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Ways to Help Outdoor Cats Survive the Cold, Snowy Winter

winter cat shelter

Story at-a-glance -

  • The coldest months of the year are fast approaching, so now is a good time to lend a hand to the stray and feral cats in your community
  • Feral cat shelters can mean the difference between life and death for community cats who live outdoors year-round
  • Providing regular meals in feeding stations can make feral cats stick close to their shelters, safe from severe winter weather and other dangers

By Dr. Becker

Winter is upon us, and while neighborhood stray and feral cats prefer to live outdoors regardless of the season, there are steps we can take to help them survive the harsh winter weather.

Winter Shelters for Outdoor Cats

One of the most important things you can offer feral cats during miserable weather is shelter. Placing inconspicuous shelters off the beaten path helps keep outdoor kitties from seeking shelter in places that are dangerous or where they're not welcome.

Alley Cat Allies, a feral cat advocacy organization, offers these guidelines for outdoor shelters:1

  • A nice size shelter is at least two feet by three feet and at least 18 inches high. Bigger is not necessarily better, since heat dissipates quickly, leaving the inside as cold as the outside.
  • Once inside the shelter, the cats will huddle together for warmth, so if you're caring for a good-size feral colony, providing multiple shelters that fit three to five cats each is ideal.
  • The door should be no bigger than six to eight inches wide to keep out other animals. A flap of some kind on the door will help keep the inside safe from snow, rain, and wind.
  • The shelter should be insulated with straw (NOT hay) to repel rain and snow, and keep the kitties warm and dry. Blankets, towels, and other absorbent materials should be avoided.
  • Shelters should be raised off the cold ground. You can use wooden pallets stuffed with insulation to elevate shelters and make them less drafty.
  • Provide snow removal services for shelters. Kitties can get snowed in, so keep entrances clear.

For shelter design ideas, visit the Alley Cat Allies Feral Cat Shelter Options Gallery.

Keeping Feral Cats Nourished in Cold Weather

A simple feeding station for outdoor cats has many benefits, especially during the winter months. It establishes a specific spot where cats know they can find food, which eliminates their need to be out in the weather searching for their next meal.

Elevating the floor of the feeding station keeps the food and kitties warmer in cold weather, and serves as an insect deterrent during spring and summer. Alley Cat Allies offers instructions for building a feeding station.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) suggests placing two shelters with the doorways facing each other about two feet apart. Build a canopy between them using a wide board that attaches to both roofs, and put the cats' food and water under the canopy.2

Outdoor kitties need extra calories and dietary fat during cold weather. Canned food is best, but not if it's likely to freeze. An alternative is a dry kitten formula that is higher in calories than adult kibble.

An adult feral cat will eat approximately 5.5 ounces of canned cat food and two ounces of dry food daily in decent weather. When the temperature drops, increase those portions for an extra caloric boost.

If the shelter(s) and feeding station happen to be close to an outdoor outlet, you can use a heated water bowl to prevent water from freezing when temperatures drop. Other tips for keeping the water supply from freezing:3

  • Change water bowls at least twice daily, and place them in the sun
  • Use deep bowls and fill them with hot or warm water
  • Use dark colored bowls that absorb the heat from the sun
  • Purchase a microwavable heating pad to place under the water bowl

Restocking the feeding station at the same time each day will help the cats learn they have a source of daily food and water they can depend on. This should prevent them from exposing themselves to the elements in search of food.

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020

Additional Winter Safety Tips

  • Outdoor cats will sometimes seek warmth and safety underneath a car or up under the hood. Develop the habit of tapping your hood and checking underneath your vehicle before putting the key in the ignition.
  • Antifreeze is toxic to pets, so make sure to secure antifreeze containers and clean up spills immediately.
  • Avoid salt and chemical products that melt snow and ice – these substances are also toxic to animals.

Trap-Neuter-Return Programs

TNR programs are designed to humanely control the feral cat population, while at the same time improving the general health and well-being of the kitties. Feral cats that are part of TNR programs are healthier than cats in unmonitored colonies, with life spans that can exceed 10 years.

In TNR, the kitties are caught, transported to veterinary or spay/neuter clinics, sterilized, ear-tipped for identification purposes, vaccinated against rabies, and returned to their colonies.

Feral cats in TNR programs have colony caretakers who provide shelter, food, and water, monitor their health status, rescue socialized kittens and adults from the colony for fostering and adoption, and arrange TNR services for all new feral additions to the colony.

For more information on helping feral cats where you live, Neighborhood Cats and Alley Cat Allies are wonderful resources.