How to Care for Feral or Stray Cats in the Winter


It’s the First Day of Winter! And while all the world may seem like a winter wonderland, it can be a tough time of year for our feline friends who don’t have a fireplace by which to warm their paws. There are an estimated 70 million homeless cats in the US alone.


And while cats are great survivalists, winter is one of the most difficult and deadliest times of the year for outdoor cats – and not only because of the cold. When Jack Frost comes around to nip at our noses, cats naturally seek out warm places, like any other living creature. And they’re experts at finding warm places to curl up – unfortunately, it’s usually nestled in a warm car engine or under the wheel well.


I’m from South Florida, where it’s a perpetual state of summer and the humidity is so high you can practically swim through the air. Add to that the fact that I’ve only ever seen snow once in my life, whereupon I got to build a snowman that was about 3 inches tall – the idea of a cat hiding in a car engine just to seek warmth from the bitter cold was a bit of a shock.


So I decided to compile a list of tips to help caring cat folks protect the neighborhood strays from Old Man Winter. Though we might want to, it’s not always feasible to take every stray cat into our homes, even for a night; but with a few of these tips, helping even just one cat stay warm can make a difference.

1. Drivers should bang on the hood or honk in cold temperatures to rouse cats who may have fallen asleep in wheel wells or elsewhere under a car.
2. Provide food and water
  • Cats need extra food during winter and fresh water twice a day. Wet food freezes, so put out dry food as well (or just feed dry food).
  • Heated bowls may be used to keep wet food from freezing
  • Use bowls that are deep rather than wide and place them in sunny areas to keep water from freezing.
  • Build a feeding station that will not only shield the food and water from the elements but also the cats
  • If there’s a water source like a spigot, run the water slightly—it won’t freeze as fast as still water.
3. Provide Shelter

Providing shelter for outdoor cats doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult.


  • Bigger isn’t always better. Heat disperses quickly. So if only a few cats use the house, it will take less body to heat up the shelter.
  • Clear snow away from house entrances and exits so the cats don’t get snowed in.
  • Insulate the shelter with straw to repel moisture. Do not use hay—it soaks up moisture like a sponge, and gets moldy.
  • Keep it protected. Face opening away from potential predators (e.g. face it toward a wall so only cats can enter. Find a place that is not easily accessible to dogs if there are dogs in the area.)
  • Elevate. Use two 2x4s or other materials to raise the shelter off the ground and place straw underneath. This makes it easier for the cats to warm the inside with their body heat.
  • If the kitties aren’t using the shelter, try to make it more enticing by sprinkling catnip inside.
  • If cats still aren’t using the outdoor shelters, try to find where they are sleeping and then do what you can there to “upgrade” the spot, such as adding straw.


Simple Cat Shelter Design
by the Humane Society

  • 35-gallon plastic storage tote or bin with lid (approximate dimensions: 32.5 inches long, 19.75 inches wide, 18.5 inches tall)
  • yardstick
  • utility knife
  • sheet of 1-inch-thick rigid foam insulation board, 8 feet by 2 feet
  • straw

1. Using the yardstick and utility knife, cut a 6-by-6-inch doorway on both of the long sides of the storage bin toward the corner. To prevent flooding, cut the opening so that the bottom of the doorway is a couple of inches above the ground.
2. Cut a piece of the foam insulation board to fit the floor of the bin, and line the floor with it.
3. In similar fashion, line each of the four interior walls of the bin with a piece of the plastic foam. Perfect cuts aren’t necessary. Leave a uniform gap of at least 3 inches between the top of these wall pieces and the upper lip of the bin.
4. Cut out two doorways in the plastic foam lined up with the doorway in the storage bin. Trace the outline of the doorways on the plastic foam first before cutting.
5. Stuff the bottom of the bin with straw or other insulating material to hold the interior wall pieces in place.
6. Cut out a plastic foam roof to rest on top of the interior wall pieces.
7. Cover the bin with its lid.

  • To clean the shelter, simply remove the lid and the foam roof.
  • The shelter is lightweight and may need to be weighted down with a large rock or cinder block.
  • Face the opening away from the direction of the wind, if possible.
  • To entice cats to check out the shelter, sprinkle catnip inside.
  • Periodically replace the straw to keep it fresh and dry.
Alley Cat Allies has also compiled a wonderful guide of DIY Outdoor Cat shelters for varying budgets and skill levels: Click here for more information.


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