December 7, 2012
Caring for Feral Cats in Winter
No matter how resourceful feral cats are, they need help surviving winter. Here’s what you can do.
Step 1: Give outdoor cats shelter from the cold
Yes, their thickened winter coats help feral cats weather winter’s chill, but they still need warm, dry, well insulated, and appropriately-sized shelters.
Ask for help building your shelter
A shelter building party can be a fun weekend project! Ask your friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Try contacting local youth groups to find out if they will help build shelters as a service project.
Where to find materials
You may find inexpensive or free materials by asking building supply stores or contractors if they have scrap lumber. Ask friends, neighbors, and co-workers for used dog houses, which can be modified to make good shelters. You can even use a storage bin from the local hardware store.
Creating a life-saving shelter for outdoor cats is easy and inexpensive.
For shelters, size matters
The reason size is important is that the shelter must trap the cats’ body heat to warm the shelter’s interior. If the shelter is too large, it will be difficult for the cat’s body heat to keep the space warm.
What to put in your shelter
Straw is the best material to put in the shelter because it allows cats to burrow. Pillowcases loosely stuffed with packing peanuts and shredded newspaper also work.
Keep things clean: Replace straw and newspaper if moist or dirty and wash and re-stuff pillowcases as needed.
If it’s really cold where you live and you can’t check on the shelters regularly, don’t use the above insulations. “Wallpaper” the shelter’s inner walls and floor with Mylar. It reflects back body heat, so it’s okay for cats to lie on it.
What NOT to put in your shelter
Don’t use blankets, towels, or folded newspaper; they absorb body heat and chill cats who are lying on them. Forego hay, too, which may irritate noses and cause allergic reactions.
Protect feral cats from hunger and thirst this winter by keeping their food and water from freezing.
Step 2: Give cold outdoor cats food and water
How close should food and water be to the shelter?
If you can do so without compromising the privacy and security of the shelter, place it near the food and water you leave out so the cats won’t have to travel much.
You can also place two shelters—doorways facing each other—two feet apart. Then create a canopy between them by securing a wide board from one roof to the other. Food and water will be protected under the canopy.
Tips for keeping food and water from freezing
What you put them in can make a difference. A thick plastic water container that’s deep and wide provides better insulation than thin plastic or ceramic. A solar-heated water bowl can prevent or delay water and canned food from freezing.
If shelters are well-insulated, you can put bowls of dry and moist food inside the shelter, but far from the doorway. Even if the moist food freezes, the cats’ body heat will defrost it when they hunker down in their shelter.
Don’t put water bowls inside the shelter. Water is too easily spilled, and a wet shelter will feel more like a refrigerator than a toasty haven. You’ll find suggestions for keeping water from freezing at the Neighborhood Cats website.
Don't attempt TNR in the winter unless you can return the cats to a warm shelter
To TNR or not to TNR in winter?
People may be concerned about trap-neuter-release during winter because they worry about releasing females who have had their stomachs shaved for surgery. But winter trapping has its advantages. There are far fewer pregnant cats, so you’ll largely avoid difficulties with young kittens and nursing mothers. Plus you can get a step ahead of the spring kitten season.
Before you start winter trapping, however, you must ensure that the cats will have adequate shelter when you return them to their territory. If you've followed the directions above, they'll be in good shape.