Temperatures are starting to drop across the country, and more people are wondering 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.

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.

Alley Cat Allies is here to help! Here are our top 4 tips to protect cats as winter rolls in.

1. Provide Outdoor Shelter for Community Cats 

You can purchase fully built shelters to keep cats cozy, but hand-crafting outdoor shelters can also be easy and inexpensive. Alley Cat Allies has some shelter ideas, blueprints, and suggestions to get you started. Here is our most popular DIY outdoor cat shelter.

Remember: Always insulate shelters with STRAW, not HAY. Hay and fabrics like towels and blankets can absorb moisture if it rains or snows, leaving the inside of the shelter frigid. Straw, on the other hand, repels moisture and is a natural material for cats to burrow in to stay dry and warm. Straw is inexpensive and can be found at most garden and home improvement centers.

2. Use the Right Bowl for Water and Wet Food  

To avoid food and water freezing outdoors, serve them in ceramic or plastic bowls that are deep rather than wide and place them in a sunny spot.  Heated bowls are also a handy tool, and we have a few recommendations. Another option to prevent freezing is to provide a source of running water, such as a cat drinking fountain. You can even find solar-powered options!

Providing a feeding station that keeps bowls insulated and elevated off the ground will also protect cats’ food and water from the worst of the cold. We have some feeding station options you can consider.

Be sure to provide fresh food and water daily rather than let leftovers freeze. Another tip: Increase your typical meal portions for cats during the winter. The extra food will help give cats the energy they need to stay warm. Canned or wet food takes the least amount of energy to digest, meaning more energy can be spent on fighting the chill.

3. Take Proper Safety Precautions 

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.

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!

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.

4. Consider These Best Practices for Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) 

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.

Learn more of our top tips at alleycat.org/WinterWeather. Stay warm and be safe!