Alley Cat Allies

Winter Weather Tips for Cats

When temperatures drop, people naturally wonder how they can help cats who live outdoors.

If you find yourself concerned for community cats in cold weather, it’s important to remember that these cats’ home is the great outdoors. As a species, cats have always lived outside and thrived in all varieties of locations, weather conditions, and climates. They are well adapted to their environments and know where to find food and shelter from the elements.

However, there are many ways you can provide some extra support. Following best practices to care for community cats can go a long way toward ensuring their comfort and safety outdoors in the coldest months.

Follow our winter weather tips to lend a helping paw when the weather gets cold.

DO NOT bring cats or kittens to animal shelters.

Many shelters lack humane, nonlethal policies and programs. Bringing cats and kittens to shelters where they could be killed is not in their best interest—even when the weather is cold.

Unless there is illness or injury–in which case consult a veterinarian–allowing cats to remain outdoors is the best way to protect them. There are multiple steps you can take to keep cats warm and safe in their outdoor homes where they belong.

Food and Water—How to Feed Community Cats in Winter

Provide extra food and water to help cats stay warm

Cats can benefit from extra food during winter, so increase food portions to help them conserve energy. Canned or wet food takes the least amount of energy to digest, meaning more energy can be spent on fighting the chill.

Be sure to provide fresh food and water daily or twice daily rather than let leftovers freeze.

Prevent food and water from freezing with these methods

  • Serve wet food in plastic containers. Providing mainly dry food, which will not freeze, works for frigid temperatures, too. However, dry food takes more energy to digest.
  • Warm up canned food and water before serving or use heated electric bowls.
  • Use bowls that are deep rather than wide and place them in sunny areas to keep water from freezing. Check out some bowls tested by caregivers. Avoid using metal bowls.
  • Spray insulation foam into the underside of plastic feeding dishes and water bowls to help prevent food and water from freezing as quickly.
  • Or, you can put a microwavable heating pad, like a Snuggle Safe, under the bowls. You can even make your own homemade heating pad by filling fabric pouches with rice, and heating it in the microwave.
  • If there’s a water source like a spigot, run the water slightly—it won’t freeze as fast as still water. You can also use a water fountain or water bowl with a fountain feature.

Build a feeding station for cats

Building a feeding station is the best way to feed community cats during the cold months. It will shield food, water, and the cats from the elements. An insulated feeding station that is built in the same fashion as a cat shelter works even better.

Prepare ahead of time for inclement winter weather

If a snowstorm is forecast that may trap you in your home, be sure community cats have enough food and water to last more than a day. Once you can head out again, take time to clear snow away from areas cats frequent, especially around the cats’ shelters and feeding stations.

How to Make an Outdoor Cat Shelter

Cats can find their own shelter, but you can also provide additional options where they can sleep, relax, warm up, and stay safe. Check out our list of outdoor cat house options, including pre-made shelters you can purchase and DIY options! Don’t worry, building your own outdoor cat shelter can be easy, affordable, and fun! Learn what to look for in a good cat house.

Shelters don’t need to be big or complicated.

Bigger shelters aren’t always better because heat disperses quickly. A good size shelter should be two feet by three feet and at least 18 inches high, and able to accommodate three to five cats, depending on their size. If only a few cats use the house, make it even smaller so it takes less body heat to warm up.

The doorway should only be big enough for cats.

Putting a door flap over the entry way also keeps out cold air and potential predators. Also make sure the entry way is several inches above ground level to keep out rain and snow.

Insulate the shelter with straw to repel moisture.

Do not use hay, or things like blankets and towels—they soak up moisture like a sponge and make the shelter wet and cold. Learn the difference between straw and hay.

Make sure the shelter is level and elevated.

The shelter should be off the cold ground for protection from dampness. Face the entry way away from the wind and preferably facing a wall so that only cats can get in and out.

Check outdoor cat shelters regularly.

Make sure they’re in good condition. Also, check the entrances when there is significant snowfall to ensure the cats don’t get snowed in.

Make it appealing.

If the kitties aren’t using the shelter, try to make it more enticing by sprinkling a little catnip, silver vine, or treats inside.

Provide more than just one type of shelter.

Since certain cats might be more particular about where they like to stay, more than one option is always a good thing.

Give shelters an upgrade.

If cats still aren’t using the outdoor shelters, try to find where they are sleeping and then do what you can there to “upgrade” the spot, such as adding straw.

Precautions to Protect Cats in Winter

Check your car before driving.

Before driving, check under the hood of your car. Animals, including cats and kittens, sometimes climb up underneath cars or inside engines to seek warmth. Don’t forget to check between your tires and wheel wells!

Do not use antifreeze, salt, or chemicals in an area accessible to cats.

Do not store antifreeze in areas easily accessible by cats and refrain from using salt and chemicals to melt snow. These substances can be harmful and even deadly when licked off of paws or fur. Animal-friendly deicers are available at most pet stores, and you can also consider setting down sand or gravel to provide traction instead.

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) in Winter 

Spaying and neutering improves cats’ overall health, and healthier cats are better equipped for the cold elements. It is possible to safely do TNR in colder weather, but use your best judgement. If the weather is too severe for you to be outside, don’t practice TNR.

When doing TNR during the colder months, try trapping during warmer times of the day and adjusting the cats’ feeding schedule so they are out and about at the ideal hours. Check your traps frequently and never leave them unattended—it’s harder for cats to stay warm while confined in the trap.

It’s essential year-round to hold cats recovering from spay or neuter surgery in a temperature-controlled environment—but in cold weather be extra mindful of temperature every step of the way, including transport.

You can also make cold weather suggestions to your veterinarian. For example, ask if they can shave as small an area as possible for the spay and neuter surgery so cats can maintain maximum fur coverage to stay warm.

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