Cats are highly resilient creatures, grow thick coats of fur in Winter and survive cold temperatures remarkably well. That does not mean they are unaffected by frigid weather. Prolonged sub-zero temperatures can cause frostbite and contribute to dehydration and malnutrition. A properly insulated shelter can help cats endure the cold weather.
Contrary to common belief, cat shelters should not have two access holes. There is no scientific evidence showing that cats need an entrance/exit to avoid predators. In a compact shelter, cats position their head out the opening to see any potential threats. According to Feral Villa, “cats prefer to nest or sleep inside containers or dens with only a single way in or out. This means that nothing can come in behind them while they’re sleeping. Multiple entrances into a sleeping area means multiple directions from which an attack could come, especially if the entrance is directly into the sleeping area. Attacks by larger animals like dogs or coyotes mostly occur in the open.”
There are many good cat shelters on the market. Cats in Action recommends the below three brands.
Feral Villa makes a popular, durable cat shelter out of a fiber composite material that resists mold and termites. It features a raised bottom, insulated insides and a removable, shingled roof. Feral villas are fairly lightweight and portable. They sleep 1-2 cats.
Kitty Tube is an upscale “green” shelter molded from post consumer content consisting of recycled milk and detergent bottles. Kitty Tubes feature fitted insulation and an awning over the entranceway. Double insulation is available as well as custom heating pillows. They sleep 1-4 cats. Kitty Tube maintenance/cleaning.
The K&H Thermo Outdoor Kitty House
The K&H Thermo Outdoor Kitty House features water-resistant construction, clear door flaps, tool-free assembly, several color and pattern choices and a one-year warranty. Heated models feature 20-watt outdoor MET safety listed heating system.
Build Your own Shelter
If you are handy, you can easily build your own winter shelter out of a storage tote, foam insulation, duct tape and straw. You can also recycle a cooler or styrofoam cooler. Make sure the hole is 5-6” in diameter and is at least 6” off the ground, for snow and rain-splash clearance. TNR advocates Gail and Mike show you how a standard beverage cooler can be turned into a deluxe cat shelter in this video. Kieth Stout shows you in this video how to use a recycled milk crate and styrofoam cooler to make a cat shelter for less than $3.00.
Whether you purchase or make a shelter, avoid cardboard boxes and metal housings, as they do not insulate. Do not use blankets, towels or anything cloth, including fleece and wool, as these materials retain moisture from the air and freeze, making cats colder. Straw (not hay) is an excellent insulation and is all you need inside a shelter. Make sure the straw is not the bleached, processed kind that is soft and flat and doesn’t insulate. Real straw is stiff and hollow. Your local feed store is the best source for straw. In Chicago, Belmont Feed & Seed will sell straw in smaller bags for the feral cat community, so you don’t have to purchase an entire bale. The Feed Store at 5408 S. Harlem Ave in Summit IL also carries straw.
For additional comfort, you can add heating pads or a heat lamp. Cats in Action recommends K&H hard-sided outdoor heating pads. The 9 x 12 size fits nicely inside storage tote shelters. A 12.5” x 18.5” size is also available for larger spaces.
Make sure anything you plug in is intended for outdoor use, or is protected from the elements. Heating pads should have a wire-wound chew-proof cord and sealed electronics. If you need to use an extension cord, protect it from the elements with a weatherproof cover
Hydration is one of the greatest concerns in winter. When puddles freeze, cats can struggle to keep hydrated, making them more vulnerable to illness. A heated water bowl is a great solution for freezing water. There are many varieties on the market. Heated bowls are also useful in keeping canned food from freezing.
If you do not have an outdoor outlet, a microwavable SnuggleSafe disk can provide heat for up to 10 hours at a time. You can place a SunggleSafe disk inside a shelter, or you can use it to warm a water or pet food bowl.