Rats are as much of a nuisance in horse stables as in any other farming operation. They eat horse feed, contaminating it with faeces and urine, and chew on tack and saddles.
Yet a powerful weapon to control rats has been available for thousands of years: barn cats. They hunt and kill the rodents as well as frighten them away.
Cats are a great deal more environmentally acceptable for rodent control in stables than poisons and, in my experience, are much more successful than traps.
Barn cats are not just feral house cats or pets. On many farms, they go back generations and those that run in front of tractors, kill young chickens or caterwaul all night have been eliminated from the breeding stock.
Finding suitable barn cats
The domestic cat originated from the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) and many successful barn cats appear to be semi-domesticated cats that have outcrossed with native species. If you have a stable with no barn cats, the first place to look for suitable felines is a farm, not a pet shop or in the local classifieds advertising pedigreed kittens. It is better to get two or three healthy, weaned kittens from the same litter that are six to eight weeks old.
It does not matter whether they are male or female, as you will need to neuter them in any case. When you collect kittens from barn cats they are likely to be fairly wild. Put them in a small cage together and take them to a vet for vaccination and deworming.
After this, keep them together in a locked room for about a month, taming them with food and using a litter box filled with earth from your farm. It is essential that they become tame enough to be easily caught; to accomplish this, simply feed the cats twice a day at the same time you feed the horses.
To keep barn cats healthy, vaccinate and deworm them at least three times before they are 16 weeks old and have them neutered when they are five months old. Thereafter, they should be vaccinated for rabies annually. State vets often supply rabies vaccine for barn cats as part of rabies control programmes in rural areas.
Diseases, tick and fleas
Can cats be infected by the diseases that rodents carry? Yes – toxoplasmosis is common in barn cats and theoretically they can get rat bite fever and salmonellosis. However, as they bury their faeces and seldom urinate in the barn (thanks to your litterbox training), it is highly unlikely that they will be a risk to the health of your horses.
Fleas can be a problem, as they can infest horses. Cats seldom get ticks, however, and these are generally not the species that feeds on horses. There are pour-on remedies for fleas and ticks, as well as a tablet that can be powdered and mixed in food to keep fleas at bay for at least a month.
Barn cats are disease-resistant and in many cases survive longer than pampered pet cats. This is hardly surprising, as cats were first domesticated in Ancient Egypt to control rats in the grain silos and have been doing so ever since.