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Sometimes I’m hesitant to talk about my cats, in the same way that many of us are careful to steer clear of politics at family gatherings. That’s because my cats live outdoors, which runs counter to the advice of many pet-care experts — including, strangely enough, me.
That’s right: I tell people to keep their cats indoors, but I don’t do so with my own. Understandably, people call me on it. And what they call me is not always pretty.
Am I a hypocrite to recommend that people keep their cats inside while having outdoor cats myself? Not exactly, and let me explain why: My cats are barn cats.
Before I get into the apparent contradiction between what I say and what I do, let me explain why I recommend that cats be kept indoors: It’s for their own safety, and it’s the neighborly thing to do. Very few people live on the kind of country acreage that my wife and I do; in a suburban neighborhood, your free-roaming cat will be goading the neighbor’s dog into barking, digging in the neighbor’s flowerbeds and stalking songbirds at the neighbor’s birdfeeder. Even if you don’t care what the neighbors think, what they think may lead to your cat’s being trapped or intentionally poisoned. It happens all the time.
But that’s only the beginning of the risks to outdoor cats. They’re all too often hit by cars or eaten by coyotes (yes, even in the most urban of neighborhoods, coyotes roam boldly). They get accidentally trapped in sheds, garages and basements, and starve to death. They walk through puddles of spilled antifreeze, lick their paws and die. They fight with other cats, picking up diseases or getting abscesses that are painful and can be expensive to treat. They get and spread parasites.
Indoor cats can easily live into their late teens or beyond. Outdoor cats often disappear a decade younger, leaving owners to wonder sadly what happened to them. A quick survey of almost any neighborhood will reveal the signs of this sadness — quite literally — in the “lost cat” flyers posted by those who likely will never see their pets again.
To be fair, being an indoor cat isn’t perfect either. As a veterinarian, I see the downside of life indoors, primarily chronic diseases with ties to obesity and inactivity. For these cats, I recommend a veterinary-supervised diet, food puzzles, more activity with toys and cat patios for a breath of fresh air. It’s called environmental enrichment, and it works.
But there’s a place in the world for cats like mine too.
In every community there are feral cats, free-roaming animals who were born wild, got lost or were abandoned. While the strategy of trap-neuter-release helps to keep these animals from causing problems, there are times when feral colonies need to be removed from the area where they’ve chosen to make their home.
Adult cats who were once domesticated can often be turned into friendly pets again, and feral kittens can be socialized when caught early enough. But for the truly wild among these cats, there are very few options if they cannot be cared for in place.
Becoming a barn cat is one of the best of those options. Feral colony caretakers, rescue groups and many shelters actively seek out homes like the one I can offer for those cats who cannot be turned into house pets. Instead, they are altered, vaccinated and placed in a situation safer than the one they left, where they tolerate being around people while keeping barns like mine free of rodents.
We respect our cats and love them for what they are, and we've been known to go to what some might term extremes to care for them. Once, I took a chainsaw to a tall pine tree after one of our cats became stranded near the top (probably chased up there by a predator). The cat survived the fall but was badly injured; I put him back together and we nursed him to a full recovery. More recently, my wife and I dug deep to have a bucket truck come out and rescue another stranded cat.
Safe to say, we do the very best we can for our working cats.
I’m not apologizing for having outdoor cats while promoting keeping most cats indoors. That’s because were it not for people like my wife and me welcoming cats who would otherwise be unplaceable, the only other option for these felines would likely be death. Barn cats are an important part of the feral cat solution, and we’re delighted to offer a job when we can to a cat who has no other place to go.
It’s a great life for them here on our Almost Heaven Ranch — that you can believe.
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