PHOTO: Rachel Hurd Anger
Because cats are carnivorous predators, it’s common to wonder if a neighborhood cat or stray will leap over your fence and attack your laying hens. But are cats really that dangerous?
Stray Cat Strut
While my first flock was still quite young—feathered out but not laying—a neighborhood cat would come by to stalk my birds. He would prowl around the coop and lie down next to it. This was before I started free-ranging the flock. When the cat first started visiting, the birds would cluck a bit, but they were still too young to be keenly aware of danger.
Had I free-ranged at the time, the birds would certainly have been in some danger, because the hens were quite small then. As they grew, the cat was less of a threat and hung out with my flock. He became a feature of the yard some days, enjoying the ambiance that chickens bring to the yard, perhaps.
Desperate House Cats
One of our house cats, Lily, became an outside cat when she was about 8 years old. (She had a problem urinating everywhere in the house.) When we determined with our veterinarian that she had a behavior problem, putting her outside ultimately relieved us all. By that time, our chickens were fully grown laying hens, and they were larger than Lily.
The hens needed a bit of time to get used to our cat being in the yard with them while they free-ranged. Like a guard dog, Lily kept some pests away, including wild birds that got into our chicken feed. In the backyard, Lily, the chickens and even the neighborhood cat, co-existed with ease. It was Lily and the neighborhood cat that often fought over territory, but the chickens were always left out of the catty drama.
Consider a Cat’s Motives
If you’re a cat owner, you understand the cat personality. They’re lazy, easily bored and only bother themselves with things that are simple, like chasing laser lights, killing weak animals and napping. A cat won’t prey on an adult chicken for the same reason she won’t prey on the family dog—chickens are too large and not worth the cat’s time. Cats normally kill mice, small birds, and maybe a bunny or a chipmunk on rare occasions. Cats prey on very small creatures they can pick up and take with them, especially if a kill is an offering for its owner. To travel with prey, the dead have to be small enough to keep the cat’s agility intact.
Consider chicks to be in danger of a cat attack until the reach the size of a house cat. This is usually around the time they’re ready to start laying eggs; however, small adult chickens, like bantams and Silkies, will probably always be in danger. If you choose to free-range any of these small chickens, do so only with strict human supervision. Small birds are vulnerable to all predators because they can’t protect themselves, and the youngest won’t even detect danger. Pullets and chicks are far less aware of the world around them than adult chickens, and predators always prey on the small and weak.
The Old Cat is Old Hat
Large, full-grown hens can co-exist with cats because they are as large or larger than domestic cats. Lily became old news to our flock. When she would bring home mice, the hens would steal the kill and chase one another around the yard for it. Poor Lily would pad her way to the back door, defeated.
If a neighborhood cat visits your yard and is a stranger to your flock, the chickens will let you know with frantic calls of danger to one another. And, they’ll stand still in the yard like statues until you shoo a cat away or until the cat gets bored and leaves on his own.