A Checklist for Community Cats in Wintry Weather

feral tabby cat
Strudel is a little wary of me.

Whether you feed the occasional outdoor cat or you care for a colony or more, wintry weather is a special circumstance where each cat’s life could depend on what you provide for them. We often think of snow when we think of winter, but the more present danger to health and safety is actually cold temperatures and exposure. Here’s a checklist for you to consider:

  1. Fresh, unfrozen water.
  2. Nutritious wet food warmed or in an insulated bowl and kept from freezing, plus dry food.
  3. Warm, dry shelter.
  4. Paths cleared of snow and slush to and from their food, shelter and toileting area.

The list could go on with many other items, but these four, and the details that fall below each, are what community cats really need in bitter cold weather.

Don’t take for granted that animals can survive outdoors in winter weather

If it feels cold to you, it feels cold to animals too. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because they are animals with fur, and many wild animals live outdoors all the time and seem to survive, that cold is not only tolerable but comfortable for them. Simply because other animals live in the outdoors without human intervention doesn’t mean they survive severe weather—and it doesn’t always mean that those animals whose habitats are outdoors live well or even survive the winter. Wild animals need and find adequate shelter and food and water if they don’t hibernate, and if they don’t find these things they don’t survive.

Community cats are not wild animals despite the fact they are living outdoors—they are domestic animals and aren’t hardwired to build a den or nest for winter protection in the way wild animals do. Cats may tolerate cold for a while, but their small bodies lose heat quickly and extremities like tails and ears can easily be lost to frostbite. Kittens and young cats are less tolerant of cold than adults, likewise older animals are less tolerant.We need to help them by providing shelter, food and water, and make getting from one thing to another easier for them.

Water

 

Water is just as important as food, perhaps even moreso. Animals can survive days, even weeks, on existing body fat, but a few days without water causes severe dehydration and organ damage or failure, often irreversible.

If electricity is available, use a heated water bowl like the one shown above. They aren’t terribly expensive, don’t take a lot of electricity to keep at low temperature to keep water from freezing, and most people I know who use them find they last for years. It can be used out in the yard, as above, or you can use it on a porch.

Obviously, they can’t drink water if it’s frozen, even just a rime of ice on the top. Most cats won’t punch their paws through it. If there is no chance for electricity to keep water from freezing, a few extra trips to refill dishes with hot water to keep it liquid longer, or a non-electric warming pad helps to keep water liquid. Make sure dishes are non-breakable and are stable so they can’t be tipped to spill out the water.

Food

Food bowls under the eaves and on a path clear of snow.

Cats living outdoors need to build up a layer of fat to help insulate themselves in cold weather. Dry food is convenient, but wet food is more nourishing for them and provides extra liquid to their diet, so try to provide wet food at least once a day when the weather gets cold.

Place food bowls in a protected area so food won’t be covered with snow or wet with rain or sleet, and also so that they can eat in comfort out of the wind and weather.

If electricity is available, use a heated food bowl or a food warmer that’s appropriate for your feeding area. Many times there is no chance for electricity to keep wet food from freezing, but here are a few ideas to help it stay edible a little longer:

  • heat it prior to serving
  • add a little hot water
  • put out smaller servings more frequently
  • place a non-electric warming pad under the dish

Heating the food or adding hot water makes the scent of the food stronger and encourages the cats to come and eat right away.

Sturdy insulated shelter

Joined shelters for a colony of feral cats.
Joined shelters for a colony of feral cats.

If you’re caring for cats who live outdoors, they should have shelters of some sort at all times, but especially at this time of the year. Shelters come in many forms and shapes: individual shelters, group shelters or a system of joined shelters with individual entrances all work depending on the situation. If you feed near your home, use your home as part of the shelter to block wind and snow, like using the space under a deck or a porch and hanging tarps.

feral cat shelters
The feral cat lounge on the porch with tarps hanging from the roof.

Many shelters are made from Rubbermaid containers with smaller containers inside and styrofoam or straw between the two containers for insulation, others from styrofoam coolers wrapped with heavy plastic garbage bags, others are wood and other building materials. Some cats won’t go into shelters so the best you can provide is just a protected area which you can still outfit with the guidelines below.

No matter what sort of shelter:

  • They should be insulated by a solid material like styrofoam that is sealed with tape and/or caulking to form a complete barrier to wind, cold and moisture.
  • They should be filled with dry straw that the cats can nestle into, not hay which is animal feed and has a certain amount of moisture, and not blankets which hold moisture and can develop mold and mildew.
  • Entrances should face away from the wind and even have a flap over the doorway to help keep cold out.
  • They should be placed in a safe area away from traffic or dangers where cats can enter and leave to access food and water without impediment.
  • They can be raised off the ground and insulated underneath to keep from absorbing cold from soil or pavement.

Keep gathering and walking areas clear

two feral cats
Grandma and Lucy.

Cats are only a few inches off the ground. Walking through snow takes a lot of energy, and it can also soak paws and legs and freeze paw pads. When weather is especially cold, cats want to spend as little time out in it as possible, and struggling their way through snow or slush may even deter them from getting to food or water.

Keep feeding and watering areas clear of snow and ice as well as shelter areas, and don’t forget that they have to toilet somewhere. You could provide litterboxes placed away from their food and shelter just for winter when the ground is frozen, but even if not, keep paths clear between all the areas.  If snow falls, clear snow away from the area around their shelters so they can easily access any part of the area, and so that when the snow melts it doesn’t leave water, mud or ice behind for the cats to walk on and track into their shelter, or to present a danger to you when you feed and care for them. If you use rock salt, only use a pet safe brand. Toss some straw over any muddy areas or ice they may need to walk over. These shelters below are pulled out from the wall in winter and have spaces between them so the cats can walk under cover around the corner to their feeding area.

Shelters have a space behind them.

If shelters are placed in a covered area, such as under a deck or porch, with electricity available, you can also consider a warming light such as ones used for poultry or livestock, if you find it safe to use in that space without being a fire hazard.

In heavy snow or when temperatures fall to single digits

Often community cats are accustomed to their caretaker(s) and may be amenable to simply coming into a sheltered area for the duration of the storm, then returning back outside when the worst is over. Some cats living in a colony together will not take well to being confined indoors together because they can’t escape. But if there are young cats, old cats, cats with any injuries or illnesses you are treating, or cats who would seem amenable to coming indoors for a few days, you could make some arrangements to bring them inside in some way during the most intense cold. Depending on how socialized they are, they may be able to wander loose or may need to be confined to separate areas or large cages.

feral cat inside porch
Missy is indoors for a cold snap.

If you have a shed or outdoor area where cats would be completely out of the elements for the duration of a storm you could consider coaxing them into the sheltered area and providing beds, food, water and litterboxes there.

A garage will sometimes work if the floor is clear of vehicle fluids and residue. Bringing them into your home is risky because most people who would do this often have other cats and you need to keep everyone separated for health and social reasons; even just bringing strange cats into your home that your cats can’t see may upset them.

They may not like to be indoors, but it could save their life.

And thank you for caring for community cats!

Resources

Alley Cat Allies: Winter Weather Tips (www.alleycat.org/community-cat-care/winter-weather-tips/)

Top Ten Tips on Caring for Ferals in Winter (www.aspcapro.org/resource/spay-neuter-feral-cats-starting-program/top-ten-tips-caring-ferals-winter) from the ASPCA


Read more articles about Health and Safety, Feral Cats, Community Cats and TNR.


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6 thoughts on “A Checklist for Community Cats in Wintry Weather

  • January 6, 2022 at 2:15 pm
    Permalink

    Despite the fact that I put out fresh water for the outside cats every day, they still prefer to sit by the sump pump discharge pipe and wait for that! Eww!

    Reply
  • January 4, 2022 at 7:23 pm
    Permalink

    That’s all such important information. I need to get our ferals a heated water bowl.

    Reply
    • January 6, 2022 at 8:46 pm
      Permalink

      A lot of last year’s stock goes on sale this time of the year so I hope you can find one. That’s when I found one for Denise, at half off!Since then I’ve seen them on clearance tables. Good luck!

      Reply

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