WINCHESTER — Anyone who has lived on a farm can attest to the importance of cats in controlling the rodent population.

Problem is, many farm cats are one step removed from being feral, and their numbers multiple rapidly because they have not been spayed or neutered.

The SPCA of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke Counties has created a program that offers free cat adoptions to farms and businesses that need to get rid of some mice. It's called the Working Cats Project, and it pairs kitties that don't pass muster as house pets with property owners willing to care for the felines in exchange for free extermination services.

The new initiative is the brainchild of Community Cat Advocats of Winchester, a nonprofit that traps, neuters and releases feral cats and helps care for colonies of non-domesticated felines.

Allie Brodie, a member of Community Cat Advocats and a volunteer with the SPCA at 111 Featherbed Lane in Winchester, is managing the Working Cats Project on behalf of the SPCA.

The initiative makes it possible for feral, stray and non-domesticated cats to be placed with loving owners who let the animals live on their own terms. Brodie said cats that are too feisty, high strung or destructive to be inside a house often thrive when they are given the freedom of staying outdoors.

Even though the cats will live in barns, outbuildings, warehouse facilities and so on, Brodie said they still have to be cared for by their owners. That means the animals need a steady supply of food and water, veterinarian treatments, vaccines and adequate shelter.

In exchange, the working cats will do what they do best — happily manage a property's rodent population.

"It's really the ideal means of rodent control," Brodie said. "If you have a cat that's a good mouser, you don't need traps, you don't need poisons. It's a lot more efficient in the long run."

New owners will be taught how to crate-train a cat so it won't wander away off.

"They tend to adjust really well," Brodie said. "They don't run away."

In time, she said, owners and working cats can build trust and strong emotional bonds, just as it is with people who have domesticated house cats.

The SPCA will not charge adoption or spaying/neutering fees for working cats, but Brodie said prospective owners will be screened to make sure they qualify for the Working Cats Project.

"We need to make sure they have the right type of facility for a working cat," she said. "I'm going to talk to people and assess their situations, and make sure they're willing to go through the steps to ensure the cats are cared for ... and being fed regularly."

Since the cats will live outdoors, owners will have to give them worm treatments on a regular basis and address fleas, ticks and other parasites as needed. It is also expected the cats will be taken to a veterinarian if they get sick or injured.

The SPCA will remain on standby in case owners need help or guidance with their newly adopted working cats.

"These cats are very appreciative when they get a home," Brodie said. "They know what it's like to be out there on their own."

Anyone interested in adopting a working cat can check out the kitties currently available from the local SPCA at winchesterspca.org/services/pet-adoption.

To learn more about the Working Cats Project, visit the SPCA of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke Counties at winchesterspca.org.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

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