How to Help Outdoor Cats Stay Warm and Safe in Winter Weather

Outdoor Cat in Winter
Wondering what you can do to help barn or feral cats through the winter? Dr. Marty Becker has plenty of suggestions.

Many cats live happily and cozily indoors, but there are some who spend their days and nights outdoors — working animals, such as barn cats, or feral cats who live on their own, for example. Those cats might be tough and used to fending for themselves, but their fur coats and weapons of mouse destruction aren’t always enough to keep them warm and fed during the coldest months.

If you have a kind heart and warm feelings for the animals who help keep down the rodent population in your neighborhood, here are three ways to help them stay warm, fed and safe during the worst winter weather.

Shelter From the Cold

Outdoor cats need a place to go when the temperatures drop. You can purchase an appropriate shelter at a pet supply store, modify a doghouse or make your own. The kind of cat house you want in your neighborhood is approximately two feet by three feet and at least 18 inches high. It’s just the right size for a cat or three (so they can snuggle for warmth) but not so large that heat will disperse quickly. 

Keep the doorway small, about six to eight inches wide. That will help keep larger predators out in the cold. Attaching a plastic flap will help to repel snow, rain and wind, and keep warmth inside.

Insulate the shelter with straw, not hay. Mylar blankets cut to size can also help cats retain warmth. Avoid using conventional fabric blankets or towels, which absorb moisture and can make the interior cold. Placing the shelter on a pallet or other surface to raise it off the ground can also help to insulate it.

Place shelters in out-of-the-way areas. Cats won’t use them if they’re in high-traffic areas. Think about where you’d feel safe if you were a cat and put the shelter there.

Alley Cat Allies has some great suggestions on shelters to buy or make using plastic storage containers. Building supply stores may be willing to donate scrap lumber for DIY cat shelters.

A Warm Meal (and a Drink, Too)

Outdoor cats need extra calories to help them stay warm. Put slightly warmed canned food out at regular times each day — the cat will learn to arrive then and eat before the food gets cold. Even if you normally give canned food, leave out plenty of dry food as well. Canned food will freeze if it's not eaten right away.

Many cats tend to be chronically dehydrated, and winter’s chill can make it even more difficult for feral or outdoor cats to get access to water. The best thing you can do is put out water for them and check it twice daily to make sure it hasn’t frozen over. An even better option is to purchase a pet-safe, heated water dish to prevent freezing. If that’s not feasible, look for solar pet dishes that use sun power to keep water and food from freezing. Remember to refresh the water daily, so it stays clean.

Place water and food dishes near shelters but not inside them. If water spills inside the shelter, it can make it a whole lot colder. And avoid using metal bowls. You know what happens when you touch your tongue to something metal when it’s cold outside — it sticks, right? Happens to cats, too. Use ceramic or plastic dishes instead.


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