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Winter Cat Care: Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

With Old Man Winter on its way, we asked guest blogger Jesse Oldham for some cold weather care tips to make winter more manageable for your outside eartipped friends (and reduce your worries about them)!

Why? While cats are often great about finding shelter on their own, this can lead them to places that might be dangerous for them (warm car engines) or areas where the property owners don’t want them (basements, boiler rooms. Other times, there’s just no sufficient option for them. These are all reasons providing an insulated shelter (if you have the property ownership or permission) is a great idea for community cats in cold climates.

What you need to know:

  • Shelters should be well-insulated. Many people use 2-inch-thick Styrofoam (not the thin summer-cooler kind) inside a Rubbermaid bin as a cheap and effective feral cat shelter. There are many examples of this on the Internet, and the NYC Feral Cat Initiative has a good summary of shelter option links.
  • Shelters need to be kept dry so anything that will absorb or retain water should be kept out. Kitties may like to snuggle with a nice blanket at home, but fabric outside can retain wetness and freeze, so it’s not a great option for shelters. Straw, which doesn’t retain much water and can be burrowed into, is a great option for winter cat shelters – just provide enough to burrow into, but not too much! If your colony is not used to straw, you might want to add it in gradually, a bit at a time. Some people recommend body heat-reflecting Mylar (yes, like the runner’s blankets) as a shelter lining, as it doesn’t retain water.
  • If you use “upcycled” Styrofoam coolers (we’ve heard of people using pharmacy coolers, fish shipment coolers and Omaha Steak coolers), you can line the inside with contact paper to prevent the cats from scratching through the Styrofoam. Be sure they’re weighed down so they don’t blow away.


  • YMMV*: Your mileage may vary* when it comes to how many cats will fit in a shelter! It depends on how well the cats get along, who is territorial and how comfortable they feel in the shelter – if one cat feels “on guard” when using the shelter, they may shelter near the door and not let anyone else in. That said, cold weather often creates unlikely friends, thanks to the benefit of body heat!
  • It might need stilts! If you’re in an area that either floods or gets significant snow, you might need to put your shelter up on a set of bricks.
Example of shelter on stilts from Cozy Cat Furniture
  • And you might need a shovel… If you are in an area that gets significant snowfall, it’s always a good idea to shovel out the path from the shelter to the feeding station. We’ve heard at least one sad story of a big snowfall leading to a sad ending for a cat trapped in his shelter.
  • Party on, dude! If you have a group of feral cat caretakers in your community, you can get together to work assembly-line style to construct a number of shelters in a short amount of time as long as you have the supplies on hand, sharing tools and your own winter caretaking tips. This also makes it easier to share bales of straw – portioning them out for each shelter. If you can get a store to donate their unwanted fish/steak coolers to you, even better!

Why? Feeding a measured amount of food is a key to responsibly managing feral cat colonies and this doesn’t change in the winter! What does change is that everything freezes quickly!

Photo courtesy of Mike Phillips

What you need to know:

  • A protected feeding station can make all the difference when it rains or snows. An upturned Rubbermaid bin with one side cut out is a common feeding station cover we see feral cat caretakers use.
  • If you always feed wet food but the cats aren’t punctual meeting you at the feeding station (resulting in frozen wet food!), consider switching to dry in the winter months. Wet might be better for them, but if it’s freezing and they’re not getting to eat it anyway, dry is better than nothing.
  • The cats might eat more – just like humans typically pack on some winter weight, the cats often eat more to build a little insulation to better deal with the climate. So, up your measured food slightly and see if they finish all of it. If so, you can continue with the increased measurements.
  • Keeping water from freezing is easier in some locations than others! Some folks have the luxury of an electrical outlet and can use an electric-heated water bowl. Others might need to make do: Try to put your bowl in a location where it gets some sun or is near a heat source (grates, pipes, etc,) or try insulating your bowl with Styrofoam or other material. If you are still facing a bowl full o’ ice when you show up for your next feeding and you find it challenging to get the ice out to refill the bowl, consider using silicone camping bowls or baking pans – the ice will easily pop out without damaging the container and you can refill.
If you live in a climate that has your community cats experiencing icy whiskers, what do you do to help care of them? Please put your tips and tricks in the comment box!

Jesse Oldham, Senior Administrative Director for Community Outreach at the ASPCA, founded and directed Slope Street Cats, a Brooklyn-based non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to promoting and facilitating TNR. Jesse remains active in the NYC TNR community by continuing to teach TNR certification workshops on behalf of the Feral Cat Initiative and to develop and facilitate feral cat education and information resources.


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