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Caring for Ferals in the Winter Months

When Fall arrives, it is time to consider the feral cats and how to prepare best for the colder temperatures and their well being. Each area of the country and the world is obviously different in temperatures and seasons, therefore not all feral cats need the same level of preparation for winter.  For this reason you will find the following information listed by type of preparation rather than one broad brush approach for this topic.  However, for ANY type of "winterizing" for your ferals, always consider the following:

The winter temperatures in YOUR area determine the type of shelter and the severity of cold (or lack thereof) you are protecting the ferals against.

How many ferals are you providing for?  You want the shelter to be the right size for the numbers and/or you might need more than one shelter set in different locations.

Cost involved?  While this may seem an obvious point, be sure to have a plan thought out before you start.  What a sinking feeling you would have if you got only half way through your plans to find you did not have enough money to complete the project.

With that being said, let's move on to the other details of "winterizing for your ferals"....

Shelter plans and building ideas:
Winterizing for your feral need not be difficult, but it does need to be well thought out prior to the cold temperatures.  Start now and be prepared!  Your ferals will be forever grateful for the effort and expression of kindness!  

Go online and check out plans and building ideas.  Here are a few other ideas for shelters:  a dog igloo or wooden dog house -- raised up off the ground with bricks or boards.

Metal carports -- these work well when using canvas or wood to enclose three sides of the structure.  Use plastic or canvas to cover the fourth side.

Chain link dog enclosures work well if using canvas or plastic insulation material to cover and surround -- keeping open two doorway-like areas. 

When building or using a shelter, if possible use a  wall of a permanent structure (such as a house, building or barn) to help keep the shelter warm and/or block wind.

Barns, garages, and storage sheds  work VERY well.  Doors will have to be left open or securely propped to be sure that they do not accidentally close leaving the cats trapped outside or even inside with no means of escape.

Bedding and Perches:
Always use straw for insulation!  Why not hay?  Because hay can become wet, moldy and/or matted down over time, thus decreasing its warming capabilities.   Additionally, moldy hay, like dirty blankets and towels can cause allergies, as well as skin and respiratory irritations.

Wood pallets, wood boxes, Rubbermaid containers, or even litter boxes (empty, not used and/or thoroughly clean) for bedding or cubby holes.  Try to keep containers/bedding up off ground or floor to help with warmth.  We place bedding material such as old towels and blankets in these. Remember to wash bedding often!

Bookshelves (made or bought at local hardware store) -- these MUST be secured to a wall or other strong support.  We made one with graduated shelves (like large steps) so that it is easier for them to climb to the top.  We surround the sides with straw, with one side against the barn wall.

Snuggle Safe Microdiscs -- great because there are no cords for risk of electrocution or other fire hazards!  Of course you will want to wrap these in towels to avoid direct contact and increase length of time they stay warm.  One source is the online store for Drs. Foster and Smith.  There are many other sources, so you may want to compare pricing.  (Note: consult with a veterinarian before using these with ill cats or kittens.)

Food and Water:
Remember to check water supplies regularly and consider using warmer water when filling the bowl in the morning or late afternoon/evening hours when temperatures are at their lowest.  During the winter months or when temperature are at the freezing mark, we recommend checking their water supply no less than twice a day.

If moist food is given, dry food should be supplemented in the event that the moist freezes before being eaten (the most feral of cats often eat in the wee hours of the morning).  You may also consider warming it a bit in the microwave before carrying to the feeding station.  If you have a distance to travel to the feeding station or a quantity to carry, consider placing the warmed food in an insulated ice chest (Styrofoam coolers are inexpensive and light in weight - very good for this purpose).

If you asked a feral what they would HAVE to have in a shelter, they would tell you the following :

-     two doors -- if an "unwelcome" visitor comes to visit this will allow them an "exit". 

-     if using something to cover a doorway, use clear plastic.  This way they can still see visitors approaching.

-     higher, off the ground perches are THE best!  Ferals, like most animals feel safer and are more likely to rest comfortably out of harm's way.

-     someplace to snuggle into - humans think that because we are "feral" we do not appreciate the kindness of a fluffy towel, soft blanket or better still a fleece cat bed.  Not true at all!  If you're not sure, ask us to choose, we'll certainly let you know what we like -- look for seal of approval indicated by the cat fur we leave.  A note: if using towels, blankets or a cat bed, PLEASE be sure it is kept dry at all times (especially important for areas with snow and heavy precipitation) and be sure to clean these often!

Here's an example of a home-made cat shelter.  It's made from two styrofoam boxes held together with duct tape.  The lids are taped to the top and bottom to reinforce its insulating capabilities.  The inside is lined with fresh straw, nice soft cotton batting, or old towels or blankets.  Remember to ensure they are always clean and dry. 

Once the cat is inside, its own body heat is retained by the styrofoam, and the cat stays toasty warm.  These shelters are extremely inexpensive to make.  This one is particularly good for strays who might seek shelter in an unheated barn or garage where there is no wild animal danger to them.

If you want a shelter similar to this to place in an area where there may be potential danger to the stray from wild animals (ie:  near a woodpile, stand of trees, behind a building, etc, - anywhere cold and hungry strays may come to seek food and shelter) the location of the shelter is very important, and it must be modified a bit from the photo above.  It should be placed so that the stray can have a good view of any approaching danger, yet be sheltered from the wind.  It should also have a back door, so that the stray may have an escape route if located and confronted by a predator.  This shelter can actually be covered with snow, allowing an entrance and exit tunnel.  This will further help hide the shelter, and provide additional insulation and heat retention.

Another simple, practical, quick and inexpensive shelter is simply a cardboard box filled with loose straw.  Place the box inside a garbage bag to keep the cardboard dry, and you've got another great shelter!  The cat will be ever so grateful for a warm place to nest in cold and wet weather.

This one was used by Eli during the cold winter days of March, 2008.  Although he wasn't feral, he was a very scared stray, and this shelter kept him warm and dry.  He's now safe and warm and back home with his original family after being lost for about 6 months.

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