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Image of Cat
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CATS ON PEST CONTROL DUTY
Working cats provide farms and landowners critical rodent extermination services—and some fun personalities
By Erin Brereton
Rats, mice, and other rodents are notorious for chewing through insulation, wiring, and even wood, as well as contaminating feed and water sources on farmland. But when Jayne Griffith found evidence of mice in her Blaine, Minnesota, home a few years ago, it was the health problems these animals can cause that concerned her most.
As an infectious disease epidemiologist, Jayne is well aware rats and mice can collectively spread more than 35 diseases, including the potentially fatal hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
“I was horrified to see droppings and nests,” Jayne says. “Hantavirus is an issue in Southwestern states; however, with global warming and climate change, there definitely is a potential for the mice that carry it to move into Minnesota.”
Cub Cadet
Cub Cadet
Jayne’s home is in a sparsely populated wetland area with abundant wildlife. She didn’t want to use traps because she believes they aren’t humane, and she was concerned using rodent poison could endanger her four dogs.
Interested in a more natural solution, she adopted a small calico cat, Belle, from local animal welfare organization Animal Humane Society, which pairs cats with people and businesses looking for natural pest control assistance. Belle’s not-so-cuddly personality made her seem unfit for households looking for an affectionate house pet, but it fit the bill for a four-legged rodent removal pro.

Belle swiftly made “a dramatic, huge difference” in Jayne’s mouse population, she says. Since bringing Belle on board, Jayne has loaned her to neighbors dealing with their own infestation issues.

Image of Cat
Belle, the cat Jayne Griffith affectionately calls her “employee,” takes a well-deserved rest break from her mouse hunting duties.
Even better, Belle ended up not being the fractious feline the shelter first described.
“Initially, I thought, ‘Perfect; I’m not looking for a housecat,’ since I had dogs,” Jayne says. “It turned out her hostile personality at the shelter was kind of a facade; she’s a very sweet cat. I refer to her as my employee, but she’s a pet now. She’s won me over.”
Jayne’s home is in a sparsely populated wetland area with abundant wildlife. She didn’t want to use traps because she believes they aren’t humane, and she was concerned using rodent poison could endanger her four dogs.
Interested in a more natural solution, she adopted a small calico cat, Belle, from local animal welfare organization Animal Humane Society, which pairs cats with people and businesses looking for natural pest control assistance. Belle’s not-so-cuddly personality made her seem unfit for households looking for an affectionate house pet, but it fit the bill for a four-legged rodent removal pro.

Belle swiftly made “a dramatic, huge difference” in Jayne’s mouse population, she says. Since bringing Belle on board, Jayne has loaned her to neighbors dealing with their own infestation issues.

Image of Cat
Belle, the cat Jayne Griffith affectionately calls her “employee,” takes a well-deserved rest break from her mouse hunting duties.
Even better, Belle ended up not being the fractious feline the shelter first described.
“Initially, I thought, ‘Perfect; I’m not looking for a housecat,’ since I had dogs,” Jayne says. “It turned out her hostile personality at the shelter was kind of a facade; she’s a very sweet cat. I refer to her as my employee, but she’s a pet now. She’s won me over.”
/ A Whiskered Workforce /
Chelsea Whitaker has also seen success enlisting rodent-hunting cats at her Freeland, Maryland, farm, where she offers dog training, hippotherapy, and other services. Out of concern that rodent feces could contaminate her feed supply and make her horses sick, she adopted Mouse, an ironically named 7-year-old cat, from a local shelter.

Mouse began hunting right away. After about six months, Chelsea decided to adopt a second cat, 2-year-old Glitter.

“Mouse tends to go for moles on the ground in the barn; we grow hay, and they can mess up the crops a bit. Glitter gets the mice,” Chelsea says. “They just tag team it. The cats have worked really well.”

Jayne, Chelsea, and other landowners enlisting cats to manage rodents are benefiting from the animal’s natural hunting instincts. According to one study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, domestic cats kill up to 22.3 billion small mammals each year in the U.S.

/ A Whiskered Workforce /
Chelsea Whitaker has also seen success enlisting rodent-hunting cats at her Freeland, Maryland, farm, where she offers dog training, hippotherapy, and other services. Out of concern that rodent feces could contaminate her feed supply and make her horses sick, she adopted Mouse, an ironically named 7-year-old cat, from a local shelter.

Mouse began hunting right away. After about six months, Chelsea decided to adopt a second cat, 2-year-old Glitter.

“Mouse tends to go for moles on the ground in the barn; we grow hay, and they can mess up the crops a bit. Glitter gets the mice,” Chelsea says. “They just tag team it. The cats have worked really well.”

Jayne, Chelsea, and other landowners enlisting cats to manage rodents are benefiting from the animal’s natural hunting instincts. According to one study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, domestic cats kill up to 22.3 billion small mammals each year in the U.S.

Photo of Black Cat
Capitalizing on this ability to provide chemical-free rodent extermination, animal organizations have begun offering programs that place working cats with farms, wineries, warehouses, and other entities.

While some programs focus on urban areas, a number cater to more rural regions, such as the Pasco County Animal Services working cat program in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. In fact, many of the program’s working cat requests come from farms.

Among the cats the department receives, the ones that are friendly and outgoing are often put up for traditional adoption. Cats that are less comfortable around humans become candidates for the working cat program.

“We don’t just say any cat is a working cat,” says Rachel Stever, Pasco County Animal Services education and outreach coordinator. “There’s certain criteria, usually having to do with some sort of under-socialization with humans [and whether they have] ever lived in a rural or outdoor setting.”

But even if pest-control cats are brought on for practical purposes, it’s not uncommon for them to form a bond with their owner.

“Most stories you hear is someone took a cat to do outdoor pest control work, and it became a cat who hangs out on the porch with the family,” Rachel says.

/ Growing and Caring for a Cat Patrol /
Over the years, Brian and Minnie Sprague have taken in a number of cats—up to 27 at one point—who’ve effectively hunted mice, snakes, and other pests at their Sprague Farm & Brew Works brewery in Venango, Pennsylvania.
Image of Cats Sleeping
Several of Sprague Farm & Brew Works’ 17 cats during a break from hunting: left to right, top row: Crazy Cate and Kevin Kitty; bottom row: Ying Yang, Gray Ghost, Orange Jello, and Minn Pinn
“In the country, there are always going to be rodents and animals everywhere,” Brian says. “Obviously, with a brewery and grain, you don’t want too many around. The cats are here to control the population. We definitely see less mice as a byproduct.”

The couple feed their furry exterminators—currently 17 strong—to supplement their kills. The Spragues also get any new team members neutered or spayed to prevent the cat population from escalating out of control.

“We love them—but 50 is probably too many,” Brian says. “We can’t just have [cats] running rampant out here.”

Keeping working cats from running away can be a concern when they first arrive. Owners can help prevent that by facilitating the cats’ transition to their new home, according to Rachel.

“We provide adopters with ways to train them to stay in certain areas—usually starting them off in a small space, maybe part of a barn or warehouse, then increasing it,” she says. “[Our cats] are microchipped, so if a working cat wanders farther than it’s supposed to, people can have it scanned and bring it back.”

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/ Keeping Working Cats and Humans Living in Harmony /
Rodent-fighting cats often roam freely, but owners may want to establish a back-up plan in case the animals need to be contained temporarily.

Chelsea, for instance, has trained Mouse and Glitter to retreat, if needed, to a horse stall she’s filled with toys.

“If someone has allergies, or a dog [I’m working with] doesn’t get along with cats, that’s their safe room,” she says.

At Sprague Farm, which sees plenty of visitors, all but one of the felines usually avoid people. The exception, Kevin, a 17-year-old, enjoys greeting guests.

“The cats are typically not in anybody’s face,” Brian says. “People bring kids here and try to count the cats and figure out their names. It’s a little entertainment for them.”

Photo of Little girl playing with cat
Working cats often become integral parts of farm and land operations, and even grow into family members.
Brian jokes his and Minnie’s next business venture should be a combined brewery and animal shelter, “because we’re on the cusp already,” he says. “As long as [cats] know they have a place they can be warm and get food, they’re going to stick around and be loyal. They become part of your life.”
/ Keeping Working Cats and Humans Living in Harmony /
Rodent-fighting cats often roam freely, but owners may want to establish a back-up plan in case the animals need to be contained temporarily.

Chelsea, for instance, has trained Mouse and Glitter to retreat, if needed, to a horse stall she’s filled with toys.

“If someone has allergies, or a dog [I’m working with] doesn’t get along with cats, that’s their safe room,” she says.

At Sprague Farm, which sees plenty of visitors, all but one of the felines usually avoid people. The exception, Kevin, a 17-year-old, enjoys greeting guests.

“The cats are typically not in anybody’s face,” Brian says. “People bring kids here and try to count the cats and figure out their names. It’s a little entertainment for them.”

Photo of Little girl playing with cat
Working cats often become integral parts of farm and land operations, and even grow into family members.
Brian jokes his and Minnie’s next business venture should be a combined brewery and animal shelter, “because we’re on the cusp already,” he says. “As long as [cats] know they have a place they can be warm and get food, they’re going to stick around and be loyal. They become part of your life.”
Whether your cats are hardworking mousers or indoor pets, Tractor Supply has all the pet food, supplies, toys, and more to keep them happy and healthy.
About the Writer
Erin Brereton has written about business, agriculture, and other topics for more than 20 years and has owned a nonworking cat for 17.

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