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February 2005
Winterizing for Feral Cats
By Bryan Kortis


Feral Cat
Photo courtesy of

You may have seen them wandering through parks, languishing behind restaurants or covertly dodging from the safety of one car underbelly to the next. At first sight, these cats look domesticated, but they’re really feral animals—often the offspring of domestic cats who have been abandoned and left to breed. Raised without catnip toys, reverent games of laser pen tag or the mere element of human contact, they quickly revert to a wild state and form colonies wherever food and shelter are available. Feral cats do not trust humans and usually do not allow humans to touch or handle them. Because of their elusive nature, feral cats do not function well when removed from their natural outdoor environment and are nearly impossible to domesticate. Oftentimes, the most humane option is to neuter them and then return them to their natural habitat. In most cases, feral cats are not completely wild because they still depend on people for their food source, whether it’s a caretaker who comes by once or twice a day, a dumpster outside a restaurant, garbage cans, or the like. Relatively few feral cats subsist only by hunting.

But now that winter is here, it’s time to take a few extra necessary steps to ensure ferals make it safely through the cold and snow. During the autumn season, the cats’ coats thicken in anticipation of the frigid temperatures. In fact, sometimes you can actually tell how harsh a winter will be by how early their coats develop. While their fur will keep them warm even in severe conditions, they do need your help to make it through the winter. There are primarily three areas in which you can greatly ease their lot: nutrition, water and shelter.

Providing Provisions
Nutrition for ferals is particularly important given the rigors of their outdoor lives, and is the single most important thing you can do to help regulate their health especially in extreme winter months. Caretakers should feed their ferals the best food they can afford. This maxim recognizes two important things—first, that good nutrition is important and second, the caretaker’s budget is important, too. So like so many aspects of being a feral cat caretaker, you do the best you can without sinking your own ship.

Because canned food left outdoors will freeze quickly in chilly conditions, using mostly dry food can become a necessity. Normally, a healthy cat drinks very little water and can obtain most of the hydration she needs from the moisture content of canned foods. However, when dry food becomes the staple of the cats’ diet, their need for access to water increases. This can be a problem in winter when water left out freezes. To prevent this or at least significantly slow down the process of water freezing, use an electrically heated water dish or a little styrofoam vaccine-shipping container lined with a plastic bag.

C is for Cats
Nutrition is especially important for the cats during the winter when the cold weather causes more than the normal stress on their immune systems. Supplementing any food with extra Vitamin C is an excellent way to boost the cats’ health. In the cold weather, this naturally occurring nutrient can be quickly depleted.

Germs, viruses, dirt, x-rays and chemicals such as antibiotics, steroids, tranquilizers, anesthetics, pesticides and the preservatives in commercial pet foods have all been shown to use up large quantities of Vitamin C. Healthy cats can make some Vitamin C in their intestines. The operative words here are “healthy” and “some.” Cats can manufacture enough C only if the diet is rich in all the other nutrients they need and only if daily stresses do not become too numerous, too extreme or too prolonged. Stresses such as extreme heat or cold, fighting, being wounded or hurt, being trapped or caged, loud noises, strong, unpleasant smells, or forced change of territory use up Vitamin C at an alarming rate.

A cheap jar of ascorbic acid powder will certainly give a lot of support and protection and it will help acidify the urine. A C-complex powder of ascorbic acid with bioflavonoids, rutin and hesperadin will do a lot more for only a little more money. Health food stores will have several choices available.

The body cannot store C so it must be given at every meal. A cat can absorb no more than 250 milligrams at a time; in most brands that’s 1/8th teaspoon of powder either added to a “bribe food,” something they love that has a strong flavor, or sprinkled on their food.

Into the Cat House
Feral cats need warm, dry shelter to weather the snowstorms and blustery, icy winds. There are a number of simple inexpensive ways to build an adequate winter shelter.

Originally designed by Karen Hancock of Port Washington, NY, the Feral Cat Winter Shelter has many advantages. First, it’s made from material with excellent insulation qualities, like styrofoam—which traps the cat’s body heat, turning the cat into a little radiator. Second, the shelter’s interior will have a minimal amount of air space, thus reducing how much heat the cat’s body must generate to keep the space warm. Both elements must be present. A large doghouse made of excellent insulating material will have too much air space for a cat or cats to heat. On the other hand, a thin cardboard box might be the right size, but most of the cats’ body heat will pass through the walls. So you want good material and not too big.

Small bowls of dry food and canned food can be placed inside the shelter, tucked into a back corner. The cats’ own heat will slow the freezing of the canned food or even defrost it. But never put water inside. It could easily spill and cause the cat or surrounding materials to get wet. Getting wet while it’s cold out and then not having a dry place to go is one of the greatest threats to a feral cat’s health during the wintertime.

The shelter is lightweight and should be weighed down. Best is to place two shelters about a foot apart with the doors facing each other. Bridge the gap by laying a piece of plywood across both roofs. Now the shelters are fully protected against the elements. 

After the cats have begun using the shelters, you might try adding a flap door, which can be easily pulled back. A piece of a clear vinyl mat will do, attached by drilling (or poking) two holes above the door opening and using plastic nuts and bolts (like those used to attach toilet seats).

The cost of the shelter will vary from place to place, but on average, the eight-foot sheet of styrofoam will run about $9 (uncut). A few linoleum floor tiles, a tube of silicone sealant, some contact paper for the interior walls and enough deck paint will run the total cost up to somewhere from $15 to $25. 

An alternative to building this shelter is to use a large Rubbermaid storage bin with removable top. Cut out (using a box cutter) a 6” by 6” doorway in one of the long sides, towards a corner. Then line the interior walls with styrofoam (1⁄2” or 1”) by leaning the styrofoam against the walls. Stuff the floor with insulating material, preferably straw, to hold the styrofoam in place. It’s quick, easy and cheap.

In a pinch for just a temporary fix, even a cardboard box is better than nothing—tape the top closed and cut out a hole in one side for a door. Tape a piece of plastic (cut out from a large trash bag) onto the top. Put newspaper on the bottom and, if possible, place the box under something to protect it further from rain—a piece of wood leaned against a fence, under a tree, etc. If possible, raise the box off the ground where it might get wet. 

The cats’ shelter will be warmer and cozier if you put loose insulating material inside. The material must be dry and loose, so that the cats can burrow into and underneath it. Hay is the best, followed by straw and shredded newspaper. The worst are blankets, towels or folded newspaper. Because the cats can only lie on top of these materials, they actually draw out body heat and defeat the purpose. But do keep in mind, if you use insulating materials, you must be able to change them regularly in order to ensure they stay dry. If you can’t, it’s better not to use anything except the shelter itself.

In cases of extreme cold line the interior walls of the styrofoam shelters with a Mylar reflective blanket, which can be bought at survival stores as thermal safety blankets for people (in case your car gets stuck in the cold). The Mylar reflects the cat’s body heat back onto him and can make the difference in extreme temperatures, particularly in the more northern states and Canada.

It’s Better Out There
It’s important to recognize that if a cat is truly feral, then the most compassionate choice would be to allow them to live outdoors. Trying to domesticate them would be no different than trying to make a squirrel or a raccoon a household companion—you might succeed somewhat, but never fully and only with a great deal of time and patience. Moreover, you would not be permitting the animal to live in a manner that suits them best. Many well-meaning people, convinced they are “saving” a feral cat by bringing them indoors, end up condemning the poor creature to a life of hiding under the bed and being in constant fear. Remember, there is no place like home.

Bryan Kortis is co-founder and Executive Director of Neighborhood Cats, founded in 1999 to address New York’s feral cat overpopulation crisis by promoting trap-neuter-return and humane feral cat maintenance. For step-by-step plans for building cat shelters and more information, contact or (212) 662-5761.




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