“Feral” Cats in Winter

By A.G. Moore 10/20/2013
 Feral Cats, All Neutered, on the Photographer’s Back Porch
 Photographer: Bart Everson, New Orleans, LA
 Uploaded from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons  Attribution License 

As I pull my cold-weather clothes from the back of the closet, thoughts wander to cats that live outdoors, “ferals”, as many people call them. While some cats may grow a thicker coat as winter settles in, the coat they wear  is essentially the same  one they sport  in summer. And so I think about accommodations to dropping temperatures that might help the cats get through the challenging days ahead.

A variety of products are available  that are geared toward the needs of outdoor animals. Some of these are shelters; the shelters vary in insulation factor and are most useful when more than one cat is in residence. A shelter I purchased years ago was on the high end of cost, but I was rewarded for that rather painful expenditure every time I passed the house and saw its residents tucked cozily inside. This structure was a small house, constructed from cedar and insulated. The roof was pitched to encourage rain runoff and the floor was raised a few inches to keep chill from seeping in from the ground. A flap door helped to block wind gusts.

I can anticipate criticism forming in the minds of skeptical readers: people are homeless and yet I spend all that money on cats. My response is simple: why do I have to choose between cats and people? Why can I not feel compassion for both and try to alleviate suffering wherever I see it, without regard to species?

A less elegant and perhaps less effective shelter than a cedar house is an igloo, crafted of molded plastic. This shelter comes in various sizes; I would encourage acquiring an igloo on the small end of the spectrum because this will more efficiently contain the animal’s body heat. If two or more animals share the habitat (ideal situation), then the heat conserving dynamic is amplified.

A step down in serviceability from the igloo is a waterproof carrier. Sometimes people, or pet stores, have these lying around, unused. A pet carrier at least provides some protection from moisture and wind and even allows for some body heat preservation.

If none of these suggestions is viable, there is always the option of building a crude structure. Any water resistant material can be cobbled together in a way that offers some protection from precipitation and wind. I knew someone who built just such a shelter; a “feral” took up residence and then was joined by a companion. The two cats saw the winter through in this improbable structure. The shelter solutions I have described may not be ideal, but each is superior to the cover a bush or hollow in the ground would offer.

There are refinements that can be added to outdoor animal shelters. Purr Pads are nice additions because they offer a soft foundation and tend to increase heat conservation. I looked the product up on Amazon before posting this blog and saw that some people have not had a good experience; my personal experience has been that outdoor cats love this item. Of course, the pads are porous and will soil, so plan to replace them as needed.

Another accessory that outdoor cats absolutely love–and which may significantly add to the chances of their survival during the coldest stretches of winter–are electric heating pads. I believe there are a couple of brands available. Use of these requires proximity to an outdoor outlet so I recognize this option will not be available in many situations.

One more accommodation that requires outdoor access to electricity is an electrically warmed water dish. This may sound like an extreme refinement but it really is not. Clean, fresh water is essential to the good health of any animal and this dish can insure that water does not freeze over. The one dish I have seen is actually designed for stable use.

Of course, none of what I have discussed so far makes any sense if there is not an active spay/neuter program in effect. As comfortable and safe as concerned humans may try to make the environment for outdoor cats, life for these animals is still hard. It is tragic and irresponsible to allow propagation of the feral population. Trap, spay and neuter as soon as possible, with vaccination as an adjunct community health intervention. Free and low-cost spay/neuter programs are available across the country. Volunteer organizations, such as Alley Cats or PAWS offer guidance and support for anyone interested in a spay/ neuter program.

So-called “feral” cats often have known no other life and may never be persuaded to live indoors, even if that possibility is open to them. They will likely live out the rest of their lives vulnerable to the elements.  With the approach of winter it is up to us, those who care about the cats,  to try and make their existence as safe and comfortable as possible.

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