Monday, September 28, 2009

Preparing Your Feral Cat Colony for Winter

With the start of autumn, ACR is receiving calls from individuals who care for feral cat colonies expressing concerns for their furry friends come winter. Those who care for alley cats by providing food/water and sterilization services always worry about the cats when it starts to get cold outside. Where will they go to find shelter? Will they be warm enough? Will they survive the winter?

During the autumn season, cats' coats thicken in anticipation of frigid temperatures. In fact, sometimes you can tell how harsh a winter will be by how early their coats develop. While cats' fur will keep them warm even in severe conditions, they do need your help to make it through the winter healthy and risk-free. There are three areas in which you can greatly ease their lot: shelter, nutrition, and water.


Two key elements are needed in any good feral cat shelter. First is the material used. Material with excellent insulation qualities, such as Styrofoam, works best. Styrofoam traps the cat's body heat, turning the cat into a little radiator. Second, the shelter's interior should have a minimal amount of air space, thus reducing the amount of heat the cat's body must generate to keep the space warm. Both elements must be present to provide effective shelter for the cats.

Covered litter boxes (some have doors) and plastic totes work perfect for shelters. Use Styrofoam to line the containers and use shredder newspaper or stray for bedding.

Microwavable heating pads and hot water bottles can also be placed in shelters to keep cats warm. Most will stay warm for up to 12 hours; these can be especially helpful to protect against night time temperatures.

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For easy instructions on how-to build a shelter, please visit Neighborhood Cats’ site at

Food and Water

Small bowls of dry or canned food can be placed inside the shelter. The cats' own heat will slow the freezing of the canned food and can even defrost it. But never put water inside the shelter — it can easily spill and cause the cat(s) to get wet. Getting wet while it's cold outside and then not having a dry place to go is one of the greatest threats to a feral cat's health during the wintertime.

Nutrition is especially important for outdoor cats during the winter because the cold and difficult weather conditions create additional stresses for their immune systems. Feeding them a higher quality brand of food, if you can manage the additional expense, will be beneficial to them.
Normally, healthy cats do not require a lot of water and can get most of their water needs from eating moist food; however, in the winter when canned food can freeze, dry food becomes feral cats’ staple. Therefore, providing fresh water is a necessity during cold weather. To keep water bowls from freezing, try these few tips.

The best solution to keeping water from freezing is to use an electrically heated water bowl. Water will evaporate relatively quickly, so the bowl needs to be filled regularly or to maximum capacity to sustain long hours. The bowl also can be used for wet food, though it can quickly dry the food out. Pet bowls that use solar power or batteries to keep water and food heated are also available. You can use microwavable heating pads/disks to place under water bowls to keep from freezing.

The type of bowl you use in general can make a difference. Use one made of thick plastic, like a Tupperware container - it's amazing how long it takes for water to freeze in one of them. The best bowls are deep, insulated and have relatively small openings compared to their volume. Black or dark colored bowls will absorb solar radiation better. Position the bowl so it's protected from the wind and, if possible, exposed to the sun. Styrofoam containers lined with plastic also make great water bowls.

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