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How To Help Feral Cats Stay Safe & Warm During Winter

Oct 10, 2014 · Updated Nov 20, 2016 · ·
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  1. mani
    The needs of stray or feral cats, whether one or a colony, are the same—shelter, food, water and safety. For those taking care of a cat who just won’t or can’t make himself come into the house, here are some tips for making the cold weather a bit easier.

    Preparing a Shelter for Feral Cats

    A converted dog house, a bought shelter or a homemade one will all keep Kitty warmer, out of the rain, snow or ice and give him shelter from the wind. Small is good since heat can escape quickly. A box 2’ X 3’ in size and at least 18 inches tall is ideal. If caring for a colony, shelters with room for three or more cats will keep them all toasty warm during the night. For fewer cats, smaller shelters will need less body heat to keep everyone comfy.

    Other animals, like possums or raccoons, may be interested in spending the night. Keep the entry at about 6”– 8” in size to discourage unwelcome visitors. Modify dog houses to block off a large portion of the doorway. A plastic flap will keep out blowing rain or snow as well. A hinged top will give you easy access to change bedding or put in bowls of dry food.

    Keep moisture at bay with straw as insulation. Don’t use hay! Hay absorbs water, as do blankets or layers of newspaper, so once Kitty tracks in snow or muddy wet feet, hay, blankets and paper stay wet as Kitty stays uncomfortable. Change the straw when it’s dirty or wet and add more as needed for warmth.

    If you can’t check the shelters often, line the inside with Mylar or the silvery heat-retaining blankets victims are wrapped in after a disaster strikes. The shiny surface reflects back the escaped body heat and it’s safe for cats to lie on.

    Elevate the shelter to keep the cold and wet from seeping in from the ground. A base made from a wooden pallet will be a big help and will stabilize the house as cats settle in and rearrange themselves for the night.

    Shelters don’t need to be expensive to make. Ask home supply stores for scrap lumber. Not handy? Have a shelter-building party and invite friends. It’s a good way to educate others about the plight of feral cats.

    Not all people want to see your cat shelter; not all people are cat lovers. If this is your situation, take care that your cat shelter is not visible from the streets or other common areas. Perhaps hide it behind foliage or bushes. And if even a simple cat shelter is not possible, then simply place straw near/under a bush.

    Food Considerations During Winter

    Place two shelters face to face, with about two feet of space between. Secure a board across the top of both to create a dry space below. Food and water can be placed there so the cats have easy access. Once you note the comings and goings of the cats, you’ll know when to put the food out so it doesn't attract birds, possums, raccoons and other stray animals. If the cats' schedule doesn't match yours, try putting out food anyway—they will find it and then adjust their schedule to yours. The feeding station should also be raised off the ground. Don’t forget; in the winter cats need more calories just to keep warm. If the bowls are emptied within fifteen minutes, put out a bit more food. A latecomer shouldn't find only empty bowls.

    Wet food is easier to digest, which means Kitty won’t spend warm-up calories on digestion. Try warming the canned food before taking it to the feeding station. If you live far from the cat colony, consider heating up the food and storing it in a thermos during your drive. Insulate food bowls by setting one inside another to keep a layer of air between them. Spray insulation applied to the bottom of food bowls works too. If the weather is really bad, consider dry food only so there will be something Kitty can eat quickly.

    Don’t put water in the shelter. As the cats jostle for a comfy spot, the bowl can be turned over. Wet, cold bedding is worse than none at all. Check for heated water bowls at the pet supply store or change the bowls often so they aren't a block of ice when Kitty’s thirsty. Use deeper bowls instead of wide ones so it takes longer for the water to freeze. Refill with hot or warm water. Dark colored water bowls will absorb heat from the sun to keep the water liquid.

    Safety Issues

    Before starting the car, take a look at the top of the tires—is Kitty perched there? Bang on the hood in case she climbed up to get warm from the engine after you came home.

    Use only pet-friendly antifreeze and educate friends and neighbors. Antifreeze is sweet to the taste and deadly to cats and dogs. Clean up any spills at once.

    Shelters can get snowed in so when you shovel the walk, make a path for Kitty to get in and out.

    Clear areas where cats can hide, like under the porch, a bush or a likely hiding spot. Ice-melting salt is dangerous for pets. Rock salt can cut paw pads. Untreated cuts can become infected. Use only a pet-safe ice melt.

    What Else to Do to Help Feral Cats?


    Trap, neuter, release works in the winter too. Don’t attempt this when there snow is on the ground or predicted. Wait for plus temperatures—an open-mesh metal trap will expose Kitty to the elements and endanger his life if the weather is frigid or otherwise extreme.

    If the cat is a stray and not feral, try to coax him indoors. Contact a rescue group for help in finding him a home if he can’t stay with you. Remember, strays and ferals depend on the kindness of strangers. Help out all you can. Their lives depend on it.


    Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

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  1. Twinklelight The Cat
    Problem the feral colony I know lives in a abandoned truck and I came here how to keep the kittens warm because they have kittens in the winter and spring sometimes and I can't modify the abandoned truck because its a truck
    Help Please?
    1. mani
      @Twinklelight The Cat for help it's best to start a thread in our Strays and Ferals section as this area is really just for comments. :)
  2. di and bob
    The only comment I can add is that I wouldn't leave the food and water near the shelters, it attracts predators. It doesn't have to be far, just far enough that your cats can escape if they need to. Twice now after a blizzard, I put dry food actually in the large shelter, and both times came back to blood and fur everywhere. The cats were beat up but survived. I learned the hard way!
      debged03 purraised this.
  3. tarasgirl06
    Excellent suggestions!  I absolutely avoid anything electrical outdoors, however, because of potential hazards.  There are nice cat mats which have heat-conducting materials and use the cat's own body heat to reflect back to him or her.  DrsFosterSmith.com sells some at reasonable price which my family enjoy.
  4. lindadmu
    my friend gave me a Indigo Dog House . it works great.
  5. conikat
    Sorry about the spelling...ask if confused, lol. I meant Town btw.
  6. conikat
    So many more good ideas and projects since I last did this in the early 90's. I use memory foam on the bottom now, covered in plastic ( partly) to keep dry, with assorted blankets, towels, etc. on top. The memory foam helps to keep them warm. Pieces of fleece work well too and don't hold water as badly as other things. My last stray, I tried very hard to befriend before bad weather came and he's now comfortably inside the house now, warm, dry, and well fed. We call him Tangerine or Tangee. My little down won money for a nice dog park a few years back which was/is wonderful. Wish they had something like that for the kitties. But we do our best here. With quite a few people involved in helping them with shelter, food, water, and most important---trap, neuter, and release! The numbers are decreasing and they are healthier and happier for it. And thanks everyone for some new and useful ideas for the future ( and now too- the weather has been very bad this year!)
  7. keyes
    I lucked out last year and got a dog house that the neighbors were giving away.  It did need some work.  We cut up a sheet of foam insulation and insulated the whole thing inside, side to side and top and bottom.  Set it on a pallet that we covered first with an old tarp so that it would stop the cold air from coming up from the ground and then wrapped the doghouse in a dark green tarp to help absorb sunshine.  Finishing touch was stuffing it full of straw!  Trust me they're toasty and they're roasty.
  8. wingwalker
    There are plenty of how-to-build-cat-shelters videos on the internet. My tip: pet stores with an aquatics department get fish delivered in styrofoam boxes that are the perfect size for a cat shelter - and they have lids. They are much sturdier than disposable styrofoam coolers you can buy at the grocery store. Go to the pet store and ask an associate about the fish boxes. They toss them out after use and I am sure, the associate will be happy to save one or some for you.
  9. conikat
    Great job, great ideas! I had used heavy cardboard boxes wrapped in tarps. Still not a bad idea even if using other things because it does supply an extra layer of much- needed insulation. I'd also not thought of the Mylar, but wow, that's a really great idea to keep kitties warm in those miserable cold, snowy conditions. You could also use the tarp- backed version to make flap doors since they are heavier and more likely to stay in place. Good luck with your project, it's the best I've heard of!
  10. keyes
    I haven't got around to it yet but with fall here the patio storage boxes went on sale and I plan on insulating the inside of it with thin styrofoam sheets and cutting a hole at one end of it for an entrance door.  The top opens up and this way I'll be able to fill it with straw when needed and it certainly will help when it comes to cleaning it out. I will also have it sitting on a pallet.  I'm actually excited about my little project.  The last couple of years I used a tall outdoor table that I converted to an outdoor shelter with tarps for a wraparound and then used a pallet on the ground with a tarp on top of that.  I then filled that space with a couple of bales of straw. 
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