How to Care for a Stray Cat in Winter: 20 Helpful Tips

Cats are amazingly resilient animals capable of thriving in a variety of conditions. Feral cats, because they never know human companionship, learn from an early age what it takes to survive in the different seasons. Strays are not so lucky. A stray cat may suffer quite a bit in extreme weather.

A stray cat may need some extra help during the winter months. That is what this guide is all about. What you read here is intended to help you care for a stray cat during the winter without taking the animal into your own house. Credit for the information in this guide goes to the Humane Society of the United States and an organization known as Alley Cat Allies. You can look them both up online.

For the purposes of organization, I have placed each of the tips into one of four categories:

  • Food and Water
  • Outdoor Shelter
  • The TNR Strategy
  • Medical Care

Food and Water

Outdoor cats will eat more during the winter months due to the extra energy required to stay warm. You may notice that the stray you are caring for seems hungrier during the winter. Don’t be alarmed; this is normal. Here are the helpful tips relating to food and water:

1. Stick With Dry Food

It should be obvious that wet food might freeze during the winter months, thereby making it useless. Stick with dry food if you can.

2. Warm Up Food

If you absolutely must use wet food during the winter, heat it before you put it outside. Half a minute in the microwave should do the trick. Warm food will not freeze as quickly as cold food.

3. Use Deep Water Bowls

Water has a harder time freezing at greater depths. Therefore, use a deep bowl and fill it up. A shallow bowl with little depth will not hold enough water to prevent freezing. You might find a sunny spot for the water bowl, too. Also note that plastic is better than ceramic for preventing freezing.

4. Heat the Water

Outdoor cats need fresh water twice per day during the winter. If you are following a set feeding schedule, you can always heat the water before putting it out. Put it in the microwave or use microwavable heating pads placed underneath the bowl outside.

5. Build a Feeding Station

If you are willing to put forth the effort, building a feeding station is a fantastic way to supply the cat with enough food and water but keep it out of the elements. A feeding station should be a closed shelter that keeps the weather out. One of the great benefits of the feeding station is that the cat’s natural body heat can prevent food and water from freezing.

6. Keep Food and Water Separate

Whether you build a feeding station or not, keep food and water separate from the cat’s primary shelter. The last thing you want is for water to spill inside the shelter because it will not evaporate under cold conditions. Water in the shelter will make it feel more like a refrigerator than a comfortable home.

Do all these tips make sense? Great. Now let’s move on to shelter.

Outdoor Shelter

Cats have a natural coat of fur that helps to keep them warm during the winter months. Believe it or not, cats can withstand pretty cold temperatures as long as they have a means of sheltering themselves. This is where you can help. Here are the tips for offering outdoor shelter:

7. Use Natural Surroundings

Stray cats are fairly adept at finding their own shelter. If yours has not succeeded in doing so, you can create a shelter out of natural elements. For example, there might be a little bit of space between the side of the garage and the hedge row. With a few materials from your garage you can create a nice little shelter in that space.

8. Build a Shelter From Scratch

You can actually build a shelter from scratch using affordable materials like wood and straw. Look online for free plans. Everything you need can be purchased rather cheaply at your local DIY store.

9. Keep the Shelter Small

Your stray cat will stay warmer if you keep its shelter small. The shelter should be just tall enough for the cat to stand up and only about two or 3 inches longer and wider than the animal. The cat needs just enough room to move around but not enough to prevent the shoulder from getting warm.

10. Keep the Entrance Small

Your cat will not appreciate it if other animals find their way into the shelter. So keep the entrance to the shelter small as well. Make it just big enough to allow the cat in and out.

11. Insulate the Shelter

Whether you create a natural shelter or build one from scratch, make sure it is insulated. Straw is an excellent insulating material for both floor and walls. Do not use hay; it absorbs moisture.

12. Consider Using Catnip

You may find that you do everything you can to make a comfortable shelter but the cat just won’t use it. Placing a bit of catnip inside might do the trick.

13. Improve a Natural Shelter

If the cat refuses to use the shelter you have built, it could be that it found its own shelter somewhere in your yard. Go see if you can find it. If you succeed, you might be able to improve on it by providing additional cover and insulation.

14. Stay Ahead of the Snow

Be sure to keep the entrance to the shelter free of snow. You do not want the cat trapped inside or unable to enter at the end of the day.

This concludes our tips for outdoor shelter. If you’re ready, it’s time to move on to what’s known as trap-neuter-release (TNR).

two cats by a fence in snow

The TNR Strategy

This third section deals with something many people find uncomfortable: spaying and neutering stray cats. It is something that needs to be talked about given the fact that millions of stray cats are admitted into shelters every single year.

There is a difference between stray and feral cats. Unfortunately, a lot of feral cats are the offspring of strays. In other words, stray cats that are not spayed nor neutered can become parents many times over. And they do. The result is an overpopulation of feral cats that is neither good for the animals nor the local community.

The trap-neuter-release strategy dictates capturing the stray cat and taking it to the vet to be spayed or neutered. Afterwards, the cat is released in the same place it was captured.

Experts say that the winter season is a good time for TNR for a couple of reasons. First, pregnancy is a lot less common during the winter months, making surgery on females less complicated. Second, cats tend to be less active when the temperatures drop. A less active cat makes for easier recovery. Here are the tips for employing a TNR strategy; there are only a few:

15. Make a Shelter First

A spayed or neutered cat is going to need some time to recover. Before you capture, make sure you have a shelter in place. When it’s time to release the animal, put it in the shelter you have created.

16. Release in the Same Area

Be sure to release the cat in the same general area where it was captured. The idea here is to return the animal to a familiar place, a place with surroundings the cat is already comfortable with.

17. Check More Often

Where you may have checked on the cat only once or twice per week before, you will need to be prepared to check more often during the recovery period. If the cat appears cold after being shaved for surgery, a bit more insulation might be in order. You might even provide the cat with a blanket to curl up in.

This discussion on TNR naturally leads to the fourth and final category of medical care. This is a big concern during the winter months.

Medical Care for a Stray

Despite being tough and resistant animals, cats do develop health problems during the winter. These may be the result of cold temperatures, disease, or run-ins with other animals. Here’s what you need to know about providing medical care for a stray cat during the winter:

18. Check the Paws

A big problem for stray cats in the winter, especially in urban and suburban areas, is damage caused by road salt. Make a point of checking the cat’s paws for the first few days following a snowstorm for which salt was spread.

19. Pay Attention to Weight

Your cat should get plenty of nutrition if you provide food and water on a regular schedule. Pay attention to the animal’s weight nonetheless. If you are putting out food and water and the animal is still losing weight, the cat may be losing out to other animals that have decided to eat the food and drink the water.

20. Watch for Injuries

Cats are territorial animals by nature. Scuffles are common during the winter months when food and shelter are scarce. So keep an eye out for visible injuries that may require veterinary care.

A healthy cat is a happy cat. Do not be afraid to take a stray to the vet if you notice something out of the ordinary. A visit to the vet will tell you if there is anything to be concerned about.

Wrapping It All Up

This guide offers you 20 helpful tips for caring for a stray cat during the winter months. Should you decide to take on the responsibility, know that you will be doing a good thing for an animal in need. Also note that there are a lot of helpful resources out there.

Take advantage of online research, ask your vet for advice, and keep the phone numbers of the local Humane Society and animal shelter at hand. You never know when you’ll need a little help – or just some answers to your questions.