A Multnomah County program lets people with rat problems “hire” cats to keep the pests away.

The program, dubbed “Kitties for Hire,” takes semi-feral cats that are not adoptable as pets and places them in businesses and homes where they can provide pest control for the owners. In return, the cats get food, water and shelter.

People with barns, warehouses and even a few hardware stores have hired cats since the program started three and a half years ago, Multnomah County feline care coordinator Karen McGill told “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller.

“What we’ve done is paired the need to find placement for these under-socialized cats with the need for people who need the rodent control,” she said.

Multnomah County Animal Services gets cats from all along the social spectrum — ranging from friendly house cats to under-socialized and feral cats, McGill said. Before the “Kitties for Hire” program, most of the under-socialized cats that came into the animal shelter were euthanized, she said.

Multnomah County feline care coordinator Karen McGill runs the Kitties for Hire program, which allows people to adopt semi-feral cats to ward off rats. 

Multnomah County feline care coordinator Karen McGill runs the Kitties for Hire program, which allows people to adopt semi-feral cats to ward off rats. 

Courtesy of Multnomah County Animal Services

McGill came up with the idea to hire the under-socialized cats out to hunt mice and rats after she heard about similar programs for feral cats in Florida.

The cats selected for the program are typically semi-feral cats that are young and healthy. The cats are put through an assessment over several days, and if staff determine they are not social enough to be pets, they may be eligible for the program. The cats in the program are usually accustomed to living outside and being fed by humans. They should be avoidant but not aggressive, McGill said.

Once a cat is selected for the program, it is vaccinated, microchipped and spayed or neutered. Then, people can apply to hire the cat. The caregivers are required to own property or have the landowner’s approval to bring home the cat, and cannot be near bird habitats or ecologically sensitive areas.

The cat would then live at the caretaker’s property and the caretaker is expected to provide food, water and basic care to the cat, McGill said.

“When we are placing these cats into a different location, we do want them to look at it as some sort of permanent arrangement,” she said. “We want them to consider that to be the cat’s new home.” 

The program has some critics, though. Jamie Ratliff, a wildlife biologist in Baker City, Oregon, wrote to “Think Out Loud” that releasing cats into the wild can be detrimental to local birds and other animals.

“It is not responsible to promote the existence of an invasive species at the expense of our native wildlife populations,” Ratliff wrote. “For the love of biodiversity, please keep cats indoors.”

Pet owners should keep house cats indoors because they can be harmful to wildlife, McGill said.

“We do believe that whenever possible, yes, cats should be safely indoors,” she said. “We do want to keep house cats inside.”

But, she said, some studies show that neutering or spaying feral cats and returning them to their outdoor environment can reduce the outdoor cat population over time. Trap and removal methods to get rid of feral cats have not traditionally been successful because other outdoor cats will fill the void, she said. 

Since its inception, McGill said, the program has “hired” out approximately 200 cats that wouldn’t otherwise be adopted.

To hear more from Karen McGill’s conversation on “Think Out Loud,” including a story about “mad house cats,” click the play button at the top of the page.