Winter isn’t just a time of scraping ice off your car windows and shoveling snow out of your driveway; it’s also a time when feral cats are most in need of someone to care for them. But since they’re bonded to their outdoor environment, chances are they’ll turn down an invitation into your warm home. Luckily, whether you live near one feral cat or a whole colony of them, there are other, more efficient ways to keep them warm, safe, and healthy.
CAR AND CHEMICAL SAFETY
When it’s cold, stray cats will seek shelter—sometimes inside or underneath a car. So you may want to get into the habit of giving the hood a tap and checking between the tires before starting your car in the morning.
Antifreeze, salt, and chemical melting products are toxic to cats and other animals, so clean up any spills before they lap them up. Symptoms of antifreeze poisoning include staggering, vomiting, lack of appetite, disorientation, excessive drinking, and frequent urination. Road salt can cause paw irritation if stepped on and excessive drooling, decreased appetite, vomiting, and depression if ingested.
THE BASICS OF A FERAL CAT SHELTER
Since the indoors are out of a feral cat’s element, the best way to keep them warm is to provide an outdoor shelter. The website for the organization Alley Cat Allies sells feral cat shelters, and also provides instruction for building them out of wood, plastic containers, or Styrofoam coolers.
Whether they’re bought or homemade, shelters should be at least two or three inches wide and eighteen inches high; a size that could fit three to five grown cats. If there’s a colony of them, provide more than one shelter rather than make one large one. In larger shelters, heat disperses quickly, whereas smaller shelters take less body heat to warm up. Make sure the door is no wider than six to eight inches; otherwise a raccoon or some other animal may crawl in there.
The best way to insulate the shelter would be with straw, because it repels moisture and will keep cats warm and dry. Hay, blankets, towels, and newspapers are not recommended, as they absorb moisture. Hay could also irritate the cats’ noses and cause allergic reactions. A flap on the door to keep in heat is recommended but not required.
Shelters should be elevated off the ground—preferably with insulated wooden pallets—and placed in calm, quiet areas where the cats can avoid drafts. If you have to, shovel the show regularly to clear a path to the shelter and make sure the cats don’t get snowed in.
FEEDING FERAL CATS
Feeding feral cats on a regular schedule is best, because then they’ll know when to come out, and both the food and the cats will spend less time in the cold. Wet food is easier to digest and will save more energy for keeping warm; but it’s also quicker to freeze, so put dry food out as well. In any case, provide larger portions, as animals require extra calories and hydration in colder temperatures.
If you leave out a water bowl, use deep bowls rather than wide ones, and fill them with warm water. Change the water twice daily to keep it from freezing. Silicone bowls are simplest to clean and refill, as frozen food or water can easily pop out.
Heated bowls are available for purchase; otherwise, a pinch of sugar in the water can delay freezing for a time. If possible, keep them in the sun rather than the shade.
KEEPING YOUR DISTANCE
Feral cats may accept your shelter and eat the food you provide, but that doesn’t mean they’re domesticated. While kittens are relatively easy to domesticate, adults have not been socialized in their formative years, and likely won’t take well to being approached or petted. If you have neighbors close by, it may be best to put up a sign saying the cats are not to be disturbed.
– Särah Nour