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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)!


SHELTER
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!

FOOD & WATER
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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Comments

Comment

THANKS, JESSE. Wonderful information. The Omaha Steak cooler is a great idea. Everything on this page was really informative and helpful. Thanks for being such a great caretaker of Community Cats, and for letting us know what we could do for them in the winter.

Comment

My wife is feeding 3 stray cats outside of our house. We cannot take the cats in because they are wild and we have 2 dogs and an 8 week old baby. We are however animal lovers and we want to take care of the cats which are so skinny they are close to death. Has anyone ever made a dog house or cat house that will keep the animals warm in the winter in northern ohio even when it snows and gets below 0 F all the time. We feel so bad we want to help them out

Comment

PLEASE make them a shelter! The ideas here are good ones. We bought a used Dogloo at a thrift store and have it sheltered next to the garage, opening facing away from a breeze. Use straw. Also, add a little sugar to the water. It adds calories and helps it not to freeze. I'm in the Cbus area and work with a TNR group in morrow and Knox counties. Keep your critters safe and warm this winter and then let's make sure they are spayed/neutered in the spring. Tons of low cost s/n clinics in the area! Thanks for being a caregiver. God Bless your family and your feral kitties. 

Comment

Yes....my son & I made a 8'long x 2' wide x 3'tall shelter. ..
We used 8'plywood for bottom,top, back,front...cut 4 individual half moon holes in front for doorways....
Sides were plywood too. Cut to fit.
We put hinges on top to make for easy cleaning.
put basic plywood box together w/added hinged top; lined inside w insulated foam you buy for insulating homes w silver aluminum coating. Reflects body heat back into shelter. We did a double plywood floor w/ tubing pkgs of insulation in between.added 2 8' long 2x4's on each side to allow space so not to crush insulation flat...screwed both pieces together then screwed walls,front,& back together w aluminum corner pieces....
We made 4 separate compartments by dividing them with 2x2 Styrofoam pieces...
Glued Styrofoam piece to the top ( cutting it to so it fit properly when closed..
End product was sealed w silicone to make all seams wind & waterproof....
Roof was angled with a little slant so rain ran off....
You can design ur own measurements....smaller...but this is what I designed....my son built it w my eye...

Comment

It's been a couple of years ago that you had posted on the cat shelters but I've had great luck with purchasing the ex large size igloo houses.  I bought sleeping bags for "0" degree weather that I put in the houses in the winter months.  Then they can get between the sleeping bag once in the house.  The only problem that I have had has been a dominate feral cat controlling who gets in the houses.  However, this may change as the temp goes down here. 

Comment

I forgot to tell you that we also have a waterproof tarp covering the houses.  We cover the entrance more as the temp drops.    In the beginning, I didn't have these igloos and just laid out a sleeping bag and tarp covering it.  I knew those would not be enough but it did attract several cats.

Comment

Dear Ohio Family,
You sound like wonderful people and I can relate to your difficulty. Having a similar dilemma here in Maine, I made a box "shelter" on the porch for a stray cat, out of plywood with a top that could be removed to put blankets in etc. The cat could get in only through small opening near the bottom - which kept foxes out. I have an electrical outlet on the porch so I put a heating pad in the box with a thin blanket over it. With the setting on low, I would put it on only at night. Sometimes all night, sometimes just for the evening if it wasn't going to be way below freezing. The cat survived and thrived all winter long!

Comment

Hi, We have found a terrific shelter idea - our sheriff suggested that a local group that provides houses for chained dogs use barrels that bulk foods and supplies are shipped in. All they have to do is carve an opening, drill holes for drainage, and put them on wood stand. When they got a shipment of smaller (15 gal) barrels, they offered them to us for "feral barrels." They spray them with camoflauge paint and fill with straw.

Since there are few squares in nature, the barrels show up far less than other houses. We inserted one in the shrubbery in front of an office building, others we have lowered into brambles on hillsides midway between parking lots and swampy, trashridden woodlands.

Comment

Would love to see a picture of these barrel houses. Why do you need drainage holes?

Comment

Thanks for the medicine cooler idea for cat shelters. I can get those easily. I am currently using a dog house with straw. I think I will use the idea of the insulation foam to make it warmer. The cats don't seem interested in using it for shelter now. The "feeding shelter" is actually on my porch.

Comment

We have skunks in our area and I would like to know if anyone that built this for stray cats had any issues with skunks getting in the cats shelters? I do not want to find skunks in our area for the stray cats. My dog has been sprayed 4 times in the last 6 years and I do not want to be sprayed.

 

 

Comment

I suggest using pine shavings instead of straw - much warmer and more cozy,and they last a long time. I also use
large Rubbermaid (or similar) totes with lids (lid side up), cut an entrance door, fill with shavings and put out away from the wind. I also use tarps to make a inexpensive tent, with four to six totes inside, all set facing away from the wind and rain. It is also a wonderful place for moms and kittens to be safe. I have found that by feeding them near their shelter when kittens are about, that is starts the socializing off to a good start!

Comment

Wanted to give an update on the cooler shelter.. I made one from a pharmacy cooler and found out the hard way the cat had an allergy to the straw. Please if you make an outdoor shelter, monitor your outdoor babies for allergic reactions.

Comment

I also put out litter boxes in the winter time because it might be hard for kitties to go when the ground is frozen and really cold. They seem grateful and theres always a line when I go clean them, I put them under my porch and on the top of the porch I cover it with a tarp.

Comment

I saw a picture of a cat shelter made out of a Rubbermaid container, styrofoam, and straw and thought it was a terrific idea. Someone said that it's better to use straw than hay because it doesn't absorb as much moisture. Instructions are here:

http://www.erubbermaid.com/roughneck-homes?mid=57

Comment

I suggest taking them inside or finding a home with a rescue or shelter. Why do people promote keeping cats outside to fend for themselves? Would you do the same for a litter of dogs? No. You'd take them in or find them homes. Cats deserve the same care and consideration. They're not wild. They're HOMELESS.

Comment

Honestly Reia, most people who sponsor ferel kitties would love to take them inside and/or find them homes. It took me a year of feeding my two girlies before they would even let me near them.

Comment

Not all feral cats can be domesticated and if you keep removing them from the environment more feral will come into the area if you TNR them and provide them safe food water and shelter they won't reproduce and other feral cats are less likely to enter the area since cats are territorial. Feral cat programs/rescues and cat experts agree and all of their websites can better explain the dynamics and the vital role a healthy monitored feral cat and or colony play in managing the feral cat population. I fully understand wanting to take them all in I want to also but it's not often not possible and can actually do more harm. If you rehome a feral cat and it doesn't take to living indoors they can end up in over crowded shelters and deemed unadoptable and euthanized bc they don't just release feral cats when families bring them in.

Comment

Thanks for the contact paper idea.  I had a cat that ate styrofoam once and I was worried about using it in the shelters.

Comment

stray and feral cats keep showing up here.  One year a very feral fellow was living in our grage.  I had put an electric heating pad and some food out there for him but everytime he saw me he bolted for the rafters or out the door.  One night it was -20F and I couldn't stand the idea of that cat being out there, so I got dressed and went out there.  he was planted on the heating pad and this time, didn't leave it.  I grabbed him and carried him kicking and screeching into the house, dropped him in the middle of the livingroom.  He was clearly shocked by his new surroundings. In those few minutes he realized people and their homes are the greatest things in the world and became an affectionate pet overnight.

Comment

how sweet!!! i have my eye on this stray cat...hes very distrusting though. the minute he sees me he bolts. and its been more than two years since hes been coming around. :( 

Comment

great!!! I live in a condo. Not allowed to feed animals but I do. No fines yet! Do not have a garage. Can't make a warm pet house n place it outside. What can I do to keep her warmer this winter? I am stumped.

Comment

If you can't take them inside, maybe you could contact a local t-n-r (trap neuter release) or feral group and ask them for a suggestion. They may know of a place where they can relocate her.

Comment

Ive got a mamma cat i call molly and her last kitten outside my home. I camt take them in because im at max capacity with 5. I made them shelters, ive opened up my shed to them but the only go in them to eat amd go right back out on my porch and lay there on my old jacket right in the middle of the rain and wind and cold. Why wont these two seek shelter? They never used to sit on the porch, but we have bonded and now they never leave to hunker down in the warm shelters. Just laying there in the middle of the wind and rain and freezing temps kills me. Ive placed a heating pad on the jacket out of guilt since they refuse to move from that spot. I feel maybe they dont feel safe in the shelter because they do not have a fast exit out? Anyone else have this problem? How can i gt them to use the shelters? I feel so bad whenever i go out there and rhey are just out in the elements like that. (besides when i stick the heating pad out) i feel so bad. 

Comment

Can you move the jacket into the shelter? Sometimes catnip in the shelter helps entice them in. Some cats seem to need an escape door more than others. Can you add one?

Comment

Could you try moving the shelter to the porch?

Comment

can you move the shelters onto the porch? Or can you make one or buy one? They have them pretty cheap on amazon

Comment

Me again... you mentioned that they end up on the old jacket with the wind and the rain... can you put a table over the old coat and then perhaps a tarp over that? Or some side panelings? at least they'd be out of the rain and wind...

Comment

You might want to add infromation about a second means of ingress, egress.  Cats do not feel comfortable in a shelter that does not have a way to get in the event that an animal of prey shows up.

Also, I have found that Aspen Shavings makes the best material to put in the shelters for the cats to nestle in.  It does not have a oils that the cats can become allergic to and it does not break down it gets wet.

 

 

 

Comment

Jan, that's a very good point.  It really depends on the location of your shelter and the type of other animals that might be around as well.

Placement of shelters is important in keeping cats safe from predators. If unleashed dogs are in the area, place your shelter behind a fence where the dogs can’t get in, or have the entrance facing a wall so that only the cats can get in and out, and be sure the shelter is weighted down and hard to move. Having a small cat-sized doorway will also keep larger predators from getting in, or make two doorways to provide an escape route. Two doorways means less protection from cold, so be sure to put flaps over the doorways.

Comment

Thank you for advocating for these guys. We use black rubber barnyard bowls at our remote feral cat colonies. I can break the ice out without breaking the bowls. The cats dive right into the fresh water, so I give them tepid water so as not to burn their little tongues.

Comment

We take care of two under a yr old cats brother n sister at work. They habe Styrofoam shelters with straw and are off the ground in a shed that hss no door. It is going to be -25 to -35 in oa where i live tonight with the wind chill. Do u think these babies will survive. They are very loving and sweet. I hope to god they survive.

Comment

I can never get my hands on one of those Stafoam coolers and I really can't afford to buy one because I take care of a lot of cats and then I also have cats of my own is there anyway I could get one donated to me

Comment

Try a pharmacy for the styrofoam cooler. You may also find a cheap (regular) cooler at a second hand store. You could also put a request on freecycle.org.

Comment

ask your local parmacy to save them for you.It shouldnt be a problem as they thorw them away.

Comment

I have 2 feral cats that come everyday for food. There are one or two more that come in the winter looking for food also. I have 2 outdoor cat houses. I bought an insulated dog house from Costco, with a heated pad. I add straw to it. It sits up against the east side of my house. I run an extension cord for the heated pad. The cats use it every winter. I unplug it when the weather isn't so frigid. I have another cat tube in the front of my house that is round in shape. It is also insulated, with a heated pad that I plug in. The other stray cats can use it if they need to, since they all don't get along. I feed them and provide fresh water in a heated bowl on my front porch. Then they leave and take shelter in the winter months. I've made other shelters in the past, using plastic bins lined with high rated styrofoam insulation and filled with straw. Any shelter would be great.

Comment

There was a stray cat on my mom's back deck. He would always run away when we tried to get near him. On Christmas night, in 1992, he looked in at the kitchen, from the deck, as we all celebrated the holiday. It was cold and snowy out there. My brother-in-law, a cat lover, told us to open the door and offer the cat a piece of ham. The cat slowly came into the house for the food. My brother-in-law then said that cat wants to be caught. So, my husband and I picked him up, put him in a box and took him home. He hid in our basement for about 2 weeks. He became the best cat I ever owned and after about 20 years passed away, but we miss him still. All my pets have been strays and they have all made great pets!

Comment

Is it safe to put a heating pad in a wicker house I have for a feral cat. The
House is on my front porch. I feel do bad for this cat
I have a heated dish. Plus I have been putting out ensure.

Comment

Hi Jane, it should be safe to put a heating pad in the wicker house you have provided it is in working order, doesn't get too hot and that the electric elements are protected or suitable for outdoor use. (I'm assuming you're asking about a plug-in heating pad?) Some heating pads instruct you to put it under a blanket so there is not direct contact, so it will be important to follow the brands usage instructions. If the shelter isn't well-insulated (since it's wicker) and you're worried about warmth, you might want to consider insulating the inside walls with 2" thick styrofoam or creating a shelter made out of a thick styrofoam bin placed inside a bin with straw bedding. You can see an example of that by going to think link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ucl/sets/72157602171198946/

A heated dish is a great idea!

I can understand wanting to give this cat extra nutrition - it's a great idea! Ensure is often made with milk, though, and dairy can be bad for cats and dogs. Because pets do not possess significant amounts of lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose in milk), milk and other dairy-based products cause them diarrhea or other digestive upset. ( https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/people-foods-avoid-... )

Your best bet --- Plain water is actually a perfect drink for cats in the winter and I'm sure this cat will appreciate it! You can also try to provide more calorie- and nutrient-dense foods during the winter months. Many community cat caretakers feed their cats kitten-grade food during the winter months. A good rule of thumb is clean water at all times and as good of a quality wet and dry food as you're comfortable providing.

Thanks very much for taking care of this lucky cat!

Best,

Jesse Oldham, Senior Administrative Director
ASPCA

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