Out of the Cold
Keep community cats comfortable and safe during winter’s chill
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
We tend to think of feral, or community, cats as well able to take care of themselves. For the most part, that’s true — but helping them to stay warm and sheltered during the depths of winter is not only a kindness, it can also help control outdoor cat populations. Ensuring that cats are in predictable locations makes it easier for managers of feral cat colonies to trap, vaccinate, spay or neuter cats and find and rehome kittens in the spring.
“Shelters provide a cozy spot for cats who live outdoors to sleep, relax, and warm up and stay safe,” says Becky Robinson, president and founder of advocacy group Alley Cat Allies. “They also make them less likely to have to find shelter on their own, which sometimes means exploring neighbors’ yards or areas where they may not be welcome.”
The best kind of shelter is one the cat will use, says Karen van Haaften, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist and senior manager of behavior and welfare at the British Columbia SPCA in Vancouver, Canada. Variables include local climate and the level of fear of cats in the area. Some cats are socialized enough to humans that they can live in proximity to them, in barns, sheds or underneath a porch or deck, but many cats prefer to keep their distance.
“Truly feral cats who have no experience with people won’t get that close, so they may need shelter in a wild area that is away from human interference,” Dr. van Haaften says.
Creating a shelter is as easy as cutting a 6-to-8-inch-wide entryway in a lidded plastic storage bin or foam cooler that is approximately 2 feet by 3 feet and at least 18 inches high. That’s large enough to accommodate three to five cats, Robinson says. Any larger, and it won’t retain heat effectively.
Line the shelters with straw for insulation. Avoid using blankets or towels, which retain moisture and make the shelter wet and cold. To keep heat from escaping, attach a piece of clear plastic in front of the doorway that the cat can easily push through to enter or exit. To keep out rain and snow, make sure the entryway is several inches above ground level.
Be sure to camouflage your shelter.
“Paint the shelter a dark color, or cover it with leaves or brush so it blends in with the environment,” Robinson says.
Positioning is also important for safety and comfort. Place shelters on a level area that’s elevated off the ground to prevent dampness and cold from seeping in.
“Wood pallets are great for this,” Robinson says. “Face the entry away from the wind and preferably facing a wall so that only cats can get in and out. Placing the shelter in a wooded area away from buildings and traffic will also help protect cats, and the neighbors will appreciate it.”
Check shelters periodically to see if straw needs to be changed or snow cleared from entrances. Encourage cats to use them by placing catnip, silver vine or treats inside.
Cats are cautious. They may take their time investigating shelters before deciding they are safe to use. They may also have preferences you can meet with simple modifications.
“You may need to add or remove a door flap, bedding, or both entrance and exit doors to find out what the kitties like best,” Robinson says. “If the cats aren’t using the shelter after a few days, try moving it closer to an area where the cats already prefer to hang out but still gives them privacy. The important thing is that the little house you’ve made for them will be there when the cats are ready to use it.”