Outdoor Cat Care In Winter: Tips To Keep Your Feline Friends Warm And Safe

25 November 2021

Most cats can safely spend time outdoors nearly all year long. But when temperatures drop, your furry friends may need a little help to stay warm, dry, and well-fed. Let’s find out how you can keep your outdoor kitty safe and warm all winter long.

grey cat sitting outside in winter snow

Outdoor cats can easily adapt to many types of weather. But on bitterly cold winter days, outdoor cats can use assistance from their human friends. A dry shelter box and extra food can help your kitty to get through the toughest part of winter. In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to protect outdoor cats in winter.

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Can cats survive winter outdoors?

Cats that spend the entire year going outdoors will grow a thick coat of fur as cold weather approaches. Your outdoor cat probably has strategies for staying warm and dry when outside in the winter – a secret nook to stay out of the weather, a neighbor that leaves pet food outdoors, or a lucky spot for hunting rodents.

Surviving the winter outdoors is one thing – staying healthy and strong is another. You can help your outdoor cat survive the winter in better condition by providing a cat shelter, lots of food, and unfrozen water in very cold weather. 

What temperature can cats still survive outside? 

Experts agree that outdoor temperatures under 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) can pose a danger to cats if they do not have access to a suitable shelter. When temperatures drop below freezing, cats can be at risk for hypothermia and frostbite, both of which are life-threatening conditions. 

An indoor cat that goes outdoors only occasionally will not be able to handle below-freezing temperatures for more than a few minutes. For cats that are primarily indoor cats, keep them inside when the thermometer falls below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) just to be on the safe side.

brown patterned cat walking outside in snow

Bring your cat inside

The best way to protect your cat from cold temperatures is to bring them inside where they can stay warm and cozy with access to plenty of food, water, and snuggles. For indoor cats, this should be no problem. 

If you have an indoor/outdoor cat, try to bring them indoors at night when temperatures are the coldest. Be sure they have access to a shed, barn, or cat shelter to get out of the weather during the day. 

If you care for a true outdoor cat or you support stray or feral cats, providing shelter is very important, as well as offering unfrozen water and dry food. Note that many of the creatures that outdoor cats hunt, such as mice and small animals, are hunkered down in the winter, so the cats’ natural food supply is limited in very cold weather.

Provide warm, dry shelters

If bringing your cat indoors is not an option, you can create a simple shelter box to keep kitty warm, safe, and dry all winter. Shelters are also a way to offer a warm retreat for stray or feral cats in your neighborhood during cold weather.

Building or buying a cat shelter: what is best for outdoor cats?

You can build a permanent shelter out of wood, similar to a small doghouse, using plans that are available online. Or, you can buy a ready-made or easy-to-assemble cat shelter from a number of online retailers. 

An outdoor cat seeking a warm hideout is not going to be fussy about the type of shelter you provide in winter. However, your neighbors might appreciate it if the shelter somewhat attractive, well camouflaged, or hidden in a wooded or brushy area.

A less expensive DIY cat shelter can be built from a plastic storage tote. Use a box cutter to cut out front and rear openings that are about six to eight inches square – just big enough to let a cat squeeze in, but small enough to keep the cold air out. A rubber flap on the doors will further protect kitty from the cold. Just be sure the flap does not prevent the cat from easily entering and leaving the shelter box. 

Why do you need a second door opening on the rear of the shelter box?  If an unwanted intruder, such as a wild animal, enters the shelter, the cat will have an escape hatch to make a quick exit. 

Use duct tape or caulk to firmly attach the lid to the tote. Set the shelter box on a pallet, a few boards, or bricks to elevate it off the cold, damp ground. Raising the box a few inches will help to insulate it and keep rain or snow from seeping in through the doorway from the ground. 

More tips on creating a heated outdoor cat house

Why size matters with cat shelters

Unless you plan to run an electric heater to your cat shelter, it’s important not to make the shelter too large. That’s because the only source of heat in the shelter is the cat itself. 

In a small shelter box, the cat’s body heat will warm the space quickly. If the shelter box is too large, the cat’s body heat will dissipate into the large space and the cat will not be able to stay as warm. Just be sure the shelter box is big enough for the cat to stand up and turn around inside.

What to put in your outdoor cat shelter

The main job of the cat shelter box is to protect the cat from cold, rain, and snow. Do not put food in the cat shelter – place it in a covered feeding station instead. Food could attract unwanted visitors to the cat shelter and put your cat at risk. 

Straw is the best material to lay on the floor of the shelter box. Straw repels moisture, is a good insulator, and cats can burrow into it to stay warm. Remember that straw and hay are not the same – hay will get moldy and does not insulate as well as straw. Change out the straw periodically all winter.

Insulate the shelter against moisture as well as cold

Don’t put towels or blankets in the shelter box. These will pull heat away from your cat rather than insulating them. Towels and blankets also hold moisture, which will create an unpleasant damp and chilly environment. 

Seal all seams and openings of your shelter box to keep out rain and snow. You can use caulk or waterproof tape for this task. If the box’s lid won’t stay on, or the entire shelter is lightweight and could be easily tipped or blown over, put bricks or rocks on top of the shelter to hold everything in place. Be sure to check the cat shelter right after a heavy rain or snowfall to make certain that the shelter’s interior is dry and moisture has not seeped in through the doorways. 

Provide plenty of warmed food and water

In very cold weather, any food and water you leave out for your cat can freeze before it’s eaten. Unless you want to place fresh food and water outside for your cat several times a day, invest in heated bowls. 

How much food should I give a cat in the winter?

Cats who spend most of their time outdoors in the winter need extra food. These cats expend extra energy to stay warm, so give them more food than you would in warmer weather. Remember, if your cat is a hunter, the critters that they rely on as prey are probably hiding in their burrows for the winter and are unavailable.

Canned cat food freezes quickly when it’s very cold outside. Consider offering dry kibble, and lots of it! Your cat will thank you.

Where to place food and water

Food and water should be placed where your cat spends their time outdoors. Because you will need put out fresh food and water daily, choose a spot that’s convenient for you, too. You want to avoid trudging through deep snow or mud if possible! A covered feeding station is a good option. This will keep rain and snow from falling onto the food, and make feeding time a little bit more comfortable for your kitty.

How to keep outdoor cats’ food and water from freezing

Heated bowls can keep water and canned cat food from freezing. These heated bowls plug into an electrical outlet, so consider how you will set this up outdoors to safely accommodate the plug and cord. You may want to keep the heated food and water bowls on your porch, as long as you are okay with stray critters possibly visiting so close to your home. 

If you use unheated bowls, note that water will typically freeze faster in stainless steel bowls than in plastic bowls.  Some types of plastic bowls are flexible, so you can twist them to remove ice when the water has completely frozen over. 

Track your cat’s winter adventures with a GPS cat tracker

Another essential tip for outdoor cat care in winter is to equip your cat with a GPS tracker designed especially for cats. This way, you can monitor your cat’s adventures and whereabouts, see how long they’ve been out and how far they roam from home. While they are busy playing, you get peace of mind – that you’ll be able to find your fur-baby anywhere, anytime.

Here’s what one cat parent, Rickard, has to say about their experience with the Tractive GPS:

We were starting to let our Louie go outside by himself. He was wearing a Tractive tracker to calm our minds. We could track him every day and see that he was moving further and further away from home each day he was outside. He always got home before nightfall, but some days we did need to go get him using the tracker to find him. One evening we were starting to get worried – he had been in the same place for a few hours according to the tracker. It was starting to get dark so we finally went there to find him. The tracker took us to a place about a kilometer down the road. We searched the area but our Louie was not to be found. We continued to search for the tracker in the bushes at the same time as we searched for Louie in a larger area. Finally we found Louie in the top of a tree in the very spot that the tracker had shown us. He was stuck in a tree about 6-7 meters above the ground and seemed to afraid to make a single noise. Speaking to the land-owners, we found out that they had seen Louie earlier that day and that their german shepherd had chased him away. We borrowed a ladder from them and after some not so safe climbing we were finally able to get a hold of Louie and bring him home without any injuries. The tracker has saved his life once and could do so again.

Two grey cats cuddled up on a chair
Louie, safe at home again with his best friend Baloo

Stray cats, feral cats, and outdoor cats: what’s the difference?

You may see all types of cats outdoors at any time of year. Some cat lovers go all out to support stray or feral cats – also known as community or neighborhood cats – with food, water, and shelter all year long. 

Whether cats are feral, stray, or outdoor cats, they are all domestic cats and members of the same species, Felis cattus. It’s important to recognize that stray or feral cats may have different levels of experience with humans, so you should not expect to interact with them.  Also be aware that of you own an outdoor cat or a kitty that explores the outdoors for part of the day, your cat may encounter stray or feral cats while they are out exploring.  

How are outdoor, stray, or feral cats different from one another? Many outdoor cats are owned or cared for by someone and they have regular human contact. For example, they may be fed regularly, receive veterinary care, and might go indoors for part of each day or night. Basically, these cats have a safe home base. 

Stray cats lived indoors at some point in their lives and had regular contact with people, but left their home or were abandoned. They no longer have regular contact with people. Because of their past socialization, stray cats may approach people or houses in the daytime. They are more likely to accept food and find shelter near people.

Feral cats may never have had contact with humans, or if they did, it was minimal. Feral cats are often afraid of people and do not seek interaction with humans. They are usually active only at night. Feral cats are often not neutered, so they are the targets of many community Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs which are designed to improve the lives of feral cats and prevent reproduction.

Any of these cats may be attracted to the kitty amenities that you place outdoors for your cat, including cat shelters, food, and water. Always be aware that roaming cats may have different personalities and levels of socialization.

light brown patterned cat standing on a pine tree branch looking out, snowy weather

Stray cat winter safety tips

If you want to help stray cats that roam your neighborhood to make it safely through the winter, here are a few tips:

  • Before entering your car, tap loudly on the hood to make sure a cat has not hidden under the car or in the engine compartment for warmth. Check the wheel wells, too, as these are common hiding places for kitties.
  • Check that your car is not leaking antifreeze, which can be toxic if licked by cats when they clean their paws after walking through an antifreeze puddle. If you use antifreeze, keep it away from any places that cats have access to.
  • Avoid using ice-melting chemicals on your driveway or other paved surfaces. These substances can be toxic if a cat walks through a treated area and later licks the chemicals off their paws. 

How to get feral and stray cats to use your shelter and feeding station

Stray and feral cats may be reluctant to approach your home or use the cat shelter you have created for them. Place cat shelters a short distance from your home, but not so far that you can’t check on them regularly. Set out more than one shelter box so the kitties can choose one to their liking, or get some privacy if other cats are using the shelter boxes. 

Entice the cats to enter your cat shelter box by sprinkling catnip or treats just outside the entrance. 

If cats refuse to use your shelter box, locate the area where they sleep – such as under a deck, or in a shed – and make that spot more comfortable by adding straw bedding that they can sleep on. 

Make cat care part of your winter routine

Living outdoors subject to the whims of nature can be challenging, even for the always-adaptable cat. You can help outdoor cats to successfully survive cold weather by regularly offering food, water and shelter to keep them comfortable and well-fed.

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