Winter is fast approaching and with it comes freezing temperatures, longer nights, and snow storms. Indoor cats can stay warm inside our houses, but what about those who are most at home outdoors? Whether feral or stray, cats who live outside will have a hard time surviving.
If you have the time, it's not hard to take care of feral cats in the winter. As long as you provide for their most urgent needs (shelter, food, and water) you'll help them stay warm and healthy until spring.
It's easy and cheap to make your own feral cat shelter. Old dog houses, scrap lumber, even styrofoam coolers are all inexpensive materials that can be used. Many feral caretakers recommend plastic storage bins with lids. The plastic keeps the interior dry, and the lid gives you easy access when it's time to clean the bin. Simply cut a cat-sized hole in the front, line the inside with a non-absorbent insulating material (use straw or styrofoam, avoid hay or blankets), and you're all set.
The size of your colony will dictate how large of a shelter to build. Smaller enclosures are nice because they can better trap heat, but you may want to build one that's large enough to house several cats so they can huddle together for warmth.
If you have a couple of planks, set them on the ground then place your enclosure on top. Keeping your shelter off the ground will help conserve heat. You'll also want to choose a secluded spot away from foot traffic and cars. Nestling your shelter under an overhang or inside a cluster of bushes will better protect against wind and snow.
If there's space, provide a separate feeding station for food and water, because water bowls can (and will) spill. Set it close to where your feral cats will be sleeping. The Humane Society suggests placing two shelters roughly two feet apart with their entrances facing together. Placing a wide board on top will form a canopy that can be used to shelter food and water bowls.
Feed dry food only as wet food will freeze too fast. Choose your container wisely: water inside shallow, thin, ceramic containers will freeze faster than if you use deep, wide plastic ones. An electric heated bowl is ideal, but not everyone will have easy access to an outlet. You can also buy solar-powered bowls at your local retailer. Mother Earth News offers a neat low-tech trick to keep water from freezing. Place a black tire on its side, fill it with rocks, and wedge a bucket of water inside the tire's hole. The black rubber and rocks will absorb heat during the day and radiate enough heat to ensure fresh water all through the night.
Are you a feral cat caretaker? What else do you do to help your colony survive through the winter? Email us! As winter approaches, we'll share your suggestions and tips on our Facebook page.