Even though feral and stray cats, often also called community cats, are used to fending for themselves during the winter months, they can use some help, especially during severe winter weather. Feral cats are descendants of a domesticated cat that have returned to the wild. Feral cats are born in the wild, as opposed to stray cats, who are usually cats who have been lost or abandoned.

Give outdoor cats shelter from the cold

Even though outdoor cats adapt by growing a thicker coat over the winter, they still need dry, well-insulated shelters that protect them from the elements. Alley Cat Allies offers the following tips for building a shelter for community cats:

  • A good size for a shelter is at least 2’x3’ and at least 18” high. Larger shelters are not necessarily better, since heat disperses quickly, leaving the inside as cold as the outside.
  • Cats will huddle together inside for warmth, so provide colonies with multiple shelters that can fit three to five cats each. If you are caring for fewer cats, use a smaller shelter so it takes less body heat to warm up.
  • Make sure the door is no bigger than six to eight inches wide to keep out other animals. If you’re modifying a dog house, you’ll need to block off part of the door to make it cat-sized. A flap on the door will also keep snow, rain, and wind out.
  • Insulate the shelter with straw to repel moisture and keep cats warm and dry (Note: Make sure it’s straw, but not hay, because hay absorbs moisture. Learn the difference between straw and hay.) Blankets may seem like a good idea, but since they are also extremely absorbent, they make bad bedding.
  • Raise shelters off the cold ground to conserve warmth. Wooden pallets stuffed with insulation work well for elevating shelters and keeping out drafts.

This video by Cole and Marmalade provides instructions for a super easy way to build an outdoor cat shelter (and Marmalade offers some super important quality control at the end):

Offer food and water

Cats need more energy in cold weather, so providing extra food and water is important. Make sure feedings stations are protected from the elements. If you can keep it from freezing, wet food is easier to digest than dry, which will help cats preserve more energy. Consider warming wet food before placing it outside. Change water bowls twice a day to keep water from freezing. Use deep rather than shallow bowls, and fill them with warm or hot water, or consider purchasing a Solar Bowl. You can place food inside a shelter, but do not put water inside the shelter. Water is easily spilled, and wet straw will freeze,  defeating the purpose of a warm shelter.

A word of caution if you have indoor cats

Place shelters and feeding stations for outdoor cats away from windows or glass doors where your indoor cats can see them. Cats are territorial animals, and even if your cats never go outside, they consider what they can see through the window part of their territory. The sight of a strange cat in that territory can cause all sorts of stress-induced behavior, including inappropriate urination inside your home and redirected aggression.

Should you TNR feral cats during the winter?

Some people are concerned about performing Trap-Neuter-Return during the winter months because they worry about releasing female cats who have had their abdomen shaved for the surgery. Winter trapping has advantages, since there are fewer pregnant cats in the winter, which results in an easier spay surgery and reduces the birth of kittens in the spring. Consider covering traps with a secure cover to insulate them against the cold, and check them frequently so trapped cats aren’t exposed for very long. Make sure cats will have shelter when they return after the surgery.

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8 Comments on Help Feral and Stray Cats in Cold Weather

  1. I have several feral cats that stay in our old garage for the winter months. I buys bins and use several old blankets and quilts for them. I also feed them in the winter. When it gets super cold, I add a can of moist food to the dry to give them extra energy. Then in the spring, then go their own way, and they always come back in the late fall to lay claim to my old garage! Just love them <3

  2. This is so important. We worry about cats further north from us where winters can be really tough. Cats are so much better off who have shelter and who have been spayed or neutered so they won’t roam too far from it.

  3. Great article. We have had success with a wooden house that has sheltered litters, and also customized plastic containers. Good to know wet food is better for the coldest days. We microwave-warm it a few seconds if it hasn’t been fully eaten and had to be refrigerated.

  4. Great article! We’ve had good luck both with a wooden “house” that has sheltered some litters, and with customized plastic containers. We feed both wet and dry, but it’s good to know wet is more helpful during cold snaps. Our climate has moderate winters with a few really brutal days now and then.

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