We may be near the new year, but winter has really just begun and the coldest and snowiest days are ahead. We’ve had several overall mild winters in our area, but after lovely long and warm autumn we’ve made up for that with a couple of significant snows already. 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. Many wild animals die in winter weather from hypothermia, starvation and dehydration, and unfortunately so do community cats. Here are a few ways you can give them safe, warm shelter and help them put on that layer of winter fat they really need to survive long, cold nights and severe winter storms.
Don’t take for granted that animals can survive outdoors in severe weather
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. We need to help them by providing shelter, food and water.
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. Always make sure they have shelter and food and water that is not frozen or covered with snow or ice.
Sturdy insulated shelter
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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.
Many times there is no chance for electricity to keep wet food from freezing, so either a few extra trips to refill dishes or a non-electric warming pad helps to keep food edible. To help it stay edible longer, add a little hot water when you serve it—this will also make the scent of the food stronger and encourage the cats to come and eat right away.
If electricity is available, use a heated food bowl or a food warmer that’s appropriate for your feeding area.
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.
Just like food, 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.
If electricity is available, use a heated water bowl like the one shown above.
Give community cats indoor shelter if possible
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.
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!
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
Gifts featuring cats you know! Visit Portraits of Animals
Cat Artwork from Portraits of Animals!
My favorite feral…I looked in the dining room and there was Moses in the middle of the floor—Moses, who walked about under and behind the furniture, who never left herself vulnerable, who never had a nap in an open spot, like the middle of the floor. And yet there she was, and she was looking pretty confident and relaxed. She had never done anything like this before. She was nine years old. Read more, and purchase.
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