Rodents like mice and rats can be challenging to keep in check during the winter, especially if you're a homeowner. The varmints love nothing better than a warm home to adopt.

But adoption, of sorts, can also be the answer to the problem.

The New York City Feral Cat Initiative (NYCFCI) pairs feral cats with homeowners who would like someone else to handle their mouse issue.

A natural defense

The transformation from feral cat to hired feral cat isn't a quick one.

For the most part, NYCFCI's program focuses on trap-neuter-return (TNR). Feral cats are captured, spayed or neutered, given various vaccines and then returned to their original territory. The cats have the tips of their ears sliced a tiny bit while under anesthesia. This is a visual indication that the cat has already undergone the TNR process. NYCFCI processes around 1,000 cats a month.

But sometimes it isn't possible to return a cat to its found range. This is New York City, after all, and development can happen quickly, turning a vacant lot into a high rise without much warning. In this situation, NYCFCI will relocate the cat by looking for humans in need of dedicated mousers.

"Relocation of cats is an absolute last resort, but if there's a neighbor conflict or if there's a real estate issue, we try to either fix it so the cats can stay or move them across the street or down the block," Kathleen O'Malley, director of education for NYCFCI, told The New York Times in December 2018. "That being said, it's New York City. Sometimes a cat's territory will no longer exist in a few months because their empty lot is going to be built on every inch, and there's no place down the street where they can be moved."

A cat eyes a rat trying to escape it 'Ah, not so fast, my rodent friend.' (Photo: Markov.Sergei/Shutterstock)

But the cats aren't given to just anyone. Humans who "hire" these feral felines from NYCFCI also have to put in some work. The humans must provide large kennels and shelter for the cat, feed them, make sure water is available and maintain a clean litter box. Time, however, is the most important ingredient. A cat needs time to adjust to its new territory and its new human employer. The process, O'Malley said, can take up to a month.

"It's labor intensive in the beginning, but it's crucial to get the cat used to the new territory and to give them reasons to want to stay," she said.

If the cat is tolerating the human near its kennel and eating well, or even allowing petting through the cage, it's a sign that the cat is adjusting to its new territory, O'Malley explained.

In return for all this hospitality, the feral cats provide vermin control. Cats will, after all, happily hunt mice and rats. A cat urinating in the area or leaving its scent on surfaces by rubbing against it will sometimes be enough to convince rodents to look elsewhere for food and shelter.

"Even though there's absolutely no guarantee they will get any and all rodents, it often works out that way. The cat gets a home and the business or owner gets reduced or no rodents," said Jesse Oldham, a community cat expert for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), based in New York City, said to The Times. "We've also seen a lot of people also just like cats. It's nice having them around, even if they’re not particularly social."

As MNN has reported on in the past, feral cats for hire programs, while popular in some neighborhoods, bring controversy with them. Concerns include the aggressiveness of the feral cats toward humans and opportunistic hunting behaviors that may lead to the cats hunting birds in addition to the rodents.

NYC helps put feral cats to work as mousers
New York City's Feral Cat Initiative pairs feral cats that need a range with humans who want a defense against rodents.