It’s winter, the outdoor kitties are cold, and the best way to keep them warm is to provide them with some type of shelter. There are lots of options as to type, what goes in it, where to put it and even how to encourage the cats to use it…all of which we’re going to be talking about in this article. First I’d like to share my experience with you.
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Caring for feral cats in Toronto in the winter
Many years ago my husband and I were living in Toronto for awhile, and one day I noticed a woman behind the building next door feeding some cats. Naturally since animals were involved I had to go investigate!! I went over and had a chat, and she told me she lived in that building and had been feeding the cats twice a day for about a year or so. I wanted to help so I trapped them, had them fixed and helped her with the feeding.
There were quite a few nasty people where she lived, one in particular would go onto his balcony and start shouting at us. I tried my best to explain to anyone who was interested what TNR is about, how not feeding the cats may cause them to move on, but more would simply take their place. Not one of them was interested in listening let alone being civil, all they knew how to do was yell. I threatened to call the police if they kept harassing me, no way was I going to allow myself to be subjected to that treatment.
Believe me, I get it. They weren’t happy with cats hanging around, crying and fighting, and they were fed up. Understandable. What was not, was their unwillingness to hear me out and learn how what we were doing was going to help, preferring instead to hurl abuse.
When winter came I knew we had to build some kind of shelter. My husband and I bought a large Rubbermaid plastic bin with a lid, and a Styrofoam cooler to fit inside it. We cut a hole in both, just big enough for a cat to fit through. We added straw and put it outside.
There was a small park between the two buildings, with bushes and trees near where the cats were fed, so that’s where I put the shelter. I wanted it to be as camouflaged as possible, because I worried some of those people would get rid of it. Luckily I was able to put it out of their line of sight.
Obviously without any greenery it would have been hard to hide it, so we put it right next to the bushes and covered it with branches. That also provided some protection from the wind, and helped keep some of the snow from blowing inside it. We elevated it slightly off the ground, but the snow was so deep that didn’t do much good.
Since I fed the cats every evening it gave me the chance to check on the shelter, see if I needed to add/replace the straw, make sure it was still holding up well, and the entrance was not blocked by snow.
Types of shelter
You’ve read what I used, and it is a very common shelter used by caretakers (people who care for feral cats), but it’s not the only option.
- Buy one ready made
- Adapt something you already have
- Create one from a plastic storage box (as I did)
- Build one from scratch
- Create a makeshift space
- Put a cat flap or cut an access point into a garden shed door
The one you choose will depend on budget, time, weather and how much effort you want to put into getting the shelter up and out there.
Amazon has a big selection of cat and dog outdoor shelters, it’s worth a look to see what’s available. Big box pet supply stores and hardware stores are also worth a visit. This igloo style is worth looking at as well as this shelter.
Adapting something you already have
Look around your home, attic, yard or garage, and you may be surprised to find something that would make a perfect shelter.
- How about a covered litter box your cat won’t use?
- A dog house only used in the summer
- Rabbit hutch
- An extra plastic storage box you have lying around
You get the drift! (no pun intended)
DIY/make your own
This video will show you how to create a shelter using a plastic tub like I used, but obviously there’s is way better!!
I found a link to these Pinterest boards which have great ideas.
This video will show you step by step how to build a wooden shelter from scratch. You may want to make the opening smaller, just wide enough for a cat to get in, otherwise other animals may take over.
Create a makeshift space
Scraps of wood or branches to form a den or “lean to” will provide a buffer from the wind and offer some protection.
How big should it be?
You want it big enough to accommodate a couple of cats, but not so big that it will be cold inside. A 68L plastic tub is okay for a maximum of two.
Recommendations are 12” W, 12” L and 18” H for one cat, and 24”W, 24”L and 18” H for 2 or 3. If there are quite a few cats you’ll need more than one shelter.
The doorway should only be large enough to fit one cat at a time, approximately 6”-8”. Bigger and you’ll have larger animals using it instead.
What features should it have
A slanted roof will prevent snow from piling up on top, but since plastic storage bins are most often used, you may just have to brush the snow off yourself!! You don’t want the shelter caving in from the weight.
A plastic flap over the door will keep wind, rain and snow from blowing in, and keep the heat in.
If the shelter is light, you’ll need to weigh it down so it doesn’t get blown over/away in the case of heavy winds. If it’s strong enough a few bricks on top should do the trick, or place them inside.
It should be elevated off the ground using a pallet, spare pieces of wood or anything else you can think of.
As much as possible the shelter should be camouflaged. Paint it to blend in with the surroundings, buy white to blend with the snow or cover it with branches so it’s as inconspicuous as possible.
Depending on the style of shelter, some plastic covering the door may work. Choose one piece or cut it into strips.
What to put inside
When we think about keeping our pets warm, we automatically think nice fleece blankets…at least I do!
Blankets, towels, or anything made of fabric are the last things to put in an outdoor winter shelter. They get wet and stay wet, and that won’t help the cats. The best insulation is straw because it does not absorb moisture. Hay is not good because it does absorb moisture.
Styrofoam can be used for the sides, floor and roof but cover it with contact paper so the cats can’t scratch it.
What about lining the interior walls with emergency blankets/Mylar blankets. Keep the shiny side facing inwards to reflect back body heat. To learn more read “How Space Blankets Work.” Anyone living in a cold climate should probably have some of these in the house and car for themselves!!
Another idea for a heat source are microwaveable heating pads. How long they last will depend on the brand and how cold it is outside, but may be worth a try.
Where to put the shelter
It needs to be where the cats hang out, but out of the way at the same time. Look around for a quiet corner, abandoned section, wooded area… away from foot and vehicular traffic if possible.
Ideally the entrance should face a wall, fence, a tree – anything that will act as a wind break. It will also protect the inside from rain and snow.
Check it regularly
- Take a quick peek to see how the shelter is holding up.
- Is it still well camouflaged?
- Does the straw need changing? Do you need to add to it?
- Clear the entrance of snow, you don’t want the cats getting snowed in
- Remove snow from the roof
- Be sure it’s still stable
- Does it look like it’s being used
How to get a feral cat to use the shelter
If it doesn’t appear any cats have been taking advantage of their new home, it’s possible they may not have noticed it, or there’s something they’re not happy with.
- Is it so well camouflaged they didn’t even see it? Try a trail of cat nip or food when it’s feeding time. You don’t want to attract all kinds of creatures to the shelter, so feeding time is best.
- Is it in a high traffic area they’re afraid of approaching?
- Is it too far from their territory/food source?
- Is the plastic on the door too stiff? Cutting it into strips can help
- Is the entrance too close to the wall, making it awkward to get in?
Have you ever set up a winter shelter for feral cats? What tips do you have? If this is your first time, what type of shelter are you going to try/are you trying? Sharing helps others so leave your comments, questions and photos below!!
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