Cats that are allowed to roam the outdoors—whether they are true outdoor cats or stray and feral ones—face certain risks during cold weather. They are at greater risk of diseases, parasites and injuries from ice and snow.
If they are allowed outside, be sure they have an insulated cat house or shed, and offer slightly warmed canned food and dry kibble that won’t freeze. Provide water daily and check it regularly for freezing.
Understanding Cats and Cold Weather
Cats are highly adaptable creatures, but they can’t fight the cold for long. If they are left outdoors for extended periods of time, they can suffer from serious health issues including hypothermia and frostbite. Young cats, older animals and sick cats are particularly vulnerable to frigid temperatures.
Even indoor cats who spend most of their lives inside can develop acclimatization problems when temperatures dip below freezing. These felines can become dehydrated and have trouble finding food and water in chilly weather. They can also experience achy joints and need extra warmth to ease their discomfort.
For outdoor cats, Trimble recommends providing them with a warm, dry place to stay in the Winter such as an insulated cat ‘house’ or a shed with a cat flap and a secure door. She advises against using towels, blankets or hay as they pull body heat away from the animals who sleep in them. Instead, she suggests covering shelters with Mylar, a type of reflective plastic that helps keep the cold out by reflecting the cat’s own body heat back on them.
Creating a Safe Indoor Environment
Outdoor cats, whether pets or ferals, are at a much higher risk of disease, injury and death in winter. This is especially true if they are sick, old or young. They are more likely to slip on ice and become injured, be hit by a car or simply lose their way home.
Indoor cats are usually well prepared for cold weather, but they should be watched for signs of stress or discomfort. Providing plenty of cat toys, a kitty condo or hooded bed can help them stay warm and occupied. Regular playing also provides them with the mental and physical exercise they need to thrive.
If your cat is an outdoor explorer, it’s important to check their outdoor shelter before the cold weather arrives. Make sure it’s safe and insulated (like straw, rather than hay, which will soak up water), big enough to move around in, and elevated a few inches off the ground to keep out rain or snow. Avoid putting antifreeze in their shelter, as it contains the poisonous chemical ethylene glycol, which can be fatal if ingested.
Outdoor, feral and stray cats are often better equipped to withstand cold weather than their indoor counterparts. However, the subzero temperatures still pose a serious threat to their health and can cause fatal problems such as frostbite and hypothermia.
To ensure that these critters are able to survive the winter, regularly check their sheltered spaces and provide fresh water. Cats that spend the majority of their time outside will also benefit from a heated cat bed and a pet-safe, animal-friendly deicer to keep their feet from freezing in the snow.
It is important to remember that a cat who is too cold may exhibit visual signs of shivering. Touching a cat that is shivering can alert you to the fact that they need to warm up and should be brought inside immediately.
Additionally, make sure that the outdoor cats you care for are up to date on their vaccinations and parasite control. They should be spayed or neutered to improve their overall health, which will help them cope with the colder temperatures. Finally, do not store antifreeze in an area where it can be accessed by stray or feral cats as even a small amount can kill them.
Proper Winter Diet and Hydration
Cats must eat well to maintain a healthy body temperature, and many outdoor cats have trouble eating enough in cold weather. They also require a diet rich in fatty acids to fortify their coats during winter. Adding vegetable oils to their food can help them achieve this.
Feral and stray cats are better adapted to cold weather than owned pets, but they must still have access to shelter and regular food and water. If a cat spends too much time outside and the temperature drops below freezing, it puts him or her at risk of hypothermia. This can lead to severe health issues, including internal organ damage, blood flow problems and brain function loss.
If you have a feral or stray cat who is comfortable living outdoors, ensure he or she has an insulated shelter like a pet house or a wooden shed, and add straw bedding for warmth. It’s best to place the shelter away from prevailing winds and in a location that will be protected from snow accumulation.
Whether you are an indoor-only cat owner or one who allows your kitty to roam free outdoors, there is always the possibility that she may encounter subzero temperatures. Depending on the breed, age and health of your pet, she could suffer from hypothermia or frostbite if exposed to extremely cold weather for extended periods.
Although you may find racks of pet sweaters at your local pet store, Koski warns that dressing up your cat in winter clothing is not necessarily a good idea. She explains that sweaters can be restrictive for cats and cause them to move oddly. This can lead to them getting hung up on objects or even hurting themselves if they misjudge a leap because of the clothing.
Koski suggests starting slowly if you want your pet to wear a sweater. She recommends starting out with just a few minutes of outdoor time and gradually increasing the increments until your pet becomes accustomed to wearing the sweater. She also advises against wearing anything that is too tight or itchy, as your cat could become distressed.
Grooming and Paw Care
Outdoor cats need extra care in winter — especially if they are stray or feral. They may be more accustomed to cold weather than a domestic cat, but they are not immune to hypothermia or frostbite.
Feral and stray kitties often seek shelter in sheds, hollowed out buildings or abandoned cars when the weather gets cold. Commit to helping them survive the cold by providing these kinds of places with food, water and warm bedding like straw. Also consider using ice-melting chemicals with caution near colonies since they contain salt and antifreeze, which are toxic to cats if licked from their paw pads or ingested from melting puddles.
When a feral or stray cat is cold, look for visual signs of hypothermia, such as shivering. These signs indicate that their body is losing heat faster than it can produce it. Another sign is if the cat appears to be “loafing,” or curling up into a ball to conserve warmth. If you suspect a cat is experiencing hypothermia or frostbite, call your local animal control center or visit a shelter that offers them safe, permanent housing.
Identifying Health Issues
Several risks are faced by cats in winter. Some of these are health related and others are due to the cold itself or other environmental factors.
The first issue is hypothermia, which can be fatal. It can be caused by exposure to extreme cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time and it affects the body’s ability to warm itself. It can be identified by a lack of energy and shivering. If you notice your pet exhibiting these symptoms, call your vet immediately.
In addition to hypothermia, cats can also get frostbite on the tips of their ears, tails and toes. Frostbite causes the tissue to turn a pale blue-white color and ice can form. This can be fatal if not treated promptly by your vet. Do not rub the affected area and do not use a hair dryer or radiator to warm the skin as this can cause blistering.
For the outdoor cat community, providing shelter in the form of a pet house or cardboard box is important. This should be insulated and checked regularly for moisture. It is also a good idea to serve them warmed canned food at scheduled intervals and offer dry food, too, as some cats prefer it.
Preparing for Emergencies
While local government and disaster-relief organizations will try to assist you during an emergency, each of us must prepare to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. This includes being ready for extreme cold, flooding, fires, storms and terrorist attacks. The most important thing you can do is plan ahead – consider how an emergency might affect your daily activities, the people and pets who rely on you, and make sure your family has a disaster plan and supplies kit.
If you have a pet, make sure to include a dog or cat evacuation plan, and keep a list of pet-friendly hotels/motels and veterinarians along your evacuation routes. It’s also a good idea to practice your evacuation plans twice a year – this helps you and your family remember what to do during a real emergency, and allows you to check on your disaster supplies and make any necessary adjustments. Also be sure to read the Emergency Resource Library for information on specific types of natural disasters and tips on how to prepare for them.