Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Cats at Work

Feline employees still keep barns rodent-free, but they’ve expanded their workplaces to warehouses, wineries and more

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

One of the lovely legends surrounding Christmas is that of the tabby cat who jumped into the manger and began purring to soothe a crying baby Jesus. A grateful Mary placed her hand on the cat’s head in blessing, and ever since, tabbies have carried the M for Mary on their forehead.

Cats have been denizens of barns since the dawn of agriculture, some 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. Once people began storing grain in buildings, small wild cats discovered that grain storage areas teemed with mice. Without necessarily entering into a contract with humans, the cats began providing rodent control to early farmers. It didn’t lead immediately to domestication -- some argue that to this day, cats aren’t fully domesticated -- but felines and humans developed a commensal relationship, one in which each derived a benefit.

Even after domestication, cats retained their association with barns. Nowadays, though, they have extended their workplaces to breweries, warehouses, citrus orchards, junkyards, police mounted-patrol stables, wineries, bodegas, hotels, spas, garden centers, marinas, manufacturing plants, zoos, prisons and even suburban backyards.

“Options are truly limitless for working cat placements,” says Monica Frenden, director of feline lifesaving at American Pets Alive! in Austin, Texas. “Think of any location that has mouse, mole, snake or vermin concerns, and that is a possible placement location.”

It’s the rare shelter that doesn’t have a barn or working cat program. While plenty of cats adore living indoors, gracing our laps with their presence, others hearken back to their ancestral work, preferring to live outside, set their own hours and earn their kibble the old-fashioned way: by providing natural pest control programs.

Shelters that wouldn’t be able to place feral, fractious or other temperamentally unsuited cats in indoor homes work to save those cats from euthanasia by finding them jobs.

“Working cats typically are felines that have had limited interactions with humans or have never been socialized with humans,” says Joan Thielen, public relations manager at Denver Dumb Friends League. “These working cats thrive when they have a job in a barn, stable or other outdoor setting.”

Other cats who benefit from an outdoor job are those with too much energy, a history of biting people or an unmanageable habit of house soiling. Some are simply unhappy living in homes.

Before placement, cats being considered for working positions are evaluated by a veterinarian to ensure that they are healthy and suited to living outdoors. They are spayed or neutered, vaccinated and microchipped. Barn cat “salaries” must include daily food and water, regular veterinary care and a safe living area that’s sheltered from the elements.

Frenden says one of her favorite barn cat placements was with the Austin Police Mounted Patrol Unit.

“They were seeking two new deputies to keep their stable rodent-free after their last Rodent Officer was retired into a loving home when he aged out of productivity at 18,” she says. “Officers Lily and Mama were adopted from Austin Pets Alive! and became official police animals who continue to patrol the grounds and keep the streets safe from mice, rats and snakes.”

And just because the cats live outdoors doesn’t mean they aren’t loved and appreciated. It’s not unusual, Thielen says, for the cats to slowly adapt to their human companions and begin seeking attention from them or even choosing to spend time indoors with them.

“As anyone who has ever had a horse, pet pig or beloved farm critter can tell you, just because an animal does not live inside the house with us does not mean they must be any less loved,” Frenden says. “The enjoyment of seeing your barn cat playing in the grass, the way they come running at dinnertime and the value of their presence endears them to most adopters, even if we can never touch them. Barn cat programs are a win-win for both the cats and the adopters who love them.”

Q&A

Pets not poisoned

by poinsettias

Q: My sister has poinsettias all over her house, and she’s not worried about her pets eating them. I thought they were toxic to animals. Shouldn’t she get rid of them?

A: That’s one thing pet owners don’t have to stress about during the holiday season. Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) have an undeserved reputation for toxicity.

At most, the popular Christmas plants can be mildly irritating to pets who nibble on them. “The sticky white sap in poinsettias usually causes only mild mouth or stomach irritation if ingested,” says veterinary toxicologist Justine Lee, DVM, with the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.

Depending on the amount, pets who ingest poinsettias may lick their lips, drool or experience mild vomiting and, rarely, diarrhea. Sap on skin can cause redness, swelling and itchiness. Unless these signs are persistent or severe, there’s no need to rush pets to the veterinary ER.

“My advice is that they are perfectly fine to have during the holidays, even in households with dogs or cats,” says veterinary toxicologist John Tegzes, VMD, professor of toxicology at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. “But do place them in areas where pets might not have easy access, or if they do, watch to make sure they don’t eat significant amounts of the plants, like the whole plant.”

The bottom line? If you enjoy the beauty of poinsettias, it’s OK to have them in your home during the holidays.

Now, if your sister has lilies in her home, along with cats, tell her to give them to you or throw them out. Cats can die quickly from eating any part of lily plants -- leaves, stems, petals even pollen -- or from drinking water from the vase they’re in. Dogs are less at risk, prone primarily to mild stomach upset from eating them. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Pet scams rising,

says BBB

-- Pet buyers, beware! The Better Business Bureau announced a dramatic spike in pet fraud reports, nearly 4,000 in 2020 from the United States and Canada. After finding puppies or kittens online, would-be owners shell out hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for the animals, only to discover that they’ve been scammed when the promised pet never arrives. Often, scammers lift photos of puppies from the websites of reputable breeders or ask for additional money to cover upgraded shipping crates or pet health insurance. Scammers may request payment through apps such as Zelle or CashApp.

-- Dog lovers, especially those of the Labrador persuasion, will surely enjoy “Olive, Mabel & Me,” a book about the adventures of two Labs and their wryly humorous and just-a-little-bit besotted owner, Scottish sports commentator Andrew Cotter. Olive and Mabel landed in the spotlight when Cotter, out of work because of the pandemic, began narrating their lives on YouTube as they sped through breakfast, waited each other out over a chew toy, went on walks or simply stood in a pond. In between their “sports” activities, Cotter and the dogs bag munros hikes (hike Scotland’s peaks of up to 3,000 feet) and, well, just hang out together. It’s a charming, funny and tender memoir.

-- You may know that everyone’s favorite day of the week -- Friday, of course -- is named after Norse goddess Freyja, but did you know that Freyja’s transport was a chariot pulled by two giant cats, given to her by thunder god Thor? Norse legends do not share the names of the cats, but in her 1984 novel “Brisingamen,” modern-day author Diana Paxson christened them Bygul (bee-gold, aka honey) and Tregul (tree-gold, aka amber). The Old Norse language had several words for cats, including “kottr,” “kausi,” “kisa” (kitty), “kis-kis”(kitty kitty), “ketlingr” (a kitten), “ketta” (female cat) and “fress” (tomcat). -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.