How to Keep Feral and Outdoor Cats Warm and Safe in Winter
Contrary to popular belief, a warm fur coat does not keep you (nor a cat) warm all through the wintertime. While cats are normally independent, they do sometimes need our help to get them through the cold of winter.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know, including detailed information on building your own feeding station and cat shelter. So whether you have an outdoor cat that likes to stay that way or just want to provide some food and shelter for feral or stray cats, read on to find out how you can keep your favorite felines warm all through the cold winter months.
How Cold Is Too Cold for Cats?
It is very important to monitor the conditions your cats are living in. If they are left outside (or inside for that matter) in below-freezing temperatures, they become susceptible to serious medical conditions like hypothermia and frostbite—both of which can result in death.
Trying to pin down an exact temperature threshold for how cold is too cold for your cats is difficult, however, due to various factors, including: age, length, body mass, fur thickness, and whether they're generally an indoor or outdoor cat. But this quick guide should help you get an idea of when your feline friend might need your help.
What temperatures can cats still survive outside?
- Indoor Cats: If your cat spends most of its time indoors and isn't acclimated to cold weather, it should probably not be left outside when the temperature drops below 45°F. Another good guideline to follow is that if your home feels too cold for you, your indoor cat probably feels the same. In which case, it's probably a good idea to turn up the thermostat or think about getting some space heaters.
- Outdoor Cats: If your cat spends most of its time outdoors though, then it can potentially be alright down to nearly freezing temperatures. Once the thermometer drops below 32°F, however, you should definitely think about either bringing it inside or setting it up with an insulated cat shelter.
- Kittens and Older Cats: Much like indoor cats—and whether or not they've spent most of their time outdoors—you should not leave older cats or young kittens outside when the weather drops below 45°F, especially at night.
Note: It's also crucial to keep in mind other weather elements besides just the temperature. Whiteouts and blizzards can trap and disorient cats, making it extremely difficult for them to find their way back home. This is especially important when it comes to: 1) older cats that may have vision problems like cataracts and may not be strong enough to weather aggressive storms, and 2) young kittens that are not yet familiar enough with their new homes and are more susceptible to getting lost, stuck, or stranded.
Be More Cautious With Kittens and Older Cats
Though healthy, middle-aged adult cats might be able to withstand nearly freezing conditions, young kittens and older cats should not be left outside when temperatures drop below 45°F, especially at night.
How to Help Outdoor Cats Make It Through a Cold Winter
Whether you're taking care of your own outdoor cats or just want to help some ferals or strays make it through a freezing winter season, these helpful tips will make all the difference:
- Build or buy a cat shelter.
- Set up heaters or warming pads.
- Provide cats with plenty of fresh food.
- Make sure they cats fresh water every day.
1. Build or Buy a Cat Shelter
The best way to keep your outside cat warm in winter is to have a safe place for it to sleep. A cat needs shelter during the long, cold winter nights—just big enough for a cat (or a few), but not for a dog, raccoon, possum, skunk, or other outside creatures. Personally, I have a couple of different places set up for my outside cats.
In one spot, I have an outside "closet." (Actually, this is where I got my washer and dryer.) There's a small cat door for them to go in and out. The closet provides a good windbreak. Just cutting down the amount of wind (or completely eliminating it) makes a big difference in the temperature and comfort of the cats.
Your shelter doesn't have to be elaborate to be effective.
My other shelter is an "igloo" type of shelter. Alright, it's really called a "dogloo," but I'm a cat person . . . what can I say? Anyway, the igloo is not very large, but it's insulated (warmer in winter and cooler in summer) and has a small opening. I've also placed a sleeping bag inside. That way, the cats have a warm, soft something to snuggle into, plus the sleeping bag itself is insulated for winter weather.
Where you place the igloo is important. I've set mine up in our carport, which itself provides some windbreak. My carport has walls on all three sides. Even on the coldest of winter days, I've found it can be at least five degrees warmer just being in the carport. I haven't measured the temperature in my outside cat closet, but I'm sure the difference in temperatures are similar, because it's enclosed on all four walls (with only one door for me and the cats to get in and out).
How to Build Your Own Cat Shelter
Cat shelters can be made from a host of different kinds of materials, can come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, and boast a wide range of interior designs. Here are a few guidelines to help you get started though:
- You want to keep the size fairly small, so that it can only fit one to five cats—depending on your need. Not only does this help trap the cats' body heat better, but it also helps reduce the chances of other animals trying to take over the shelter for themselves.
- A shelter about the size of 12″ x 18″ x 12″ should be big enough to house one cat, whereas one measuring about 24″ x 24″ x 18″ should be able to house three or four. If you think you might need to provide shelter for more than four or five cats, however, it's probably best to just make another shelter.
- Similarly, it's important to make the doorways only large enough for a single cat to fit through at a time to avoid larger predators from invading the shelter. About 5–7 inches should just about do it. (If they can get their head through the hole, then they can probably fit their whole body through.)
- You can also add a door flap to further help trap the heat inside.
- It's also important to make sure that the structure is weighed down enough to not blow away during a strong wind.
- Non-absorbent insulation is crucial as well. The most common choice for insulation and bedding is straw, because it repels water and cats enjoy burrowing into it. But a lot of people also like to just go with Styrofoam for insulation, which is totally fine, as long as you make sure it's of the thicker and water-repellant variety.
- You can also further reinforce the interior walls with shiny, heat-reflecting materials such as Mylar blankets or Mylar bubblepack—which you can often find at pet stores (sometimes for free).
- If you decide to use an upcycled Styrofoam container for your base, be sure to line the walls with contact paper (or something similar) to prevent cats from accidentally clawing through it.
- Note: Do not use hay for insulation or bedding. It soaks up moisture, is susceptible to mold, and it is just generally uncomfortable for cats. Blankets or towels are also a bad idea for the same reasons, and they can quickly become more of a detriment than a benefit.
Placement and Maintenance
- Keep the shelter raised up off of the ground by at least a few inches. This helps conserve heat and also reduces the likelihood of insects crawling up into there or rain and snow ruining your shelter. Even something as simple as putting your shelter on top of a wood pallet will do.
- Make sure to place the shelter in a safe place, away from high areas of foot and car traffic.
- Ensure that the shelter is both level and sitting on stable ground. You don't want it wobbling around every time one of the cats moves a little inside.
- If you can, try to reduce the effect of wind by facing the entrance to the shelter toward a wall, fence, or other windbreak.
- You should routinely check in on your shelter to make sure it's still dry.
- If the cats don't seem to be very interested in the shelter, try luring them over with catnip, silver vine, or cat treats.
If you'd like some easy walkthroughs for building your own cat shelter—or maybe just want some visual inspiration to help you get started—check out Alley Cat Allies and NYC Feral Cat Initiative. Both have very informative pages that will help you either build your own cat shelter or direct you to where to buy an already made one.
2. Set Up Heaters or Warming Pads
Depending on your budget, another great way to help keep outdoor cats warm is by having one of those enclosed oil-filled radiator heaters in your cat "closet." Since they're fully enclosed, you don't run any risk of fires, and the cats enjoy the extra heat. They usually have a couple of buttons, so you can regulate the amount of heat generated. The units are normally set up to turn on and off when a particular set temperature is reached. They usually cost under $100 and last for many years. Most home improvement stores carry them.
Another similar idea you can go with is setting up some microwaveable heating pads in your shelters or carport. They only last for a handful of hours before they need to be reheated—usually a maximum of about 10 hours, depending on the brand and temperature outside. But they can be a cheaper option for those still looking to provide some additional heat to their cat shelters.
3. Provide Cats With Plenty of Fresh Food
Outside cats need regular feeding on a daily basis. This is necessary for two very important reasons. The first reason is that well-fed cats are better hunters. It sounds counter-productive, but in reality, a well-fed cat hunts better. A cat is only successful about 20–30% of the time that it goes out to hunt. (This is true whether you're talking about domestic cats or their larger cousins.) Cats need food on a daily basis so they can be strong enough to hunt.
Not all cats have a strong urge or desire to hunt though, let alone eat what they hunt and kill. Cats have different personalities, just like us humans do. Over the years, I've seen my own cats differing personalities—some were great mousers, some were great bird hunters, and some didn't really care to do much more than look outside the windows and be amused.
There are other factors you should keep in mind about daily feeding. Be aware of the fact that mice (and other rodents) can have diseases, parasites, worms, and other things that are not beneficial to cats and/or humans. This fact alone is a major reason why I do regular, daily feeding of my outside cats. I certainly don't want my cats getting sick because they ate a mouse with a disease or parasites!
Another reason a cat needs regular, daily feeding (and the extra calories the cat gets from the food) is because it takes more energy to keep warm and maintain their body temperature during those cold winter months. Keep in mind that it's easier to provide dry cat food for your feline friends, because it doesn't dry out, doesn't freeze, and most of the time cats will tolerate eating it. The upside of using wet food, however, is that it requires less work for their systems to digest, which in turn helps conserve energy.
How much food should I give a cat in the winter?
For a general guideline, you can expect an adult cat to eat about 200 calories a day, give or take 20–30 calories. This measures out to around 5.5 ounces of wet food with an additional ounce of dry food a day. Or if you're only using dry food, then it's about 4–6 ounces every day.
Naturally, you should adjust this allotment depending on how many cats you're feeding and how much is (or isn't) left over after they eat.
How to Build Your Own Cat Feeding Station
Rather than just putting out some bowls of food, setting up an actual feeding station can help entice your outdoor cats and feral ones to stop by for some tasty meals. The video below provides a super easy tutorial on making a simple but effective feeding station. And if you're looking for something a little different, take a look at Alley Cat Allies' cool little gallery of various feeding station designs.
Here are just a few tips to keep in mind once you get to work on making your own:
- If you situate your station on an incline, rainwater and melted snow will drain out of the front. Simply adding an additional board to the back can easily achieve this.
- Place your feeding station away from areas with lots of foot traffic and loud car noises.
- It's also important to avoid placing your feeding station too close to your cat shelter (if both are outside and not in your carport or garage). This might invite competition and lead to fights among cats over dominance and potentially leave less aggressive cats to fend for themselves.
- You should check in on your feeding station frequently so that you know how to adjust the amount of food you're putting out to avoid waste or empty bowls.
- Regularly cleaning your feeding station often is important to prevent diseases and insects, as well as to maintain a more enticing atmosphere for the cats.
4. Make Sure Cats Have Fresh Water Every Day
Put out fresh water every day, ideally twice a day. You need to be aware of how cold it's going to get overnight, however, because water does freeze! (I'm ashamed to say how many mornings I've found frozen water in the bowls. I'm getting better at remembering though.)
Here are a few tips to help avoid ending up with useless bowls of ice:
- Fill bowls with hot or warm water to help stave off freezing.
- Try to place the water where it won't freeze. Put the bowl somewhere it will be at least partly protected from wind and will get at least some sunlight. You can also position it next to heat sources like grates and pipes.
- Consider investing in a heated bowl. There are a number of great heated bowls out there, some of which plug into an electric power source, while others are solar powered.
- If for budgetary reasons, you can't see your way clear to buy a heated bowl, then you need to put out fresh, clean water in the same place and at the same time. The cats will learn your schedule and will come to drink the water at those times. Cats do like having routines.
- If you end up using a non-heated bowl, it's probably best to go for a thick, dark-colored one that is deep but has a small opening.
- Another option is to go with silicone camping bowls. That way, if the water in them does end up freezing, the ice can be easily popped out and replaced with fresh water.
Use Heated Bowls for Water and Wet Food
Making sure outdoor and feral cats get enough to eat and drink is very important, and using heated bowls will help prevent water and wet food from freezing before the cats actually get to drink or eat them.
How to Get Feral and Stray Cats to Use Your Shelter and Feeding Station
If you're having trouble getting feral and stray cats to use your shelter and eat at your feeding station, here are a few tips to help:
- Try putting out food and water at the same places and same times every day. Sticking to a routine not only helps them know when to come by, but it also increases their level of trust in you.
- Some cats feel threatened whenever they see humans nearby. So you might want to try putting out the food and water and walking away to help them feel safer to come over and eat. (And you can always watch from afar through a window to confirm that they're the ones consuming the food and water.)
- Regularly cleaning your feeding station and shelter might also help entice feral and stray cats to come over and visit.
- It's also worth trying to check in on your feeding station and shelter occasionally to make sure there are no larger predators or really aggressive cats that might be scaring away other, more timid felines.
Additional Tips to Keep in Mind During Winter
- Before you start up your car, it's a good idea to bang on the hood of your car and check underneath to make sure there aren't any cats hiding under there for warmth that could be hurt by you revving up your engine.
- Avoid using salt or chemicals to melt snow around your property. This can hurt cats' paw pads and can be lethally toxic if slurped up from puddles or licked off of their paws. Instead, use pet-friendly deicers that can be found at most pet stores.
- Be extra careful when using or transporting antifreeze. It can be enticing to cats, but it is extremely toxic to them. In fact, antifreeze poisoning is an unfortunately common cause for the death of many cats, often unbeknownst to the owners until it is too late. Be sure to clean up any traces of the substance you might see around your property.
- Ways to Keep Outdoor Cats Safe in Winter. CatTime. Retrieved on 20 November 2018.
- Winter Cat Care: Baby, It's Cold Outside!. (2012, October 19). ASPCAPro. Retrieved on 20 November 2018.
- Winter Weather Tips. Alley Cat Allies. Retrieved on 20 November 2018.
- Winter Shelters for Community Cats. NYC Feral Cat Initiative. Retrieved on 20 November 2018.
- How Cold is Too Cold for Cats? Tips to Keep Your Feline Friend Safe. (2017, January 4). Retrieved on 21 November 2018.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.