Gimme Shelter: Winter Feral Cat Care
It is hard to imagine that any animal can survive such harsh wind, snow and frigid temperatures. Most wild creatures, like squirrels and birds, have great adaptations to help them through (nonetheless, they do appreciate extra seed or corn being left out for them!), but our feline friends need more help to ensure survival. This post will go over ways to give that help to any feral cats that you might be caring for this winter.
Some feral and stray cats, such as those that live in the crawlspaces of apartment complexes, have plenty of warm, dry places to sleep, but most aren’t that lucky. When the temperature drops, or there are storms or strong winds, outdoor cats need somewhere to cuddle and conserve body heat in order to make it through the winter. Whether you choose to go pre-made or DIY, there are a few things to keep in mind: whenever possible, two entrances are always better than one. Cats feel more comfortable when they have an extra escape route, and if they feel more comfortable, they are more likely to utilize the shelter. This is not always possible to do, but ideal.
The entrances should not just be basic holes because this will allow rain, snow, and wind to enter too easily. Be sure the openings have some kind of flap, cover, tube, or awning to add an extra protective element. Openings should be just large enough for a cat to pass through, about 5 inches, to deter wildlife from entering.
All shelter floors should be lined straw, which allows cats to burrow under and stay warmer. Do not use hay- it has no insulating properties! Remember it like this: HAY is for HORSES, STRAW is for CATS. Newspaper and blankets are not effective insulators either, and can actually causes cats to lose body heat. Heated blankets and pads are wonderful additions if you have an electrical outlet nearby.
Easy DIY Options
Although DIY options aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as the pre-made designs, they do the job just as well and cost significantly less. Most can be made with items easily found at any hardware store. Please note, cost estimates often include the cost of buying extra, so if you make a second or third shelter, you won’t pay as much for them. For example, if insulation only comes in 20ft rolls, the cost estimate will include that, even though you’ll have extra left over to use for a second shelter. Thus, your first shelter might cost $50, your second only $30, etc.
Buy two rubber-maid bins, one slightly smaller than the other. Place the smaller one inside the bigger one, add insulation material (see below) in the dead space, add straw (you can also add reflective material such as Reflextic tape to the inside walls and bottom to reflect a cat’s body heat back onto his or her body).
Coolers are wonderful because they can be bought cheaply at thrift shops or garage sales, and are already insulated, so there is less work for you. Simply cut openings and fit them with flexible rubber tubing or flaps, add straw, and you’re good to go! The lids allow for easy cleaning and maintenance. Again, using reflective tape or Mylar blankets add extra warmth protection.
Styrofoam Cooler: Styrofoam material is often used as shelter insulation, but in some cases, a Styrofoam cooler can be used on its own. Because they are not weatherproof, they would need to be used only in or under another protective element like a deck or shed, and only if they could be replaced when needed. These are easy and very inexpensive.
Faux Rock shelters: These are expensive and can be difficult to cut an opening in, but are a great alternative to use when cat shelters, for one reason or another, need to be camouflaged. Prefabricated faux rocks can be purchased at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and garden stores.
Ashot’s Insulated Shelter Design: Made from a 2ft x 8ft x 2 in sheet of hard Styrofoam, it is pretty affordable, but does require a few tools: table saw, utility knife, caulk gun, etc. Directions for building available here, or if you are in the NYC area, they are available for purchase from someone who makes them (pricing not currently available).
Insulation choices: spray insulation (kind of messy), Styrofoam, bubble wrap/solar pool cover type material, egg cartons with Reflectix tape (see the ’18 Gallon Tub’ instructable from the Maryland Feline Society), etc. These options are used in the ‘dead’ space of a shelter’s walls, or to line the inside of the shelter. Additionally, lots of straw should be added inside the shelter to allow a cat to burrow.
Pre-made Options These ready-to-use options are perfect for people without building skills or the time to make them, but typically cost more than the DIY options.
Feral Cat Cylinder:
Remember, if you are caring for outdoor cats, shelter and food is not enough. These cats MUST be spayed and neutered, or you are doing a great disservice to the local rescue community, not to mention, you’ll spend a lot more money feeding the babies than you would paying for the spay/neuter surgeries. For general information on Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), visit Alley Cat Allies, the nation’s leading feral cat advocate. For local TNR resources and clinics in the Monmouth County area, please visit Pet Adoption Network’s ‘Helping Stray’s’ section.