(Too) Cool Cats: Winter Care Tips for Outdoor Cats

Tue, Dec 8, 2009

Animal Welfare


Guest post by Peter J. Wolf

While it’s easy to get caught up in all the luxuries regularly featured on Moderncat, we can’t forget about the many cats that, all too often, lack even the basic necessities. Feral–or community–cats rarely know the comforts of a bottomless bowl of food and a warm bed (though many of these cats are actually stray or have been abandoned, and therefore do know something of the good life).

Thankfully, there are a number of individuals and rescue organizations dedicated to caring for community cats, typically through their Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs. TNR involves humanely trapping cats that are thought to be feral, having them spayed or neutered (often receiving vaccinations at the same time), and then returning them to the location where they were trapped.

But, as the Urban Cat League notes on its website, TNR is a substantial commitment, one that must be taken seriously by everybody involved. “TNR stands for Trap-Neuter-Return, not Trap, Neuter, and Run. Maintaining the life-long welfare of the colony after neutering is an equally important link in the chain of compassion.” During winter months, of course, caring for outdoor cats requires additional effort.

General Tips
Whether you’re an “official” colony caretaker, looking after the neighborhood cats, or simply concerned for the welfare of your community cats, you’ll want to check out Alley Cat Allies’ “winter weather tips”.

One of their tips–keeping ethylene glycol antifreeze away from all animals–is actually good year-round advice for everybody. The sweet taste of this automotive engine coolant is very tempting, and even a small amount can be fatal. (Propylene glycol-based antifreeze is, according to the EPA, “less toxic to humans and pets.”)

As temperatures drop, cats seeking warmth will sometimes huddle under cars and trucks, or sneak up into their engine compartments. Be sure to check under your car and tap on the hood before starting the engine.

To delay or prevent drinking water from freezing:

  • Use bowls that are deep, rather than wide and shallow. If possible, place them in a sunny location.
  • When refilling the bowls, use hot or warm water.
  • Add a pinch of sugar to the water, which keeps it from freezing as quickly (and also provides an energy boost for the cats).
  • If an electrical outlet is nearby, use heated bowls.
  • Maintain a regular feeding schedule for your cats. Once they’re used to regular mealtimes, they’ll be waiting for you–which means the food and water will spend less time in the cold before it’s consumed.

Shelter from the Weather
Although outdoor cats are pretty good at keeping warm on their own, you can help by providing some shelter. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but there are some important considerations to keep in mind, such as the materials. Blankets might seem like a good idea, but they absorb moisture. “Straw is the best choice for insulation and bedding in a shelter,” according to Alley Cat Allies. “It resists moisture and keeps the shelter warm.”

Other important considerations include:

  • Raise the shelter off the ground, and locate it in a quiet, unobtrusive, low-traffic area.
  • Make sure the shelter provides enough room for three to five cats (they’ll often bunch together for warmth).
  • Restrict the size of door openings to no more than six-to-eight inches wide, which will help keep out other wildlife and larger predators.
  • Install a flap on the door to keep out snow, rain, and wind.

Sources and Instructions for Shelters and Feeding Stations
There are several online sources for shelters and feeding stations designed for outdoor cats, many of which include photos of the products in use. And for the do-it-yourselfer, there are lots of plans and kits available as well. (Guys, this could be your big chance to score that pricey table saw on your Christmas list!)

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11 Responses to “(Too) Cool Cats: Winter Care Tips for Outdoor Cats”

  1. 1

    Interesting, informative and clever, as always.

    However, the title got me confused: I thought it was about cats who have access to the outdoor, and not about feral. Then again, I’m used to opening my backdoor all day long for my cat to go out, so I’m a bit biased (in vain, winter has her setting camp on my laps, which is a great source of pleasure for me).

    It’s funny how feral seem to be such an issue in the USA; here in France, all we hear about are summer abandons, animals left on the side of the road, very often about a year after they were bought or adopted as kittens. There are few ferals, and they are considered a problem. Just wanted to point out a cultural difference !

  2. 2

    Thank you for this post reminding us about all the cats struggling to survive outdoors.

  3. 3

    If you have a feral cat or two hanging around outside your house, there is a very inexpensive way to keep them warm this winter. I bought a couple of small styrofoam ice chests, glued them together and cut out a doorway.
    I used a couple of wedge shaped pieces from the lids to make stabilizing feet for the bottom.

    The fun part of this is that you can start with any shape or size of styrofoam ice chest and let your creativity run. Plus, you’ll be keeping a few paws warm this winter. :-)


  4. 4

    That was a wonderful post. Those outside feral cats are pretty self resouceful, but it is so much better if they have food and water and a place to get out of the weather. I have a bunch here that I feed and luckily I have two barns so, they have a place to get out of the weather. Those were some great suggestions. Especially the antifreeze. That will kill an animal. I had a dog get in some and she died a week later from Kidney failure

  5. 5

    Thanks for these excellent ideas and suggestions, Kate! I would NOT, however, suggest any electricity where water or other liquid is present. It can have tragic consequences!

    John, that’s a GREAT idea and hopefully rescuers and colony caretakers will be able to use it.

  6. 6

    I built a half dozen shelters for the ferals I’ve been taking care of for the past year. Double containers with straw between the two containers, straw bedding and the interior shelter lined with space blanket material to reflect body heat back onto the cat.

    None have used any of them yet from what I can tell.

    It’s distressing me as we’ve had some really cold weather already. The other night I finally left my garage door cracked open hoping some of them might seek shelter in there. My garage is attached and I can see into it from my back porch via a side window. I’ve watched them enter, only to eat and then leave, on a night when it was 15 degrees outside with brutal winds.

    Tonight when I got home from work I did see indications one or two cats bedded down into the thick layer of straw I left on the floor.

    But I guess I’m thinking like a human and not a cat…

    The advice to leave warm/hot water may not be the best. See
    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/hot_water.html — hot water actually freezes faster.

  7. 7
    Julie F.

    I am searching around for advice on winter feeding for an older barn cat. (my dog precludes taking her into my house proper) She is 17 years old, and I’ve built her winter shelter boxes that are insulated with Blue Board between inner and outer layers for maximum warmth, and keep it supplied with Polar fleece inside that I renew annually.

    My question pertains to what is best to feed her. I keep a bowl of kibble out for her at all times as well as water in the horse’s hydrants being available and unfrozen, but would like some advice on what kind of kibble would be best for an older cat in this situation.

    Would adding something like Nutrical to her daily wet food be a good idea? She seems thin going into winter, despite deworming.

    She actually has two boxes I made like that, and I am considering filling one with straw and one with Polar Fleece so she can take her pick.

    I’m hoping the barn manager will let me plug in a heating pad for her this winter.

  8. 8

    i have 3 stray cats that i feed.they are adorable..
    i obtained an old dog kennel for them,straw and fleece blankets.each night when its cold i tumble dry the blankets and put them back warm and dry.they are adorable and i wish i could bring them indoors but my dog would never allow it..

  9. 9

    We have a feral cat that had kittens under our deck. We set up Momma Cat with a dog kennel and inside we put a sunbeam outdoor cat heating pad along with a cheap pet bed with tall sides. She loves it.

    We had her spayed, microchipped and vaccinated and released her back out. She doesn’t leave the yard and has been able to continue nursing her babies without issues. She takes food from us, doesn’t let us touch her but doesn’t care that we handle her kittens.

    The two kittens are indoor/outdoor. Some nights they sleep inside and other nights they sleep outside with momma. Very loving kittens. They’re getting big enough to take in for spaying/neutering/microchipping/vaccination so that’ll happen in the next couple of weeks.


  1. [...] (Too) Cool Cats: Winter Care Tips for Outdoor Cats | moderncat … Share and [...]

  2. [...] ModernCat also published a list of tips for caring for cats outdoors at (Too) Cool Cats: Winter Care Tips for Outdoor Cats. [...]

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