated
cats is simply released into an open barn, they are likely to be so frightened and disoriented that they will run away immediately,
even if provided with a comfortable place to live and plenty of food and water. This is why we insist that relocated outdoor cats
be acclimated in a confined area for seven to 10 days to help them adjust to their new home. Acclimation can occur in a closed
shed, garage, barn, or a temporary pen placed in a quiet area in any type of outbuilding. We have even acclimated a couple of
sets of kitties in crawl spaces under buildings by temporarily blocking off the entrance with wire mesh.
Seven to 10 days of confinement in an enclosed space gives relocated cats time to calm down and become familiar with the
sights, sounds and smells of their new surroundings. This helps ensure that when they are released they will stay at their new
home. The ideal place to confine them is inside the barn or other building that will become their permanent home. A barn with an
enclosed room and/or outer doors that can be kept securely closed is ideal, because the cats can move around freely inside and
peak outside through windows or cracks in the walls during the acclimation period. We have also acclimated cats in crawl
spaces, and in a horse stall with the top blocked off by rolls of plastic mesh fastened together with zip ties and stapled to the
walls of the stall to isolate it from the rest of the open barn. A temporary holding pen (which we can furnish) also works well
when placed in a quiet area inside the cats’ new home. No matter what type of enclosure is used, it is ideal (though not
absolutely necessary) to confine the cats in an area where they can get at least a glimpse of the outside world. This helps orient
them to the environment surrounding the building in which they will live most of the time.
If you don’t have a garage or shed, you can shelter your city kitties in something as simple as a large Styrofoam cooler with an
access hole cut in the side, to a luxurious cat house made of plywood or cedar. You can place the shelter on or under a porch,
or under a set of stairs to protect it from rain. No matter which housing alternative you select, it is a good idea to insulate it with
straw or hay plus a washable cat bed to ensure that your cats will be cozy and comfortable. If you build a wooden cat house, we
recommend using a double-walled design with an interior Styrofoam panel for insulation. Email us at to receive a list of feline housing concepts.
Alley Cat Allies suggests feeding your new barn cats canned food daily, talking to them, leaving a radio on and of course,
cleaning the litter box daily to help your kitties feel welcome in their new home during the acclimation period. Please read Alley
Cat's Relocation Guide.
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Part 3: Our Barn Cat Relocation Requirements
Colony Size - As mentioned above, our standard relocated colony size is four cats. There are several reasons that we arrived at
the four cat relocation approach.
A feral cat “colony” behaves somewhat like a "dog pack." While many urban feral cat colonies are considerably larger, we
have learned from experience that four cats is the minimum group size that seems to behave as a "colony." Four cats will stick
together in a barn, warn each other of the presence of predators such as coyotes and raccoons outside the barn, and - most
important of all to adopters - provide effective rodent control in a barn setting.
Much of what we've learned about what it takes to successfully relocate barn cats comes from feedback we’ve received from
adopters of the many barn cats we’ve placed over the years.
For example, a man in Snohomish requested some barn cats because he had TERRIBLE rat problems in his barn. His next door
neighbor, an irresponsible pig-farmer, had smoked out the rats that had invaded his barn, causing them run out and invade
neighboring barns. To help solve this problem, we relocated four feral cats onto this man's property. These particular cats came
from another farm where they had lived with chickens, goats and horses. Their original guardian asked us to relocate them when
he became ill and had to relinquish all of his farm animals. The new guardian told us he watched the cats closely after they
moved into his barn. He saw them become “watch cats” in relation to the chickens. Instead of being flustered by the cats, the
chickens actually seemed to relax after the cats moved in. One possible reason is that the cats prevented rats from helping
themselves to easy pickings around the chicken feeders.
The new guardian assumed that his barn cats would kill the rats that had inhabited his barn in large numbers. Instead, he was
surprised to find relatively few rat carcasses after the cats moved in. He did notice far fewer live rats in and near his barn. The
bottom line is, rats don't like cats, and rather than tangle with them, they will seek out cat-free areas to move into. That worked
out just fine for this farmer. He especially appreciated that he didn't need to buy rat poison anymore.
Food, Water and Shelter - Like all animals, feral cats have habitat requirements that include shelter and a reliable source of
food and water. Without these basic habitat elements, barn cats may not stay in their new home for very long, especially if better
habitat is available nearby. For this reason, we cannot relocate cats to a place where they won’t have ongoing access to food or
water. We also can’t relocate cats to a site that lacks a roof and protection from wind. As mentioned above, shelter for feral cats
doesn't have to be fancy. It can be as simple as a “cave” made of several bales of hay or straw inside a barn, garage or shed.
Cats like to perch on shelves, especially to eat, because hungry coyotes and raccoons can’t climb the way cats can. Therefore, it
helps to mount one or more feeding and perching shelves in your barn, garage or shed. If a barn or shed isn't available, a cat
house made of plywood and insulated with Styrofoam or stuffed with hay or straw can serve as shelter. Email us at if you’d like a list of shelter ideas.
Site Acclimation - Upon release inside a closed off building, barn cats will immediately climb to the rafters to get away from
people. As mentioned above, cats will continue to use rafters as nesting places because when they are high off the ground they
feel safe from intruders. In addition, heat rises and collects near the roof of any building. Because of cats’ fondness for rafters,
we advise new guardians to put a plywood platform over the rafters, and place straw or hay on it to make their cats comfortable.
Don’t forget to provide them with a way to get to the platform, for example a set of stairs made out of stacked hay bales or a 2" x
6" board with slats nailed onto it to form a cat ramp.
If an enclosed building is not available, we can provide a 3’ x 4’ x 4’ relocation pen equipped with a set of small crates for the
cats to stay in during the acclimation period. The pen will still need to be protected from the elements in an open shed or barn. A
quarter of a bale of straw or hay should be placed in front of and around the crates, which can then be covered with an old
blanket. This arrangement helps reduce drafts and creates a cozy space where the cats can relax and get used to the sights,
sounds and smells of their new environment. We have also acclimated barn cats in a plywood relocation box containing a pair of
Styrofoam shelters stuffed with straw. One time we acclimated a group of cats in a horse stall using 1 inch plastic mesh (the kind
sold in rolls by Home Depot and Lowe’s) to temporarily block off the open top of the stall to keep the cats from escaping. Swaths
of the mesh were joined together using plastic fasteners, and stapled to the walls of the stall to create the temporary mesh
Sources of Relocation Equipment - If you would like to purchase your own relocation equipment, we recommend our favorite
relo tool, the 36" x 48” x 48" Midwest Pet Exercise Pen with a latch top and open bottom. This pen is lightweight, folds easily for
transport, can set up and disassembled quickly, and is easy to clean with a scrub brush, hot soap, water and bleach. Information
about this pen is available at:
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Part 4: Shopping List
Okay. You've decided you want some barn cats to deal with your rats. Here is a list of the things you will need to “install” your
barn cats in their new home.
1. A big sack of medium-grade cat food. Friskies, Costco’s Kirkland brand, or Kasko (available at feed stores) are good
2. A very large, flat-bottomed stainless steel, glass or ceramic bowl for water. We recommend stainless steel, glass or
ceramic water bowls because cats hate the taste of plastic in their water. Moreover, stainless steel, glass or ceramic bowls are
less likely to tip over. Thrift shops are a good source for flat-bottomed glass or ceramic bowls, and sometimes they also have
flat-bottomed stainless steel bowls. You can also buy stainless steel bowls at Petco and Petsmart. They are expensive, but will
never have to be replaced.
3. A large, heavy, flat-bottomed bowl for food. A glass or stainless steel is ideal, but a very large plastic “dog” dish will suffice.
Cats aren’t as fussy about plastic food dishes. Having a bowl large enough to accommodate a 10 day food supply will allow you
to leave your cats in peace while they acclimate to their new home, or at least minimize the number of times you need to refill it.
4. The largest litter box you can find. Fred Meyer sells a large Van Ness brand litter box for approximately $10. Rubbermaid
under-bed plastic storage containers (sometimes available at thrift shops) also work well. One barn owner used a plastic
wheelbarrow filled with litter and propped into a corner to ensure it wouldn’t tip over. You can even use a cardboard box lined
with a couple of hefty garbage bags and filled with litter, and discard it once the kitties are acclimated. If possible, position the
litter box near the entrance of the kitties' confinement area so you can easily reach in and change it a couple of times during the
acclimation period. Even though you want to leave your new cats in peace as much as possible, they will appreciate having
access to reasonably fresh litter.
5. Pelleted newspaper cat litter. We recommend the "Good Mews" brand available at Fred Meyer, or the somewhat cheaper
"Crown Animal Bedding" brand available at feed stores. A half full box of litter will keep most cats comfortable for two to three
days. To freshen up the box, remove the feces and as much of the wet litter out as you can two or three times during the
acclimation period, and each time add a couple of scoops of fresh litter.
6. Some kind of shelter inside your barn or shed. This can be as simple as a "cave" made of a few straw or hay bales, a
cardboard box covered with a large (yard waste-sized) garbage bag as a an outer liner and a blanket over that for insulation, or
as elaborate as a wooden cat house (we can send you a set of plan drawings if you would like to make one). The box should
have an 8 " x 8 " opening in one of the sides as a cat doorway. Place a quarter of a bale of hay or straw in and around the box
so your kitties have a comfy, insulated bedding in which they can curl up and rest inside and outside the box. The shelter should
be placed in the highest part of the barn, such as a hayloft, a piece of plywood on a set of rafters, or on a large, sturdy shelf.
Because heat rises, placing the cat shelter high up will enable your cats to rest and sleep in in the warmest place in the building.
Placing the shelter up high will also help keep them safe from potential predators (including you, because at least in the
beginning, they will fear humans and regard you as predators). Make sure your kitties can access easily access their shelter by
placing a wooden ramp with slats nailed onto it from the ground to the loft, or perhaps creating a set of steps out of stacked hay
or straw bales.
7. A permanent litter box (or two). Barn cats are very polite and will use a litter box on an ongoing basis if you provide one. If
you don’t want your cats to use soil inside the barn after the acclimation period, we recommend buying a couple of regular litter
boxes and keeping one full of litter at all times following the acclimation period. Having a couple of these will allow you to
regularly rotate and wash them at your convenience. We recommend completely emptying and scrubbing the box and providing
fresh litter at least every couple of weeks. Like most house cats, barn cats will mostly do their business outside, so after the
acclimation period you can wean them off of litter boxes if you want. But when it gets bitterly cold and you lock down the barn,
it’s good to have them “trained” to not think outside the box.
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Part 5: Protecting Your Barn Cats from Predators
Predators and competitors are part of natural ecosystems, but the presence of coyotes and raccoons in or near the barn, or
on an owner’s porch can certainly be worrisome.
Some of our cat guardians have constructed predator-proof cat houses and/or feeding stations for their felines’ protection. We
particularly like a triple-decker cat house design that several barn cat owners have built for their kitties. It has lots of room on
separate floors for the cats, their food and water, and a litterbox. Building one of these is a lot of work, but the neat thing about
this model is the cats have to jump straight up and through an opening in the side of the house to access the top floor. Even if
the opening were big enough to accommodate them, coyotes and raccoons couldn't jump straight up and in the way that cats
can. In addition, the opening is sized so that cats can pass through it, but it is too small for a coyote or raccoon to get through.
Finally, a plywood “hood” shields the sides and top of the opening, so that predators can’t drop down from above.
In addition to being bomb proof from predators, this cat house is warm! It is insulated with closed cell Styrofoam board insulation
rather than roll insulation. Styrofoam is a lot more weatherproof and won’t harm the cats if they happen to claw into it. Email us
at if you would like to see pictures of this triple-decker cat house.
A small single-story cat house mounted high up on a porch or barn wall with a predator-excluder hood over the opening would
work just as well as the triple-decker model (although it has less room). Here is a basic design, although the predator-excluder
hood would have to be added on.
Feeding inside your barn or shed is preferable to feeding outside, because the food is less conspicuous to predators and
competitors. Coyotes are spooked by horses and usually will not go inside a barn if horses are present. But even if you feed in
your barn, raccoons could get inside (especially at night, when they are most active), eat the food and make a big mess. Here is
a link to raccoon-proofing a cat feeding station.
Alley Cat Allies recommends feeding in the following ways to discourage competitors and predators:
1. Feed during daylight hours, preferably early to mid-morning, when it is relatively quiet and the air is still cool (during the
summer months), i.e., when you are more likely to see your cats yet not attract nocturnal wildlife.
2. Gauge the amount of food provided so that it is enough to feed the cats, with minimal food left over to attract wildlife in the
evening. Consider taking in the food bowl at night.
3. Recruit a substitute feeder to feed on your days away, rather than leaving an automatic feeder to cover for you. Outdoors,
automatic feeders are emptied overnight, and automatic waterers are dumped by scavenging wildlife. You have only managed to
attract critters, while leaving your cats hungry and thirsty.
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Q. What if my new barn cats turn out to be tame cats who want to come inside my house?
A. All of the cats that come into South County Cats’ program through trapping are outdoor cats. Their behavior is evaluated not
only by the people who trap them, but also following capture in order to determine that these future barn cats can adjust to living
outdoors and in a barn or shed. Occasionally we receive reports from new barn cat guardians that one or two of their kitties is
actually semi-tame (or, in very rare cases, completely tame). The very friendliest of such cats follow their owners around, allow
themselves to be picked up, held and petted and have frequent contact with humans because rural landowners with livestock
spend a lot of time outdoors taking care of their critters. However, the majority of these cats are ferals who would not be happy
living indoors with people. Our relocated barn cats always receive food, water and a warm place to sleep from their guardians,
and the companionship and protection that come from living with a group of outdoor cats. We do our best to sort out the tames
from the ferals and place quite a few tame cats in homes, as you can see by clicking on our Adoptable Pets List. Our main focus,
however, is on rescuing feral cats who become displaced by new development or the inability of their former colony tenders to
continue caring for them.
Q. What is TNR?
A. Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is a full management plan in which stray and feral cats already living outdoors in cities, towns, and
rural areas are humanely trapped, evaluated, vaccinated, and sterilized by veterinarians. Kittens and tame cats are adopted into
good homes. Healthy adult cats too wild to be adopted are returned to their familiar habitat under the lifelong care of volunteers.
TNRed feral kitties in urban sites depend on caregivers to provide an ongoing supply of dry food, water and a modest amount of
outdoor shelter. Oftentimes, a TNRed colony will gradually dwindle in size as the cats die of natural causes. Sometimes
newcomers will join the colony. Colony tenders must be vigilant and committed to trapping newcomers to ensure that they get
fixed too. Local organizations that provide feral cat services include Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project, Feral Care and the Peninsula
Spay/Neuter Project.
Q. I’m the manager of an apartment complex. Is it OK for the apartment residents to feed the feral cats that hang around
outside our buildings?
A. Yes, it is OK, but with a HUGE CAVEAT!!! You should require that any feral cats that your tenants feed be spayed or
neutered. Humans who feed feral cats without getting them fixed are a big part of the cat overpopulation problem that needs to
be corrected. Food without “fix” leads to uncontrolled breeding, which begets more feral cats and kittens.
The solution is TNR, as described above. Cats that have been TNRed are easy to recognize because they receive ear tips
during surgery so colony tenders can distinguish between neutered and un-neutered cats, and avoid re-trapping cats that have
already been altered.
If people are feeding unaltered tame cats, there are free and low cost resources for altering them as well, including Pasado's
“Spay Station”, which is a spay/neuter clinic on wheels, and the Humane Society for Seattle/King County. Tame cats don’t get
ear-tipped, but they should be licensed and wear collars so they can be identified as pets. It is pretty easy to tell if a tame male
cat has been neutered, and during surgery the females get tattoo on their belly to indicate that they've been spayed.
Feral cat animal welfare organizations such as Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project, Feral Care and the Peninsula Spay/Neuter
Project can refer you to volunteers who will help and support you so that no more breeding happens. Knowledgeable volunteers
can often locate nearby intact colonies that the kitties hanging out near your buildings are wandering from in order to find
sources of basic sustenance. In such situations the volunteers can help TNR the cats in these “source areas” so unaltered cats
don't keep mingling with the fixed cats near your buildings.
Permitting a well managed feral cat colony to exist at your apartment complex is a lot easier on you and your residents (not to
mention the neighbors!) than trying to ban feeding, which often motivates people to feed covertly and doesn’t at all address the
cat overpopulation problem.
Ready to add barn cats to your property?
The first step is to complete our Questionnaire.