How to Keep a Stray Cat Warm Outside in Winter

It’s easy for a stray cat to melt your heart when the winter weather sets in. You feel sorry for the little guy, wanting to bring him into your own house so that you can keep him warm and safe. At the same time though, you know your home is not suitable for animals. Your best option is to help the cat as best you can and hope he makes it through the winter.

The first thing to note is that you shouldn’t worry too much. Cats are robust and resourceful animals who usually find a way to make it through even the toughest of winters. Feel free to do what you can to help (everybody likes a friend) but don’t be afraid to let nature prevail. A stray cat that has been hanging around your neighborhood for the last several weeks is probably going to be just fine.

So what can you do to help? I explain all in detail in the below paragraphs, but as a quick summary:

  1. Offer regular food and water
  2. Use dry food instead of wet food (dry food doesn’t freeze)
  3. Warm the food and water before putting it out (warm water takes longer to freeze)
  4. Make sure some sort of shelter is available (natural or otherwise)
  5. Consider the location of this shelter
  6. The smaller this shelter is the better
  7. Insulate the floor of the shelter
ginger and white get walking through deep snow

Offering the Stray Cat Regular Food and Water

Believe it or not, the most important thing you can do to help a stray cat stay warm in winter is provide regular food and water. Regular feeding comes before providing shelter, especially when you understand that animals are rather adept at sheltering themselves. They are also adept at finding food, but food sources can be limited during the winter.

Before we get to why food and water are important to staying warm, let us talk about hunting. Cats are, by nature, predators. Even house cats still like to hunt. That’s why they do things like chase balls of yarn and patrol the house for mice. Fortunately, nature has established a food chain that doesn’t allow any one animal to dominate. That is bad for hungry cats, though.

A study of domestic cats conducted in northern Australia found that the succeess rate for their hunts is about 32%. So for every 100 times a domestic cat goes hunting, it successfully kills its prey 32 times. That is not a very good rate. Moreover, only 28% of domestic cat hunts end with the cat actually eating its prey.

This should give you a hint as to why regular food and water are so important. If a stray cat is left to fend for itself during the winter, it is already at a disadvantage with just a 32% success rate. Things are made worse by winter weather that makes prey more scarce. Now the cat is fighting both low odds and weather.

They Need Those Calories

All right, you’ve waited long enough to find out why food and water are so important. In simple terms, stray cats need the extra calories to stay warm. The cat, like every other mammal on planet earth, expends extra energy trying to stay warm in cold weather. The more energy expended, the more calories are required.

The unfortunate reality is that most stray cats are chronically malnourished and dehydrated. They do not get enough food and water under normal conditions, and things are made worse when cold weather sets in. So the best thing you can do to help a stray cat stay warm outside in the winter is provide regular food and water.

Just a few suggestions:

  • Use dry food instead of wet food. Dry cat food will not freeze, and even the most finicky cats will eat it when hunger sets in.
  • Heat food and water before you put them out. Yes, even cats like a warm meal. Also remember that warm water will not freeze as quickly as cold water.
  • Put food in the protected area. By keeping food out of the elements, you increase the chances that the cat will actually find and eat it. Build a feeding station if you are so inclined.

Providing Adequate Shelter for a Stray Cat

Domestic cats are animals with many natural instincts, including the instinct to find shelter. That might be hard to believe when you see the same stray cat hanging around your porch day after day. But don’t worry. That cat will go find a warm place to sleep when the time comes.

If you want to help, you can always provide shelter. Pet stores and online retailers carry all kinds of shelters, from the simple and inexpensive all the way to the most complex cat ‘hotels’ money can buy. Purchasing a shelter is one way to guarantee you will be getting a unit that has been designed specifically for cats. It should be the right size and waterproof.

You may opt to build a shelter yourself. That’s great. There are lots of free plans you can find online. What’s more, you can buy all the supplies you need relatively cheaply at your local home improvement store. With a little bit of money and a few hours of your time, you can create a very cozy shelter for your stray cat.

cat sitting in deep snow

Once again, a few tips:

  • Be careful of the size. Your cat will stay warmer in a smaller shelter that actually traps body heat. Make it just large enough for the cat to stand up and turn around in. It doesn’t need to be any bigger.
  • Do the same for the entrance. Cats do not need a whole lot of space to get through an entry way. On the other hand, large entry ways allow heat to escape. So make the entry only as big as necessary to allow the cat free clearance.
  • Insulate the floor. Your shelter will be a lot warmer if you insulate the floor. Most experts recommend straw as it can be easily changed if necessary. Do not use hay; it absorbs moisture.

Some experts recommend building multiple shelters if you have the time and resources. This is because cats can be rather fussy about where they sleep – even from one night to the next. Where a house cat may sleep on its owner’s bed every single night without fail, a stray cat living outdoors may search out a new shelter every day or two.

Upgrading Natural Shelters

You may go to the trouble of purchasing or building a shelter only to find that the stray cat has no interest in using it. Do not be discouraged. Some cats are not big fans of man-made shelters. Others may have been strays for so long that they are no longer comfortable with human contact. Both kinds of cats would be uneasy about shelters that smell like humans.

Should you find the cat is not using the shelter you provided, take a look around the yard and see if you can locate a natural shelter the animal might be using. Check around shrubs, behind the garage, and anywhere else you think you might find a small open space protected from the elements.

Assuming you do find a natural shelter, you might be able to upgrade it by putting some straw inside and adding some extra protection around the top and on the sides. Some people are thoughtful enough to throw a blanket inside. The cat can snuggle up in that blanket and use its own body heat to stay warm.

Consider the Location of Your Shelters

Another thing to consider if the cat is not using a shelter you bought or built is location. In your search for natural shelters, you may have discovered that cats prefer to shelter in out-of-the-way places. They don’t like high traffic areas because they instinctively feel unsafe with other animals around. They prefer to be as alone as possible.

You might discover a natural shelter in a remote corner of your yard. Grab the shelter you bought or built and place it in the same general facility. You may discover that moving the shelter is all that was necessary to get the cat to use it.

Consider an Oil Filled Radiator to Warm a Stray Cat

The last suggestion is one that should be used with caution. If you have bought or built a shelter and are still concerned it is not warm enough, you can buy a small oil-filled radiator to place nearby. For example, you may have built a shelter in your tool shed. If the tool shed is made of aluminum or plastic, you can use an oil filled radiator pretty safely. Just make sure that you keep flammable materials away from it and that you keep it set to the lowest possible setting.

A major benefit of oil-filled radiators is that they can often be set to switch on and off according to the temperature. That way you are not wasting fuel on those days when it warms up. Should you decide to use a radiator, do not just place it near the shelter and forget about it. Go out and check it every day to make sure it’s still in good working condition.

As a side note, never use an oil-filled radiator in a location that’s not protected from the elements. In other words, this is an option best reserved for enclosed spaces like tool sheds, garages, laundry rooms, etc. Never leave a radiator in an open space in your yard. Lastly, never bring an oil-filled radiator inside your house.

If you have placed your shelter in an enclosed space with available electricity, a wall-mounted electric radiator is another option. Do not use a plugin radiator unless you’re willing to keep a constant eye on it. Plug-in radiators can present a fire hazard around animals.

Spring Will Eventually Come

Hopefully I have given you enough ideas to get you thinking about helping that stray cat stay warm during the winter. Whatever you do, remember that spring will come. Trust the fact that if you provide regular food and water along with limited shelter, the cat will make it through.

While you are waiting for the winter weather to break, you should probably keep a good eye on the cat for health reasons. Whenever he or she is around, see if you can get close enough to check for any signs of disease or injury. Look for things like weight loss, cuts and bruises, infections, and so forth.

A cat that does show signs of disease or injury can be taken to a vet if you have the time and resources. Otherwise, a local animal shelter may be willing to take the animal into its care. Avoid animal shelters if you can, though. A stray cat stands a better chance of making it through the winter if you take care of it yourself. That is ultimately the goal, right?